How we test televisions

Samsung 7150 HDTV review hero
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Finding the right TV is hard. Unless you want to drag your La-Z-Boy to the local big box retailer and ask to spend the night, it’s hard to get the hands-on time you need to make an educated decision, and even if you do, comparing the minutiae of dozens of similar sets can seem to be an impossible task. That’s what we’re here for.

At Digital Trends, we aim for our product reviews to provide readers with insight into both a product’s technical performance, and its usability. To that end, we go beyond specs and measurements by placing emphasis on the user experience. For televisions, that means taking a close look at all the little touch points that, taken together, make the difference between a TV you can live with and a TV you’ll love. Here’s how we test TVs to provide readers with valuable, real-world insight before making that important purchasing decision.

Testing environment

The bulk of our testing takes place in a completely dark room. This allows us to adjust picture settings and test a TV without concern for ambient light and the effects it has when reflected off a TV’s screen. Later, we’ll move the TV to a room made bright by lots of exposure to natural sunlight through multiple windows. This gives us the opportunity to see how well the TV will perform in a real-world scenario, as many TVs are placed in common rooms where light is not so easily controlled.

Deboxing and placement

As we pull a TV from its box, we take note of how well it is packaged for transit. This is an important consideration for those who may order their TV online and need to know that their product will arrive in tip-top shape. We also pay attention to how easy it is (or isn’t) to remove the TV from its packaging and attach it to its stand. Once the TV is in place, we take a look at the TV’s stability – nothing’s worse than a TV that wobbles every time you get up for popcorn or that’s one bump away from taking a dive to the floor.

Build quality and visual appeal

We take a look at several factors involved with the TV’s build quality and visual appeal. We check the back panel to see if it is strong or flimsy, get a feel for the material that the bezel is made of and gauge the strength of the display panel. We look at the build quality of the base and judge how well it aesthetically matches up with the TV. We then take a step back and examine how reflective the display panel is in bright conditions and consider the display’s overall visual appeal as we imagine how it will integrate with various types of home decor. If a display’s bezel is littered with marketing stickers, we expect them to be easy to remove.

Setup and first impressions

Making connections to a TV is generally a straightforward procedure. If it is not, we’ll certainly mention it. Since many of today’s TVs offer access to several online media services, we take this time to enter our account information and passwords. Those TVs that make the data entry process easier get bonus points since the status quo is for the process to be a pain in the neck. We’ll also check to make sure our LAN connection is functioning and that the TV has successfully connected to our network and the Internet.

Samsung HU8550 TV 65 menu 5

With data entry out of the way, we begin to feed the TV with 1080p content that we are very familiar with. We generally use the same six or seven scenes that we’ve seen countless times on a myriad of televisions over the past few years. We’ll cycle through the TV’s different picture pre-sets and note our impressions of the images we see from the TV straight out of the box. This information will be compared with the results we get after we calibrate the TV.

Calibration

We primarily use the Spears and Munsil High Definition Benchmark Blu-ray disc to calibrate the TVs we test. This particular disc offers an excellent combination of test patterns for calibration and video sequences for gauging the TVs performance against benchmark standards. Occasionally, we will break out other test discs to cross-examine our settings.

To start with, we disable all image-correction processors implemented by the manufacturer in order to level the playing field. We may later fold these processors back in. If we note that any particular image processor provides significant improvement to the image, we’ll be sure to mention it in our review.

Digital Trends uses the same calibration tools and benchmarks available to consumers; you won’t find us using lab equipment to take lofty measurements such as how close a set’s color temperature gets to 6,500 Kelvin. Why? While this sort of information can be very valuable to some, we feel our readers are more interested in knowing how easily the display can be calibrated using commonly available tools and resources.

Once we have calibrated the television, we look at how much adjustment to the TV’s default settings were needed in order to reach desired standards of performance. It is based on this user-oriented standard and our experience calibrating similarly classed televisions that we score some of the more objective points of a TVs performance.

Performance testing

Picture quality

With the TV calibrated, we re-visit the same video clips we used prior to calibration and further scrutinize the image by making subjective observations of factors such as motion blur, motion judder, visible artifacts, uniformity of brightness, black levels and color saturation. Once the display is moved to our “bright room”, we look at how reflective the screen is and see how the TV’s black levels and contrast hold up under the more challenging light conditions. We’ll often make adjustments to the TV’s settings to reveal how well the set maintains its color when backlight, brightness and contrast levels must be adjusted. If the TV has a sensor system designed to make automatic adjustments based on ambient light levels, we’ll test it at this time and draw subjective comparisons to similar systems we’ve tested in the past.

Sony XBR 79X900B 4K TV

If the TV is 3D capable, we’ll test its 3D performance and rank it according to other active or passive 3D systems we’ve tested previously. We may look at 2D to 3D conversion, but tend not to weigh it heavily in our scoring since we consider this to be a novelty feature.

Menu navigation

All the built in features and functionality in the world don’t amount to much if it is difficult to get at them. Today’s TV’s pack far more than simple picture adjustments into their user menu. As the list of functions grows, the need for a well-organized menu system with a speedy response becomes increasingly crucial. Our TV testing takes menu navigation into consideration as part of a larger ease-of-use evaluation. We expect the the menus and options to be clear, intuitive and quick to respond to user input.

Internet and network media access

Many TVs offer access to the same streaming music and video services, but the design of the apps for them makes all the difference in whether we use them or not. We test apps for services like Netflix, YouTube and Pandora and compare them to the apps installed in competing televisions, as well as those found in other Internet media sources, such as Blu-ray disc players and game consoles. We expect content to be easy to access and easily searchable.

We also test the network media interface provided in DLNA certified televisions. The promise of access to pictures, video and music on a home network is appealing, but, again, only practical if the content is easy to access and quick to load.

Remote control

The remote control is a critical component in a TV’s ease of use. We check to see if the remote sits comfortably in the hand, and whether or not it is backlit. We expect buttons to be well laid out and a big enough to press without unintentionally pressing others. We like to see that frequently used functions are represented and that “hot-keys” are made available for some of the media apps. Off-axis function is also tested, as not everyone sits directly in front of their TV.

Audio Quality

While we usually recommend that a display be paired with some sort of external audio system such as a soundbar or home theater system, we understand that not everyone has plans for this and, even if they do, that the TV’s speakers will probably be used for everyday watching. This is why we provide information on at TV’s built-in audio performance. We’ve found that many manufacturers treat a TV’s built-in audio as an afterthought, and if the TV is going to sound terrible without external audio, you need to know it before you buy.

Overview

Once our testing is complete, we take into consideration a television’s overall performance, its price point, and the competition it faces with similarly priced and featured TVs. Over the past few years, we’ve seen performance increase as price decreases, thus redefining the notion of value in high-definition televisions. We also factor in the changing curve in technology as once-exclusive and expensive features like local dimming make their way down to mid-level and sometimes even entry-level models. This changing landscape puts pressure on models that demand a premium price, so scoring for premium models will tend to be tougher.

We want readers to walk away from our TV reviews with a solid idea of what it would be like to own any particular TV model, and whether the TV in question might be a good fit in their homes based on our published observations.

As always, we value reader feedback and will take comments,, requests and questions into consideration as we refine our testing processes to reflect the needs of our readers.

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