Steve Kindig has been an electronics enthusiast for over 30 years. He has written extensively about home and car A/V gear for Crutchfield since 1985. Steve is also a volunteer DJ at community radio station WTJU, where he is a regular host of the American folk show "Atlantic Weekly," as well as the world music program "Radio Tropicale."
More from Steve Kindig
Shopping for a TV
TV terms and technologies
Getting the best picture
Setting up your TV
Shopping for a TV
|Nearly all current LCD TVs use LED backlighting, and are often referred to as "LED TVs" or "LED-LCD TVs."|
Q: What are my choices when it comes to TVs?
A: Most of us grew up watching TVs with picture tubes inside, but tube-based TVs are history. Current TV models are based on various digital display technologies. These TVs come in much larger screen sizes than old-fashioned TVs did, with connections for more types of audio/video gear, and more advanced capabilities.
When you're shopping, you'll find that nearly all current TVs are LCD:
Flat-panel LCD TVs are extremely popular due to their thin designs and crisp, vivid picture quality. "LED TVs" are a popular type of LCD TV that employ LED backlighting.
[Shop our selection of flat-panel TVs]
Projectors have grown more popular recently, in part because the remarkable picture clarity and detail of high definition make it possible to enjoy larger images than ever before — up to 10 feet across or even bigger. Projectors provide a viewing experience that's closest to what you get at your local movie theater. You'll find tips on shopping for and installing a pr ojector in our article on what to look for in a projector.
[Shop our selection of projectors]
Q: I keep seeing ads for "LED TVs." Is that a different type of TV?
A: Not really. An "LED TV" is simply an LCD TV that uses LEDs to illuminate the image instead of conventional fluorescent lights. TVs with LED backlighting generally have higher contrast ratios and more accurate colors. They're also typically more energy efficient than fluorescent-backlit sets.
|To watch 3D at home, you need to wear 3D glasses that are compatible with your TV. If you try to watch 3D without the special glasses, all you'll see is a blurry 2D image.|
In addition to a 3D-capable screen, each person watching will need to wear 3D glasses. And even though most 3D TVs and projectors include basic 2D-to-3D conversion for 2D video sources, the most convincing 3D experience involves a true 3D source like a 3D Blu-ray player. Check out our 3D TV FAQ for more details, including how 3D TV works and what you'll be able to watch in 3D.
|Your TV's screen size should be based mostly on how far away you'll be sitting from it.|
Q: What size screen should I get for my room, and how far away should I sit for the best picture?
A: When it comes to TV screen size the most common recommendation is "bigger is better" — and that's good advice. Nothing will add more to your viewing enjoyment than a big screen. Over the years we've heard from customers who wished they'd bought a larger TV, but we're still waiting to hear from any folks who wish they'd chosen a smaller one.
When deciding what size TV to get, your budget and space are key factors, and equally important is how far you'll be sitting from the TV. Sitting too far away from a smallish screen will reduce the impact and immediacy of the viewing experience. On the other hand, if you're too close to a large screen, you may be distracted by the screen's "pixel structure" — the grid of tiny picture elements that form the TV image.
High-quality video sources like Blu-ray discs and HD programs look amazing on the latest TVs. But some people also find that noise and distortion in lower-quality analog signals (like standard broadcast and cable) are exposed and magnified. That's why our viewing distance chart (below) offers a range for each screen size. If most of your viewing is DVD-quality or better, you'll see more details by sitting closer. If you watch more lower-quality video, like standard-definition cable, sit farther back for a smoother picture.
In general, we recommend getting at least a 46" screen for your main TV, while a 32" screen is usually a good minimum size for a bedroom TV.
|Screen||Viewing distance range|
Both the Xbox 360™ and PlayStation® 3 can output 1080p video for games, and the PS3 can play Blu-ray Disc™ high-def movies. To take advantage of that higher resolution, consider getting a 1080p TV.
Q: How long should I expect a TV to last?
