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Forget the monitor, here’s how to buy the best HDTV for your PC

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Many computer users find themselves wondering at some point if an HDTV might be a good alternative to a PC display. Their huge screens and thin bezels make them look very much like a monitor, and most modern PCs now can output video via HDMI, making connection a cinch. Starring up at a row of huge displays that make a measly 22 inch monitor look insignificant is likely to inspire a question: “Why not?”

There were many retorts to that question several years ago, but improved video card drivers and lower HDTV prices have shunted many of those to the side. If you want to use a television as a secondary display, or alongside a home theater PC, go for it – after you’ve read our buying guide.

What you need to know

There’s a huge list of traits to consider when looking at an HDTV. Some buyers might prefer the deep blacks of plasmas, while others might like the brightness of LCD, and still others might think Smart TV features to be important.

While these features shouldn’t be forgotten, they are largely irrelevant to picking an HDTV for use with a computer. A television that looks great when playing Blu-ray will usually look good when playing movies from your PC, too. There are just four specific issues that you should worry about, and they are only a concern for people who want to use an HDTV as a monitor.

Input lag

Input lag is the lag between your input (moving the mouse, for example) and seeing its effect take place on the display. Many features designed to improve quality, such as blur reduction and active backlighting, can also increase the lag between an input and its effect on screen. This isn’t an issue when watching film, but any interactive use, be it gaming or Excel, can reveal the problem.

A television with significant lag may make your PC feel sluggish and can decrease accuracy when manipulating small interface elements. Some people notice the problem more than others, but the average user should aim for 100 milliseconds of lag at the most – and gamers should aim for as little as possible.

There are some resources that can help you check on input lag before buying. DisplayLag.com, a website that lists input lag results for 170 displays, is a good place to start. HDTVtest also has an input lag database, and the AVS Forum thread on input lag is a great resource for the latest information from fellow consumers.

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Pixel density

A display’s pixel density is the number of pixels packed into a specific portion of a display (usually per inch or, in some cases, per centimeter.). More pixels per inch will translate to a sharper image that can better render fine details. That’s important for PCs, which often rely on small fonts and small buttons that are difficult to render smoothly.

Because pixel density is based on pixels per inch, rather than overall resolution, large televisions score poorly in this area. A 42-inch 1080p display will have a density of 52ppi, for example, while a 60-inch 1080p display offers a much lower density of 36ppi. That means the 60-inch display will appear to render small details and fonts poorly relative to the smaller television.

In theory, the low pixel density of the 60-inch set won’t be noticeable if the user sits at an “ideal” viewing distance, but reality is often not so forgiving. This is because PC fonts are sometimes so small they’re impossible to read at the recommended viewing distance for a large HDTV (which can range 6 to 10 feet, depending on size).  In general, it’s better to sit close to a (relatively) small, high-density display than it is to sit far away from a large, low-density television.

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4:4:4 chroma mapping

Chroma subsampling is an encoding technique used to compress the amount of space video content consumes by sacrificing color information. This may sound like it would result in terrible image quality, but, when done right, the color loss is subtle and difficult to notice. Everything from Blu-ray to JPEGs use this technique to save space. 

An image that sacrifices no color information is said to use 4:4:4 chroma mapping, but because source content so rarely leaves 4:4:4 intact, some televisions don’t support the display of 4:4:4 color. That’s not a problem – unless the television is used with a PC, the only common source that doesn’t use chroma subsampling.

Connecting a PC to a display that’s not 4:4:4 capable can cause various problems, but the most common are smudges, inaccurate colors, and uneven rendering of fine detail. While these issues don’t make the television unusable, they do reduce image quality.

Unfortunately, manufacturers almost never mention 4:4:4 capability in a display’s specifications. The best way to find out if a display can handle it is to check out the AVS Forums help thread on the subject, or talk to other owners of the display you’re looking at. In general, LCD displays are more likely to support 4:4:4 than plasma, though you may need to use Game or PC mode to enable it.

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Image retention

Plasmas earned a bad rap for image retention (more alarmingly known as “burn in”) early in their life. Static pictures left on for too long would become permanent, their outline visible forever. That didn’t impress owners who’d just spent thousands on a cutting-edge television.

Manufacturers were quick to address this problem and have, in recent years, nearly driven it to extinction. But that doesn’t mean image retention is entirely gone; it’s just far less likely to become permanent. You may still see static images retained for several seconds, or even minutes, if they’re left on-screen long enough.

This can be a problem for users connecting to a PC. While the retention may not be permanent, it can still be distracting, and anyone prone to worry may find themselves on edge whenever retention appears.

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The broad view

Now that we’ve meandered through the four technical concerns that make a television a great (or terrible) computer display, let’s talk about what it all means for your purchasing decision.

Plasma televisions suffer both from image retention and from an inability to produce 4:4:4 chroma mapping (on most models). These problems can make them a so-so choice for PC use, despite their high image quality, though individual use is also important. Buyers who mainly want to access a large library of video content, or watch streaming video from their PC, are unlikely to run into these problems and will find plasmas a fine choice.

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LCD televisions more frequently manage 4:4:4, don’t have image retention, and are available with a higher pixel density (plasma televisions smaller than 50 inches rarely offer 1080p). These advantages make them a good choice, but some LCDs suffer from terrible input lag that at times exceeds 100 milliseconds – a hazard buyers must beware of.

Sony’s KDL-47W802A is a good example of a display that works well with a computer. This set offers extremely low input lag, 4:4:4 support, and decent pixel density. At $1,200 it’s also relatively affordable, but even less expensive displays can be suitable. Samsung’s UN40EH5000 and 5300 series, for example, fits all the requirements and can be purchased in a 40-inch size for less than $500.

Of course, the quality of the television itself does still matter, so you should also factor that into your purchase. Check out our general HDTV buying guide to learn more.