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

PC_HDTV

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.

PC-hdtv-inputlag

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.

sony-kdl-47w802a-review-top-screen-corner-3-800x600

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.

chromasubsampling

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.

plasma-burn-in

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.

sony-kdl-47w802a-review-front-800x600

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.

Emerging Tech

CES 2019 recap: All the trends, products, and gadgets you missed

CES 2019 didn’t just give us a taste of the future, it offered a five-course meal. From 8K and Micro LED televisions to smart toilets, the show delivered with all the amazing gadgetry you could ask for. Here’s a look at all the big…
Gaming

These are the best indie games you can get on PC right now

Though many indie games now come to consoles as well, there's still a much larger selection on PC. With that in mind, we've created a list of the best indie games for PC, with an emphasis on games that are only available on PC.
Computing

Dell XPS 13 vs. Asus Zenbook 13: In battle of champions, who will be the victor?

The ZenBook 13 UX333 continues Asus's tradition of offering great budget-oriented 13-inch laptop offerings. Does this affordable machine offer enough value to compete with the excellent Dell XPS 13?
Home Theater

The seven best TVs you can buy right now, from budget to big screen

Looking for a new television? In an oversaturated market, buying power is at an all-time high, but you'll need to cut through the rough to find a diamond. We're here to help with our picks for the best TVs of 2019.
Computing

The Asus ZenBook 13 offers more value and performance than Apple's MacBook Air

The Asus ZenBook 13 UX333 is the latest in that company's excellent "budget" laptop line, and it looks and feels better than ever. How does it compare to Apple's latest MacBook Air?
Computing

AMD Radeon VII will support DLSS-like upscaling developed by Microsoft

AMD's Radeon VII has shown promise with early tests of an open DLSS-like technology developed by Microsoft called DirectML. It would provide similar upscale features, but none of the locks on hardware choice.
Computing

You could be gaming on AMD’s Navi graphics card before the end of the summer

If you're waiting for a new graphics card from AMD that doesn't cost $700, you may have to wait for Navi. But that card may not be far away, with new rumors suggesting we could see a July launch.
Computing

Is AMD's Navi back on track for 2019? Here's everything you need to know

With a reported launch in 2019, AMD is focusing on the mid-range market with its next-generation Navi GPU. Billed as a successor to Polaris, Navi promises to deliver better performance to consoles, like Sony's PlayStation 5.
Computing

Cortana wants to be friends with Alexa and Google Assistant

Microsoft no longer wants to compete against Amazon's Alexa and Google's Assistant in the digital assistant space. Instead, it wants to transform Cortana into a skill that can be integrated into other digital assistants.
Computing

Microsoft leans on A.I. to resume safe delivery of Windows 10 Update

Microsoft is leaning on artificial intelligence as it resumes the automatic rollout of the Windows 10 October 2018 Update. You should start seeing the update soon now that Microsoft has resolved problems with the initial software.
Computing

Stop dragging windows on your Mac. Here's how to use Split View to multitask

The latest iterations of MacOS offer a native Split View feature that can automatically divide screen space between two applications. Here's how to use Split View on a Mac, adjust it as needed, and how it can help out.
Computing

It's not all free money. Here's what to know before you try to mine Bitcoin

Mining Bitcoin today is harder than it used to be, but if you have enough time, money, and cheap electricity, you can still turn a profit. Here's how to get started mining Bitcoin at home and in the cloud.
Computing

Need a free alternative to Adobe Illustrator? Here are our favorites

Photoshop and other commercial tools can be expensive, but drawing software doesn't need to be. This list of the best free drawing software is just as powerful as some of the more expensive offerings.
Computing

What is fixed wireless 5G? Here’s everything you need to know

Here's fixed wireless 5G explained! Learn what you need to know about this effective new wireless technology, when it's available, how much it costs, and more. If you're thinking about 5G, this guide can help!