Flat Panel TV Buying Guide
Buying a flat panel TV allows you to get the best possible picture from a large screen without consuming much space. In addition, flat panel televisions look sleek and provide the resolution needed to fully enjoy HDTV programming, which will completely replace regular analog broadcasts in February of 2009.
Although the number of choices for a flat panel TV is rather large and each model has its advantages as well as disadvantages, choosing a flat panel TV is not difficult. There are several questions that you need to answer to make the choice easy.
LCD vs Plasma TVs
Plasma TV Strengths
|Picture Quality||Plasma was the first technology widely used in flat panel TVs and offered excellent picture quality from the beginning. In comparison with LCD technology, which made recent improvements, plasma sets still generally display more lifelike colors because they can produce deeper black levels.|
|Price||Plasma TVs are generally cheaper than the LCD TVs of the same size.|
|Viewing Angle||Plasma TVs also provide better off-axis viewing than LCD, which means you can sit further off-center and still enjoy excellent picture.|
|Response Time||Plasma TVs have faster response time, which makes them ideal for watching fast action material, including sports.|
LCD TV Strengths
|No Burn-in||LCD technology is not susceptible to screen burn-in (also known as image retention) that can affect plasma screens. Although newer plasma models have many built-in features to prevent screen burn-in, you should still keep this risk in mind if you frequently play computer games where some part of the screen displays the same image, or if you frequently watch material with a different aspect ratio than the TV, resulting in black bars along the top and bottom or left and right parts of the screen.|
|Brightness||LCD TVs offer brighter picture than Plasma TVs and generally have less reflective screens, making LCDs better for brightly lit rooms.|
|Energy Consumption||LCD TVs consume less energy than plasma TVs of the same size, which might make a difference in your energy bill and environmental footprint, especially if the screen size is large.|
|Resolution||LCD TVs offer the highest currently available HD resolution of 1080p in more screen sizes than plasma. But this gap is closing between plasma and LCD TVs.|
Plasma TVs make a better choice if you watch a lot of sports or fast action material, absolutely have to have the most lifelike colors and deepest blacks, or want a better off-angle viewing experience. See all plasma televisions at Shopping.com.
LCD TVs make a better choice if you watch TV in a brightly-lit environment, want the highest resolution possible in a screen size not offered by plasma, are concerned about burn-in, or are mindful of your energy usage. See all LCD televisions at Shopping.com
Flat panel TVs screen sizes are measured diagonally across the screen area. Generally, plasma TVs are available in screen sizes of 42-104 inches, and LCD TVs are available in screen sizes of 19-70 inches.
The most popular screen sizes for living rooms are 42 - 52 inches. This size range provides the best combination of size, performance and price, in either Plasma or LCD technology. Smaller TVs are also available (LCD) and are suitable for bedrooms and kitchens.
Although it might be tempting to get the largest screen size within the available budget, there are other factors that have to be taken into consideration.
There are minimum and maximum recommended distances for each screen size. This is because if the viewer is too close to the screen for the screen size, the scan lines or pixels that form the image might become visible. The angle of view also might become uncomfortably wide. On the other hand, sitting too far from the TV for the screen size makes smaller details invisible and also makes the angle of view too narrow, reducing the presence effect and visual impact.
The following are ranges of recommended viewing distances for wide screen flat panel TVs with 16:9 aspect ratio:
Viewing Distances by Screen Size
|Diagonal Screen Size||Minimum Viewing Distance||Maximum Viewing Distance|
|30 inches||3.75 feet||7.5 feet|
|34 inches||4.25 feet||8.5 feet|
|42 inches||5.25 feet||10.5 feet|
|47 inches||6 feet||12 feet|
|50 inches||6.25 feet||12.5 feet|
|55 inches||6.8 feet||13 feet|
|60 inches||7.5 feet||15 feet|
|65 inches||8 feet||16 feet|
Shop for all flat panel TVs by screen size
Although all flat panel TVs are digital, not all can display all details in the highest broadcast resolution of 1080i. Even fewer can truthfully display progressive 1080p. Although virtually all flat panel TVs will display 1080i signal, if the native resolution of the TV is lower, the image will lack the fine detail of the video source. The fine detail will only reveal itself on a TV with 1080 native resolution.
|1080p||1920x1080||Currently the highest available resolution. The highest resolution of high-definition DVD players such as Blu-Ray and HD DVD.|
Shop for all 1080p TVs
|1080i||1920x1080||Same as above, but interlaced. The highest available resolution from off-the-air broadcast signals.|
Shop for all 1080i TVs
|720p||1280x720||Progressive-scan HD resolution of some stations.|
Shop for all 720p TVs
|480p||704x480 (widescreen) or 640x480 (4:3 aspect)||The resolution of some digital broadcasts. Also used by DVD players. 480p is also known as "Enhanced Definition"|
Shop for all 480p TVs
|480i||704x480 (widescreen) or 640x480 (4:3 aspect)||The resolution of some digital broadcasts. Also used by DVD players. 480i is also known as "Standard Definition"|
Shop for all 480i TVs
Shop for all flat panel TVs by screen size
The contrast ratio is the ratio between the brightest and the darkest tones a TV can reproduce. The higher the number, the more shadow and highlight detail is visible.
The contrast ratios are listed by the manufacturers, e.g. 2000:1. Unfortunately, the contrast ratios are measured differently by different manufacturers. This means that although higher contrast ratio generally correlates with better picture quality, you cannot simply compare contrast ratios of TVs of different brands.