A: The design and manufacturing of flat-panel TVs are now so advanced that today's LCD models should last as long or longer than old-fashioned tube TVs. One big reason is that new TVs are very energy efficient — they use much less power and produce much less heat than TVs from a few years ago. Excess heat is one of the main threats to the longevity of electronic components. New LCD TVs typically have a rated lifetime of 100,000 hours for the screen. Even if you had the TV on for eight hours every day, it would last over 34 years! You may decide to replace your new TV after five, ten, fifteen years or more, but it's unlikely you'll ever need to replace it because it has worn out.
Q: On some TVs, the actual measured screen size is slightly smaller than the advertised screen size. Why is that?
A: Some TV makers list a TV's true screen size if it's different from the advertised size. This difference is only a fraction of an inch — a common example is 32" LCDs that actually measure 31-1/2". We've not heard any official explanation for the discrepancies. It's likely just the type of rounding up that's been going on for years for products ranging from refrigerators, to car engines, to cans of soda. As with these examples, the screen size difference is nothing to be concerned about. You might notice a half-inch difference on a computer monitor but you won't on a TV.
TV terms and technologies
Q: What are the benefits of "120Hz refresh rate" and "240Hz refresh rate"?
A: The digital display technologies, like LCD, that have replaced picture tubes are progressive-scan by nature, displaying 60 video frames per second — often referred to as "60Hz." TVs with 120Hz refresh rate use advanced video processing to double the standard display rate to 120 frames per second. Because each video frame appears for only half the normal amount of time, on-screen motion looks smoother and more fluid, with less motion blur and smearing. Some TVs have a more powerful video processing chip, and can produce a 240Hz refresh rate, which doubles the display rate again, to reduce motion blur even further. Choosing a TV with a fast refresh rate is a good idea if you watch a lot of fast-action sports and video games.
For a visual demo of how this anti-blur technology works, watch our video explaining refresh rates.
Q: What's a good contrast ratio? 80,000:1? 1,000,000:1?
A: TV makers have mostly stopped pushing contrast ratio specs, which is a good thing. Picture contrast is one of the most important aspects of TV picture quality, but the contrast ratio specs trumpeted by manufacturers became meaningless marketing fizz. The contrast performance of TVs has steadily improved over the years thanks to advances in LCD backlighting technology, and to the introduction of OLED TVs.
Check out our video on TV contrast ratio for more info.
Q: What is 1080p?
A: 1080p is the highest HDTV screen resolution available, with 1920 x 1080 pixels and progressive scanning (see "i" vs. "p" question below). Since 1080p is higher than either of the two most common broadcast HD formats (1080i and 720p), having a 1080p TV means you can enjoy full picture resolution for all your video sources; the TV won't have to "downconvert" the signal and sacrifice detail. References to 1080p are usually about TVs rather than video source material. The new 4K Ultra HD format has four times the detail of 1080p HD.
Q: What do the "i" and "p" mean in picture resolution numbers?
A: The "i" and "p" refer to the video frame rate, where "i" stands for interlaced-scan and "p" stands for progressive-scan. These terms originated when all TVs used picture tubes, and images were "scanned" — painted across the screen line by line. Interlaced-scan images required two passes to create a complete video frame, while progressive-scan displayed the entire frame with just one pass (see illustration below). The frame rate for interlaced video is 30 frames per second while progressive-scan video is usually 60 frames per second.
|Interlaced scan splits each video frame into two "fields," displaying all the even horizontal scan lines (2,4,6...) in 1/60th of a second, followed by the odd scan lines (1,3,5...) during the next 1/60th of a second. That means you'll see a complete video frame every 1/30th of a second.|
|Progressive scan, on the other hand, displays all the lines in a single sweep (1,2,3,4...). You'll see a complete frame every 1/60th of a second.|
Today's digital TV displays are nearly all effectively progressive-scan, so interlaced and progressive are mostly relevant when describing video source signals sent to the TV. The main thing to remember is that a progressive signal has twice as much picture information as an equivalent interlaced signal, and generally looks a little more solid and stable, with on-screen motion that's more fluid.
Q: What is "4K"? Is it the same as Ultra High Definition?
