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 your TV 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.
Thankfully, the way to decide the right size of set for you is very straightforward: all you need to consider is the dimensions of the room in which the set is going to go, and exactly where the TV is going to sit in relation to your favourite armchair.
Simply measure the distance from your much-loved couch potato spot – sorry, 'viewing position' – to the screen itself, then follow these guidelines:
1.3m to the TV: Buy a 32in screen
1.6m to the TV: Buy a 40-42in screen
1.8m to the TV: Buy a 46-47in screen
2.1m to the TV: Buy a 50-55in screen.
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/LED?
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.
It's also worth noting that so-called LED TVs are in fact LCD TVs with LED backlighting, rather than the fluoresecent backlighting used in standard LCD screens.
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.
The plasma vs LCD/LED is almost redundant anyway, as Panasonic has already announced it will stop making plasma TVs by the end of 2013. Samsung and LG still make them, but their models tend to be focused on the budget end of the market.
3) What about OLED?
It's still early days for OLED, with the first few sets trickling on to the market, but they remain expensive.
OLED TVs work without a backlight, so black levels are good and deep, and pictures tend to be very bright. The screens can be very thin (and curved too). Samsung and LG have just introduced their first curved OLED models: the picture quality is excellent, but not necessarily three times as good as some of our 2013 Award winners at a third of the price. And they're not 4K-compatible either.
You can find out all you need to know about OLED in our special OLED TV guide.
4) 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.
5) How should I go digital?
Now that digital switchover for TV broadcasts is complete in the UK, you'll need a Freeview- or Freesat-equipped TV to receive digital telly, or a digital set-top box to plug into your old analogue set.
Alternatively, if you want more choice, a subscription service like cable (Virgin) or satellite (Sky). And YouView gives you a choice of catch-up TV services with boxes available from the likes of BT, Humax and TalkTalk.
The simplest way is to plug your Freeview-equipped TV into an aerial socket (in our experience, a roof-mounted design works best).
6) What about high-definition?
Any HD-ready or Full HD 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.
As for Ultra HD 4K sets, they're just coming on to the market now but remain expensive – and in truth there's very little 4K content to watch at the moment. But if you want to ensure your new TV is futureproof, 4K compatbility is worth considering. We've just done our first Group Test of large 4K sets in the December 2013 issue of the magazine, on sale now.
7) What about TV sound?
Simple physiscs come into play here: as flatscreen TVs get thinner and thinner, there's less room to accommodate speakers. So inevitably most of them sound pretty poor.
If you've a big room to fill with sound, consider adding an external audio system to your TV to get the most impact. If you can't accommodate a full 5.1 set-up, a soundbar is a good alternative.
8. Do I need a smart TV?
Most manufacturers now offer some sort of smart TV functionality built into their sets: at its simplest, this can be a series of apps and catch-up TV services such as BBC iPlayer, which is a fantastic way of catching up on programmes you may have missed earlier in the week. Your TV will need wi-fi or an ethernet connection to connect to your home broadband network.
Depending on the model/make you buy, you may also get apps for video streaming services such as Lovefilm and Netflix, although you may have to pay a subscription.
If your TV doesn't have smart functionality built in, you can always add a set-top box or Blu-ray player which does. And it needn't cost the earth: Sky's Now TV box, for example, costs just £10 and gives you access to BBC iPlayer, Demand 5 and Spotify as well as Sky Sports and Sky Movies – the last two on a pay-as-you-go basis.
9) 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.
10) So where should I shop for a TV?
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.
11) 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.
12) 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 or Blu-ray (such as the Star Wars films), and use the THX Optimizer, a handy guide to fine-tuning your new telly's picture.
by Andy Clough