But you can use the listed contrast ratios to determine if the TV is going to provide enough shadow and highlight detail. It is generally recommended that the TV have a contrast ratio of at least 400:1 for family/living rooms and at lest 2000:1 for rooms with controlled lighting.
Most flat panel TVs provide more than enough inputs for any kind of normal use. Still, it makes sense to check if the TV you are considering has sufficient inputs for all your audio/video sources.
The most important input type is HDMI. The HDMI connection transfers digital video and audio signals using one convenient cable. The HDMI connection allows for the highest resolution possible (up to 1080p) and its digital nature allows it to transfer video and audio signals with no degradation whatsoever, allowing for the best video and audio quality.
If you use a receiver that has HDMI switching, you do not need to have many HDMI inputs on the TV. Otherwise, make sure the TV has at least enough HDMI inputs to accommodate all your existing and future high-definition devices, including high-definition DVD player, upconverting standard DVD player, set-top box, game console, etc.
All high-definition DVD players (Blu-Ray as well as HD DVD) and newer upconverting standard DVD players have an HDMI out you can use to connect them to an HDMI-equipped TV to get the best possible quality.
Additionally, some TVs still have older DVI connectors, which can be used to connect to older models of high-definition equipment. Be aware that some copy-protected material will not play through the DVI input. And if you do not have video sources with a DVI out, having a DVI input on the TV is unnecessary.
Component Video Connector
The same might apply to the component video connection, which is the best analog connection for standard and some high-definition material. Some copy-protected high-definition material will not play over this connection, which uses 3 RCA-type jacks to carry video signal.
Thus, having a component video connection is only important if you have an older DVD player that has no HDMI out. The component video connection is the only way to make a progressive scan DVD player with no HDMI out transfer progressive signal to a TV. Fortunately, most TVs have at least one component video input.
The S-Video out can also be used to connect a standard-definition video source. It cannot transfer either a high-definition or progressive video signal, but can be used to connect a standard DVD player or a camcorder.
The composite connection provides the lowest, but still acceptable quality and can be used to connect any standard-definition video source, including DVD players, digital cameras and camcorders.
Audio inputs may include analog stereo audio inputs and outs as well as coaxial and optical digital audio jacks. Since no aforementioned video connection, with the exception of HDMI, carries audio signal in the same cable, you will need at least as many analog audio connections as you have non-HDMI video sources.
Digital audio inputs are not very important, since most non-HDMI digital audio sources, e.g. a receiver, will play sound themselves and much better than the built-in speakers of a TV.
If you have an older receiver with no HDMI switching, it is important that the TV has at least one digital audio out that can be connected to the receiver.
Summary of Connectors
|Connection||Description||HD-compatible?||Minimum Number Recommended|
|HDMI Input||Digital audio/video connection. Used with HD and standard-definition video sources.||Yes||2|
|Component Video Input||Analog video connection. Used with non-copy protected HD sources and standard DVD players.||Yes (if no copy protection)||1|
|S-Video Input||Analog video connection. Used with standard DVD players and set-top boxes.||No||2|
|Composite Video Input||Analog video connection. Used with standard DVD players and set-top boxes.||No||2|
|Digital Audio Input||Provides digital audio input for connection to receivers, DVD players and set-top boxes. Can be optical or coaxial.||Yes*||0**|
|Analog Audio Input||Provides analog audio input for connection to receivers, DVD players and set-top boxes.||Yes*||2|
|Digital Audio Out||Provides digital audio output for connection to receivers. Can be optical or coaxial.||Yes*||1|
* - Digital audio connections are compatible with HD sources if Dolby Digital, DTS or PCM mode is used. Analog audio connections are compatible, but the sound will be in stereo mode (no surround sound) and quality might be worse.
** - Digital audio inputs are not necessary if either an HDMI input is used or a receiver is used for audio reproduction.
Consider how you would like your TV mounted. Although most small to mid-size TVs (up to 50 inches) can be wall-mounted, some larger flat panel TVs cannot be wall-mounted and some require a lot of clearance (for cooling/ventilation) between the panel and the wall. Fortunately, virtually all TVs come with stands and there are a multitude of entertainment centers that can accommodate them.
When researching flat panel TVs, it makes sense to pay particular attention to usability. Although the slow channel change is a hallmark of digital TVs, menu navigation speed and menu/control layout are very important as well.
Popular Flat Panel TV Brands
When it comes to flat panel TVs, there are a few brands that stand out on some features. This is not an all-inclusive list, but might give you a better idea of what brand's products to research.
|Famous for sticking with Plasma technology while some others convert to LCD and having the deepest blacks and excellent, life-like colors. Some models produce images that make you feel like you are looking through a window. See all Panasonic flat panel TVs||Plasma|
|An LCD innovator, helped improve LCD technology dramatically and still produces some of the best LCD TVs. See all Sharp flat panel TVs||LCD|
|Recent Plasma screens of the Kuro (Japanese for black) and Kuro Elite models produce deepest blacks and excellent contrast. See all Pioneer flat panel TVs||Plasma|
|Recently significantly improved black levels of its LCD TVs using variable backlight. See all Samsung flat panel TVs||LCD|
|Concentrates its efforts on LCD. Produces LCD TVs with vivid colors and excellent contrast. See all Sony flat panel TVs||LCD|
There has never been a better time to buy a flat panel TV. With prices lower than ever and technology being mature, there are excellent choices for any taste, size preference and budget.