A: 4K is a general term for high-resolution digital displays and video formats with horizontal resolution of around 4000 pixels. Professional 4K projectors have been used in movie theaters for many years. At the end of 2012, the first 4K TVs appeared. These TVs, officially known as Ultra High Definition TVs, have screen resolution of 3840 horizontal pixels x 2160 vertical pixels — twice the horizontal and vertical resolution of 1080p (1920 x 1080 pixels). 4K has four times the total pixels of 1080p and is capable of creating a much more detailed picture.
Although true 4K content has been slow in coming, Netflix® began streaming a limited amount of 4K content in the Spring of 2014, and by the end of the year, Amazon had launched its own 4K streaming. Both Sony and Samsung introduced 4K media players that can store and play back 4K movies. All 4K TVs include video processing that upconverts lower-resolution sources to 4K, so all video sources should look better on a 4K screen.
Q: What is OLED?
A: OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) is a new display technology with significant advantages over conventional LCD TVs. OLED has been used for high-end smartphone screens for a few years, but was only introduced in large-screen TVs in the second half of 2013. OLED can produce a spectacular picture that is superior to even the finest LED-LCD TVs. While LEDs have been used as backlights for LCD TVs for years, OLED (pronounced "oh-led") TVs use a completely different panel structure, with a series of organic thin films forming the pixel layers. A thin-film transistor layer has the circuitry to turn each individual pixel on and off to form an image. Because the OLED pixel layer is self-illuminating, no backlight is required. When a pixel is switched off, it is completely dark, producing infinite picture contrast and absolute black. OLED technology enables panels to be extremely thin — less than 1/4" — and lightweight.
Q: Where can I find 1080p video content?
A: Since so many TVs offer top-of-the-line 1080p video resolution, a lot of folks wonder what their options are for 1080p viewing. The most common 1080p content is Blu-ray movies, although some satellite TV providers offer 1080p on-demand movies as well. To learn more about HD video resolution, see our article that explains HDTV resolution, or watch our HDTV resolution video to get the basics.
|More and more TVs can play movies from services like Netflix® and Amazon Video on Demand™.|
Q: How can I watch movies and TV shows from Netflix® and other online sources on my TV?
A: Most current TVs are "smart" or Internet-ready, with video streaming so you can watch TV shows and movies from the web. To ensure a wide selection of entertainment options, most TV makers have partnered with movie streaming services like Netflix®, Hulu, Amazon, and others. These TVs have built-in apps that make it easy to browse available titles. Most services require a subscription, like Netflix, but Amazon Prime members get free access to a selection of Amazon's video content.
All Internet-ready TVs include an Ethernet port for connecting to your home network. If you'd rather not run a cable to your TV, most of these models have built-in Wi-Fi® to make a wireless connection to your network.
If you have an older non-Internet-capable TV that still performs well otherwise, there are Wi-Fi-based add-on components that make it easy to turn your "dumb" TV into a smart one. One of the best known ones is Apple TV®, but there are other even more compact and affordable options — devices like Google's Chromecast, Roku's Streaming Stick, and Amazon's Fire TV Stick, which plug directly into one of your TV's HDMI inputs. Another way to add Internet smarts to your TV is by connecting a Wi-Fi-equipped Blu-ray player.
Q: How can I watch home movies and vacation photos on my TV?
A: A lot of folks store their vacation photos and home movies on computers or connected hard drives. But you don't have to crowd around your computer's small screen to enjoy them. One option for getting your photos on the big screen is AirPlay®. AirPlay capable devices such as the Apple TV allow you to stream photos and music from your Apple computer, iPod® touch, iPad®, or iPhone®.
"DLNA-compatible" TVs are another popular route. They connect to your home network and allow you to access your photos and home movies stored on your computer. The DLNA label means that these TVs use an industry-wide standard for recognizing and playing digital media. Many DLNA-compatible TVs and gaming systems can access photos, videos, and music stored on compatible computers.
All DLNA-capable TVs include an Ethernet port to connect to your home network, and most have built-in Wi-Fi® so you can connect to your network wirelessly.
Q: Can I surf the Internet using my HDTV?
