Televisions continue to make huge leaps forward in both technology and, well, marketing gibberish. Sure, OLED screens and 4K resolution have tangible benefits, but who knows whether a given brand’s upscaling engine or super-advanced ProColorPlus4 image-tuning system should really draw your dollars. The bottom line is, and always has been, this: You get what you pay for. (And if you wait a while longer, you can pay less for it.) So if you’re in the market for a new big-screen, here’s what you need to know to make an informed, and economical, decision.
Design of the TV
Television design focuses primarily on two things: making the set as thin as possible and making the border around the screen as narrow as possible. That border contains the hardware necessary to illuminate the screen’s pixels, but as that tech grows more efficient and compact and manufacturers are able to illuminate pixels from behind, the frame shrinks. This results in a cleaner, more appealing look. The thinness of a television, on the other hand, is usually touted as a way to mount the set on a wall as unobtrusively as possible. The catch is: ultra-thin televisions have ultra-high price tags, as it requires sophisticated engineering to get the set good and svelte.
Also note that the dimensions can be misleading — a set touted for its thinness may only have that advertised depth as you get closer to the edge, while the center is still packed thick with hardware. So the flush-mounting you have in mind may not be attainable. Check the specs carefully and examine the set in person if thinness is important to you. If not — and for many it doesn’t matter at all — don’t sweat a slightly deeper screen.
That All-Important Screen Tech
This is where the rubber meets the road, and the big question is: what technology does a given television deploy to make the image large, bright, contrasty and clear? Plasma televisions are virtually dead right now, since they can’t be economically scaled up. That leaves the the LED-lit LCD television as the dominant technology. LCD and LED tend to be used interchangeably by manufacturers and consumers, but the gist you need to remember is that all televisions are LCD, but the pixels are now overwhelmingly illuminated by LEDs to make the image bright and crisp. They also deploy higher and higher refresh rates (measured in Hertz, or Hz) to eliminate motion blur associated with LCD displays.
All televisions are LCD, but the pixels are now overwhelmingly illuminated by LEDs to make the images bright and crisp.
Another factor that film enthusiasts focus on is contrast — specifically, how black the blacks are. If black comes across as dark gray when watching the television, that’s a problem. When directors place something in a shadow, they want it to be black as night. Before buying a TV, see how well it performs in a showroom and read professional and consumer reviews to further gauge how good the contrast is.
There are also other technologies to keep on the radar, like OLEDs, the still relatively new organic light-emitting diode systems that produce richer colors and the blackest of blacks. They’re still incredibly pricey, so it may be worth it to wait out this technology. High dynamic range (HDR) is also a big deal, but not many content providers support it with HDR-ready programming, so sit on this one as well, if you don’t feel like splurging. Curved screens have also been trotted out, but there’s little real benefit, and it’s a good bet that they’ll vanish shortly.
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To 4K, or Not to 4K?
The biggest deal of TV tech is 4K — a.k.a. ultra high-definition — which is now the dominant tech and can be had for as little as a few hundred dollars (on a 32-inch set). The 4K images do look spectacular, but keep in mind that true 4K content remains scarce, and you may not be able to discern a difference unless you’re sitting very close to the television. The 4K sets have upscaling engines that expand the 1080p image to fit the larger format, by extrapolating (that is, guessing) pixel content and multiplying each pixel. (If that engine didn’t exist, your image would have a huge black border all the way around it.) The manufacturers also strive to make their upscaling engines actually enhance the content, rather than merely reformat it to fit the bigger screen. The result can add detail and enhance the image in a few different ways, but it’s not true 4K. Unless you’re streaming a 4K film or program from Netflix or Amazon, it’s just buffed-up 1080p. Still, it’s worth future-proofing yourself a bit by investing in a 4K set — they’re affordable enough now that there’s little reason not to.
Having said all that, remember that you can also now whip up your own really good 4K content. True 4K video can now be generated from your phone, your camera, or your GoPro and it looks sensational on a 4K television. Just upload your best videos to your YouTube channel or connect your device or laptop to the television and revisit that whenever you want a buzz of home-made ultra-high-def.
External Audio or Bust
Televisions have built-in speakers, but unless the speakers are advertised as being particularly robust — or, ideally, manufactured by a third-party audiophile brand — they’re going to suck. That’s a fact. They’re just too small and tinny to do a film’s audio real justice. The only way around it is to deploy external speakers. You can do this by routing the audio through a receiver and then out to a surround system, but the simplest strategy is a sound bar. Just plug it in and position it beneath or above the television, and your home-theater experience will instantly improve. Regardless of what strategy you choose, you must pay attention to audio — it’s a huge part of the home-theater experience.
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Smart Apps and TV Connectivity
How well the television connects to the outside world — or whether it’s “smart” — can be a major concern for some customers, others, not at all. Video content today comes from a variety of sources, from your cable provider’s hardware to online providers including Amazon, Hulu, Netflix and YouTube. The cable box is one thing (it’s fed into your set via a coaxial cable) but all those other apps need to come from somewhere. It might be Amazon Fire, via an external box, Google Chrome’s USB dongle, Apple TV, or your gaming console — all of which will have the major streaming apps built in.
If the television has wi-fi and the major apps natively installed, that makes connectivity to major apps a bit easier.
In this case, you’re using the television primarily as a monitor with the sources wired up to it. But if the television has wi-fi and the major apps natively installed, that makes connectivity to major apps a bit easier. You just fire up the television and hit the app straight from the set’s remote. It’s not just video content, either; many sets offer TV-specific app versions of Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and other popular social media sources that you can quickly scroll through using your remote. So figure out how you want to access those apps, and choose your degree of Smart TV carefully.
The Losing Battle of the Remote Control
Finally, pay attention to how you’re going to control your viewing experience. Unfortunately, we’re still very much in an era of multiple remote controls, random “hubs” doing heaven-knows-what, and bewildering startup and shutdown processes for televisions. You’ve got to turn on the TV, fire up Amazon Fire, maybe set your volume on your surround system’s receiver, deal with the cable box, and perhaps even run everything through your Xbox since that’s where your games are. That could be three, four, or five remotes, with some benched and some active at any given moment depending on what you’re doing.
This is an unfortunately persistent problem, and indeed is the next great challenge for the home-entertainment industry. To a certain extent, universal remotes can help — once you spend an hour configuring them, that is — but even they sometimes are wonky and fickle, and require pretty consistent use to remember how to make it do your bidding. (By the way, remotes that have built-in keyboards can be particularly useful if you tend to use a lot of content apps. Being able to just type into a search bar instead of scrolling around an on-screen keyboard is a huge time-saver.)
Whatever you do, try your best to keep it simple. If you can run content apps from your television rather than an additional box, do that. If you can keep your audio controls attached to that same remote, all the better. The Logitech Harmony line offers perhaps the best universal system, and it can be configured through a mobile app on your smartphone. That’s helpful. But the fact is that in my own case, my family often still has trouble doing what they want at any moment. Many times I’ve walked through airports with one of them on the phone trying to talk them all the way to Dr. Who (with audio!). It’s not their fault. It’s not mine. It’s the industry’s, and it’s the home theater’s next big challenge.
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