HOW TO... Find your ideal TV
We know from all the postings on the Forums that many of you are looking to buy a new TV for Christmas. To help you make the right choice, we've put together a step-by-step guide to help you on your way.
So before you hit the shops, read these simple guidelines first – it might save you a lot of heartache (and cash!). If you have a more specific question, then head over to our Forums where we're all on hand to help you out.
1) How big should it be?
How big a screen is right for you? While it's very tempting to opt for the biggest possible telly within your budget, that won't always give you the best quality for your cash. There's no point in buying a 65in screen if you're going to sit 1m from it. Click here for guidance on the recommended viewing distance (from your seat to the screen) based on the viewing parameters laid down by the SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, www.smpte.org). The sharper imagery in high-def means you can sit a little closer - or buy a bigger TV for the same viewing distance.
2) Plasma or LCD?
Neither. It's just not as simple as that, no matter what that bloke down the pub told you. We judge TVs based on their individual merit, not their technology. In some size categories, that means our best buy is an LCD; in others, we've gone for a plasma. An increasingly outmoded rule of thumb is that plasmas tend to have better black levels, while LCDs usually offer higher resolution: as you'll see, those divisions are becoming blurred of late. And as for the hype that plasmas always suffer from screen burn, or that they need to be 'regassed' regularly – well, that's just rot.
3) HD-ready or Full HD?
First, let's explain those terms properly. HD-ready sets have a minimum horizontal resolution of 720 lines, and can handle both 720p and 1080i high-definition video (as found on, say, Sky HD). You'll find some variation in the overall resolution figure in HD-ready sets: most plasmas are 1024 x 768, while most LCDs are 1366 x 768 designs. Full HD sets, on the other hand, have far more pixels: 1920 x 1080, or over two million.
And which is better? Well, it's not a simple question. Let's just say Full HD is better in theory, but not always in practice. However, if you're planning to invest in a Blu-ray player, then we'd go for a Full HD set so your screen has the 1080p resolution to match the video resolution of the player.
4) How should I go digital?
The simplest way is to plug your Freeview-equipped TV into an aerial socket (in our experience, a roof-mounted design works best). An increasing number of new flatscreen sets are equipped with built-in tuners able to show free-to-air digital telly. If your telly only has an analogue tuner, you can always add a Freeview set-top box such as the Sagem shown above. Alternatively, if you want more choice, a subscription service like cable (Virgin) or satellite (Sky, Freesat) is the way to go.
5) How about high-definition?
Any HD-ready TV will cope with the high-definition programmes offered by Sky or Virgin, but if you want to watch HD on Blu-ray discs, it's best to ensure your TV can handle 1080p images sent at the film-standard speed of 24 frames per second (24fps). This is the optimum form of HD, so make sure the screen you buy is suitably equipped.
6) What about sound?
Flat televisions haven't the bulk or weight of older cathode-ray-tube televisions, and seldom deliver the sonic weight some might expect. In fact, in some larger TVs, you won't get any sort of sound at all, at least not as standard, because speakers are sometimes an optional extra (so ensure you know what you're getting before you sign on the dotted line!). If you've a big room to fill with sound, consider adding an external audio system to your TV to get the most impact.
7) Should I buy one brand?
If you want to simplify your life (and provided you aren't making too many compromises) then it can be a good idea. Many manufacturers offer systems that allow easy one-button control over multiple components from your TV's remote: for example, you can set the DVD recorder, or turn on a complete home cinema system. Panasonic's Viera Link and Sony's Bravia Theatre Sync are examples.
So where should I shop?
Now let's be honest: everyone plays the internet shopping game, including us, and it can be fun to spend a few meaningful hours plugging model names into an online search engine. But remember, there's no substitute for seeing a TV 'in the flesh' to decide if you like it. We'd always advocate going to a dealer or a high-street retailer, even if it means paying a few extra quid. We're confident in our recommended best buys, and we're sure they justify their pricetags.
9) OK, so how should I shop?
First, once you've got into the shop, take your time. You've come this far: don't be rushed. Second, ask to see a broad range of TV content, not just high-def or animation. Try to see plenty of different material, and remember to check out daytime telly (always the worst quality). Third, stand at the same viewing distance to your screen as you would sit at home.
10) And when I get it home?
Here's where shopping at a reputable dealer comes into its own. Remember, a big-screen TV is huge, and lifting it from its box by yourself is not a fun thing. Getting the dealer to deliver, unbox and install is so much easier. You can even opt to pay specialist installers to mount it on the wall for you, and/or calibrate the picture professionally (expect to pay around £200 for each service) if you wish. If you prefer to do it all yourself, then once it's out of the box and warmed up, grab a THX-badged DVD (such as Star Wars III), and use the THX Optimizer, a handy guide to fine-tuning your new telly's picture.