A: For most new Internet-ready Smart TVs, the answer is "yes." Most of these TVs include a full web browser for accessing the Internet, although doing so may not be as quick and convenient as surfing the web with your computer, in part because you're using the TV's remote to enter text searches, which can be painfully slow.
|Over-the-air HDTV broadcasts offer outstanding picture quality.|
Q: What kind of antenna do I need to receive over-the-air HD broadcasts?
A: First, don't worry about finding one that's "specially designed for HDTV." As with analog broadcasts, digital TV broadcasts can be either UHF or VHF. It's a good idea to get an antenna that can receive both, because even though most stations broadcast in the UHF band (channels 14-51), a significant number are in the VHF band (channels 2-13). If you're not sure about your local stations, check out the Consumer Electronics Association's AntennaWeb mapping tool. It will tell you what stations broadcast in your area, where they are in relation to you, and what type of antenna is recommended for your specific location.
For more information, see our article on how to choose and install an antenna for HDTV.
Q: I'm a cable TV subscriber. What do I need to watch cable programs in HD?
A: There are a couple ways you can watch high-def cable programs. The option that will work best for you depends on the types of HD programs you want to watch, as well as which services are available from your local cable provider. These service providers used to only scramble the signals for premium content like HBO®, Showtime®, and pay-per-view events. But recently, they've been scrambling more and more content. Generally, you can only access scrambled programs by using a cable box. Your local service provider(s) will be able to provide up-to-date details on services and pricing in your area.
Q: I'm a satellite TV subscriber. What do I need to watch satellite programs in HD?
A: To view high-def shows via satellite, you'll need a subscription that includes HD programming. You'll also need an HD satellite set-top box. These HD boxes often include a built-in DVR for recording high-def programs.
Q: I'm considering "cutting the cord." Do over-the-air high-def broadcasts look as good as HD cable and satellite?
A: All three of these high-def signal types provide excellent picture quality — dramatically clearer and more detailed than standard DVDs and other video sources. All three types are digital video formats which use "data compression" for more efficient use of broadcast bandwidth. Compression reduces the amount of picture data being sent, so all other things being equal, more compression will reduce picture quality. Typically, over-the-air broadcasts use less compression than either satellite or cable TV signals, and in side-by-side comparisons, over-the-air HD nearly always looks noticeably sharper and cleaner.
Q: I have an HDTV, so whenever the "Available in HD" logo appears on the screen, I'm seeing a high-definition picture, right?
A: No, unfortunately it's not that simple. What that on-screen logo means is that if you have a high-definition TV that is receiving a high-definition signal, you'll be seeing HD. Sources of high-def programming include over-the-air TV broadcasts, and loads of cable and satellite TV channels.
If you feel that your HDTV isn't delivering as sharp and clear a picture as you see on TVs in electronics stores or at the homes of friends or neighbors, there's probably an easy solution. One of your first steps should be to check the signal coming from your satellite or cable TV receiver and make sure it's set for high-definition.
Q: How can I watch local digital broadcasts on my old analog TV?
A: To receive digital TV signals from your local TV stations, any old-fashioned TV (one with an analog-only tuner) needs to be connected to a digital converter box, or replaced by a new TV with a built-in digital tuner.
Of course, digital TV reception is only a concern for viewers who rely on local over-the-air broadcasts received via antenna. Cable TV providers may include local channels even in basic subscription packages. Satellite TV providers typically charge a few dollars extra per month for local channels.
Q: Why is it that most new TVs with picture-in-picture don't actually let you watch two stations at once?
A: TV manufacturers take two basic approaches to picture-in-picture (PIP). With 1-tuner PIP, the TV has one built-in tuner, so you'll need to connect another component with a built-in tuner (like a DVD recorder) or a stand-alone tuner if you want to watch two different TV broadcasts at once. Actually, with 1-tuner PIP, you can enjoy picture-in-picture with the addition of another video source like a DVD player or camcorder.
A TV with 2-tuner PIP has two built-in tuners, allowing you to watch two different TV broadcasts simultaneously using only the TV.
Getting the best picture
Q: How can I get rid of those black bars on my TV?
A: Most non-HD video sources use the squarish 4:3 aspect ratio, which doesn't quite fit a 16:9 widescreen HDTV. Some folks stretch or zoom the image to fill up the screen so that they don't have to see the black bars. But if you don't mind the black bars on either side of the picture, we recommend you leave them up. Stretching will distort an already poor signal, and zooming usually makes the image look softer and can further magnify any flaws in the picture.
4:3 image on a 16:9 screenWhen 4:3 programs are displayed on a 16:9 screen, black or gray bars appear on the sides of the screen — the image is "pillar-boxed."
4:3 image stretched to fill a 16:9 screenOne way to get rid of vertical black bars is to use your TV's stretch mode. Some sets stretch the image evenly across the screen (as above), though a few stretch the edges only and leave the center undistorted.
4:3 image zoomed to fill a 16:9 screenAnother option is to use the TV's zoom mode to expand the image to fill the screen. This cuts off the top and bottom of the picture, but leaves it undistorted.
16:9 image on a 16:9 screenWhen you look at the original widescreen version of the image we've been using to show 4:3, you can see just how much of the picture is lost with the 4:3 version.
Q: My HDTV looks much better than my old TV, but how can I make sure I'm getting the best possible picture?
A: Many new TV owners are so knocked out by these sets' big, bright pictures that it never occurs to them that they might be able to get an even better picture. First, make sure you're actually getting a high-definition signal. Millions of HDTV owners still aren't seeing a true high-definition picture — and unfortunately many of them don't even realize it.
Two other areas TV owners should explore to improve picture quality are picture controls and connections. For helpful tips on both topics, see our article on getting the best picture from your TV.
|Blu-ray players are the best source available for high-def video.|
Q: I just bought a new TV and now I want to replace my DVD player with a Blu-ray player. Will it play all my DVDs?
A: Yes, Blu-ray players not only deliver stunning high-def video with Blu-ray discs, they also typically do an excellent job upconverting standard DVDs. You'll not only be able to watch your DVD collection, you'll probably find that the picture quality looks better than ever.
For the best picture, be sure to use an HDMI cable between the player and your TV.
Setting up your TV
HDMI should be your first choice when connecting components to your TV.
A: HDMI should be your connection of choice. This single-cable connection can carry full 1080p video as well as audio. If you run out of HDMI inputs on your TV, or the component you're connecting doesn't have an HDMI output, component video is a good backup. It can also carry high-def video, though you'll need to make a separate audio connection.
For more info, including recommendations for common connection scenarios, check out our article on hooking up your HDTV.
Q: What should I be aware of when placing my TV?
A: Along with viewing distance, consider viewing height. Ideally, your eyes should be about level with the middle of the screen when you're seated in your normal viewing position. We carry a wide selection of TV stands designed to support flat-panel TVs and raise them to the correct viewing height.
Lighting in your room is another factor that affects your TV's picture. If you do much daytime viewing, daylight shining in through your windows can wash out your TV's picture and also create reflections on the screen. When watching TV at night, lamps and overhead lights can cause similar problems, although they're usually not as severe. You may find that watching with the lights dimmed enhances picture quality.
For more tips on TV placement and room lighting, see our article on choosing the right screen size and placing your TV.
Q: What's involved in wall-mounting a flat-panel TV? Can I do it myself?
A: Most people who want a flat-panel TV mounted on a wall are after an uncluttered, elegant look. Achieving that means not only installing a wall-mount bracket to hold the TV, but also hiding the power and signal cables running to the TV. If you're comfortable with household tasks like mounting shelving and installing new light fixtures, you can probably handle wall-mounting a TV.
|This TV might look like it's mounted too low, but it's actually the ideal height — both for image quality and for comfortable viewing.|
Q: Is it OK to mount my TV above my fireplace?
A: While your new TV might look pretty cool mounted over your fireplace, it's definitely a less-than-ideal location. We'll review some of the issues that come up with fireplace mounting, as well as some possible workarounds.
- Viewing angle: TVs look their best when viewed head-on. If your TV is mounted high up on the wall, you'll be viewing it at an angle. Colors may look somewhat washed out, and black levels won't be as dark. Solution: Choose a tilting wall mount and angle your TV down a few degrees, so you're viewing it more head-on.
- Neck strain: Mounting your TV up high means that as you watch TV, you'll always be looking up — something which, over time, can be uncomfortable for your neck. Solution: Sit in a recliner, or lay back on your couch so that you don't have to angle your neck upwards.
- Safe, secure mounting: The heat and smoke from some fireplaces may potentially shorten the lifespan of your TV. Also, if you'll need to mount your TV to brick or masonry, you may need to buy special hardware to securely mount your set. See the wall mount owner's manual for details.
For more tips on TV placement and room lighting, see our article on choosing the right screen size and placement for your TV.
Q: How can I connect my computer to my TV?
A: If you'd like to connect your computer to your TV to use it as a large monitor, or to view photos and videos stored on your computer, there are a few ways to go about it.
First, the video connection. The easiest route will be to use your computer's HDMI, DVI, or VGA output. We recommend HDMI or DVI, since HDTVs often accept higher resolutions over those connections than VGA. And although most TVs today don't have DVI inputs, you can still go that route if you use a DVI-to-HDMI adapter. (Since DVI doesn't carry audio, you'll still need to make a separate connection for sound — see below.) If you opt for VGA, look for an input on the back of your TV labeled "PC." And if none of these options work with your setup, you can use your computer's VGA output and a VGA-to-component-video adapter to connect it to your TV.
Once you see your computer's display on your TV, you'll need to set it to the right resolution — otherwise, you may see a pixilated or distorted picture. Be sure to use a resolution your TV is designed to handle (see the TV's owner's manual). If you don't see video displaying on your TV, there's a good chance you chose an incompatible resolution. You can tweak resolution settings by going into "System Preferences," and then the "Displays Preferences" pane.
A note for folks using laptops: You'll need go into your computer's menus to "extend" your desktop to a second monitor — this will allow the computer to display video on your TV, as well as its own monitor. On Windows computers, you can access this menu by right-clicking the desktop, selecting "Properties," and then "Settings." Macs running Tiger, Leopard or Snow Leopard will auto-detect the new monitor and either "mirror" or extend your desktop.
If you also want to send audio from your computer to your home theater receiver or TV, and you're not using HDMI, you'll need to make a second connection. Many computer sound cards today include optical or coaxial digital audio outputs that can connect to a receiver. If yours doesn't, you may want to consider upgrading your sound card. Or, you can simply use your computer's headphone output — you'll need a mini plug-to-stereo RCA adapter to connect it to your TV or receiver.
Q: Should I use my receiver to make video connections?
A: You can simplify your A/V system connections by using your receiver as a "hub" for switching among your source components. That means you connect your Blu-ray player, satellite DVR, video game console, etc. to your receiver, then just make one connection — ideally HDMI — between your receiver and TV. Besides reducing cable clutter, this approach lets you switch sources using your receiver's remote, and you don't have to separately select the audio and video signals. One drawback to this setup is that it means you're often limited to using the same set of picture adjustments for all of your sources. That's fine if they're all of similar quality, but might not be ideal if you have a Blu-ray player and a VCR. Check out our article about connecting your home theater receiver for more info.
Q: What kind of sound quality can I expect from flat-panel TV speakers?
A: The one drawback to flat-panel TVs is that their super-skinny cabinets don't provide enough room for decent-sounding speakers. The sound from these speakers is typically thin or even tinny, and they just can't play very loud. There are lots of ways to get better sound with your TV, from full surround sound systems to sleek, simple sound bars. Even inexpensive sound bars usually sound much better than TV speakers.
Interested in upgrading the sound quality of your system to match your TV's fantastic picture? See our article describing ways to add great sound to your TV.
Q: Can I use my TV's speakers as a center channel in my home theater system?
A: No, you really can't, and you wouldn't want to for sound quality reasons (see previous question). Not only are the speakers inside TVs very small, they're powered by equally puny amplifiers. Flat-panel TVs simply can't produce robust sound. Plus, TVs almost never include a speaker-type jack that's compatible with your A/V receiver. If adding a real center speaker isn't an option, check to see if your A/V receiver has a "Phantom" surround mode. This mode re-directs the center-channel information to your front left and right speakers. Phantom mode can be surprisingly effective at creating the illusion of a center speaker.