TV Buying Guide: How To Buy A TV

How-to-buy-a-TV-Digital-Trends-definitive-TV-buying-guideNot long ago, choosing a flat-panel HDTV was much easier: Figure out the right size for your room, decide between LCD and plasma, choose between 720p and 1080p, and you’re off and running.

My, how times have changed. Nowadays, picture quality has significantly improved across all types of displays, but with all of their recent technological advancements, there’s more to consider than ever before: Stick with 2D, or go 3D? What about active vs. passive 3D? How about LED TVs? What is a Smart TV? And what’s with all this Ultra HD and OLED stuff anyway? With this HDTV buyer’s guide, we’ll cover all of these considerations so that you’ll know what to look for in your next display.

Looking to get the most TV for your money? Check out our guide to the Best TVs, or check out our TV Reviews to get more details on a specific model.

To 3D or not to 3D, that is the question

For the majority of buyers, good old-fashioned 2D TV still makes up most, if not all, of their viewing for now and the foreseeable future. So if 3D viewing isn’t yet a priority, start your search by looking at more entry-level models. Many of them serve up 2D images that exceed what you could get at much higher prices just a few years ago. For our top budget TV picks, check out Digital Trends’ 10 Best TVs under $1,000.

But even if you aren’t sold on 3D, chances are good that you’ll be looking at a 3D-capable TV anyway. Many of 3D’s video processing technologies also result in excellent 2D reproduction, meaning that 3D capability adds little price premium to mid- and top-tier TVs.

Whether you’re ready to invest a small fortune in 3D Pixar Blu-rays or have just begrudgingly accepted that your next TV will support 3D, the next question is whether you’ll want passive or active 3D.

Passive 3D

Available on some LCD TVs, passive 3D is very similar to what you would experience in a movie theater: Two images are displayed simultaneously on the screen, while polarized glasses filter the correct image to each eye, producing a 3D effect. This approach produces a brighter overall picture and better odd-angle viewing than active 3D. However, since two images must share the same screen resolution, each eye effectively sees half the available total resolution. On the plus side, passive glasses tend to cost very little compared to active glasses. You might pay $10 to $30 on average for passive glasses, while active shades can easily cost up to $150 — an important consideration if you need to purchase additional glasses for other viewers. If you’re looking to get into 3D on an entry-level budget, consider passive 3D displays.

sony-active-3d-glassesActive 3D

Active 3D glasses use battery-powered LCD lenses to block each eye in sync with a TV that alternates showing right- and left-eye images, creating a 3D effect. Since each eye sees a full-resolution 1080p frame, active 3D has inherently higher resolution than passive 3D. Note that plasma displays can only use active 3D due to their picture technology. That shouldn’t deter you if 3D picture quality is what you’re after, since many critics agree that active 3D on a plasma TV produces the most realistic overall effect, with greater image depth, less ghosting and lower motion blur.

For a deeper look at the differences between active and passive, check out our full guide to active versus passive 3D technology.

Plasma vs. LCD

Though both technologies have evolved to eliminate many of their caveats, differences between plasma and LCD technologies do still exist. How you will use your TV can help determine which type will best fit your needs.

When will you be watching?

If you plan on watching your set mostly during the day or in a well-lit room, consider an LCD display. LCD TVs can create brighter images than plasmas, which helps to offset any excessive room or ambient lighting in brighter than optimum conditions.

If, however you’ll be watching TV mostly at night or in a darkened room, plasmas may be your best choice: Since plasma pixels can be almost completely turned off during dark scenes or portions of the image, they are capable of deeper black levels compared to LCD TVs. Overall, plasma TVs produce greater picture depth, more realistically textured images, and richer colors. Plasma sets also have a wider viewing angle than LCD TVs, so if off-center viewing will be important, a plasma TV may be just what the home theater doctor ordered.

tv-dark-roomWhat will you be watching?

If you’re mostly watching films, or looking for the most cinematic picture possible, chances are good you’ll gravitate towards plasma displays: The consensus among A/V enthusiasts is that plasmas have a noticeable edge over LCDs in terms of overall picture quality and are capable of delivering a more film-like experience. Plasmas use an emissive display technology (i.e. self-lighting pixels) and color phosphors, which means there’s no motion lag or lighting inconsistencies, unlike their LCD counterparts. The results are smoother, more accurate motion; deeper, more consistent black levels; and better picture detail.

Unfortunately for enthusiasts, the future of plasma display technology looks uncertain. As of this writing, there’s much back-and-forth as to whether Panasonic, one of the last remaining plasma producers, will continue with plasma displays in the long term (see our original story, and subsequent update, here and here). If you had your heart set on plasma, now may be your last and only chance to get your mitts on one.

If on the other hand you’ll be watching lots of standard TV programming, viewing static images, or doing some heavy gaming, LCDs may be the way to go: Since they use transmissive technology (a separate light source to shine through the pixels — hence the “backlighting” for LCD TVs) instead of phosphors, there’s no potential for image retention or screen burn-in. If your TV will be on for most of the day or you’re concerned with energy efficiency, LCD displays generally consume less power than plasmas, possibly resulting in a lower power bill. Lastly, LCD sets are available in smaller sizes — down to 19 inches or so — while plasmas only come in sizes 42 inches and larger, so if you’re looking for a small set for that second room or kitchen area, LCD TVs will be your only choice.

What about LED TVs?

Thus far we’ve talked exclusively about traditional LCD and plasma TVs, but there’s also a third category to consider: the LED TV. Despite some reports to the contrary, an LED TV is a type of LCD TV, not a separate technology: The difference lies in the backlighting method. Typical LCD screens light their images with a fluorescent backlight placed behind the pixels; red, blue and green color filters are then used to create the colors you see on the screen. LED TVs, on the other hand, use LEDs as the light source, allowing for better control over lighting and dimming of the image. Consequently, LED displays use the least energy of any flat-panel technology out there, due to their inherently lower power consumption. LED TVs can be configured in two ways: full-array backlit or edge-lit.

Full array backlit

In a full-array LED TV, many clusters of LEDs are arrayed across the back of the screen to light the image; this allows for full-array sets that can also feature local-dimming, whereby individual or small groups of LEDs can be separately dimmed or even completely shut off in dark areas of the picture. This results in more accurate contrast and brightness, deeper black levels, and richer color saturation over standard, fluorescently-lit LCD sets; many folks also think Full-Array LED sets can rival plasma displays in terms of overall picture quality. Unfortunately, displays with these technologies are still at the upper end of the price range, but if you’re looking for the best LCD-type displays available, Full-Array LED TVs with local-dimming will look noticeably superior.


In an edge-lit LED TV, the LEDs are arranged around the edges of display. The light they produce then gets evenly spread across the screen with a light guide. Since the LEDs aren’t directly behind the screen, these TVs can be amazingly thin, making edge-lit LED TVs the thinnest on the market. Of course, there’s a catch: Edge-lit displays can be prone to minor brightness “hot-spotting,” which results in some non-uniform light intensity on really bright images, or patchy, un-even blacks on dark movies scenes. Still, these drawbacks are minor, and in practical use they’re seldom noticeable. Since many buyers are drawn to the ultra-slim form factor of edge-lit designs anyway, most are willing to trade a little picture quality for more pleasing aesthetics.

The smart TV: Streaming apps and connectivity features

A smart TV is one that can be connected to the Internet to access content like streaming video, music, and entertainment apps, like Netflix, Vudu, Hulu and Pandora. More and more of today’s flat panels include built-in Ethernet or Wi-Fi connectivity to make this a reality. These TVs are perfect if you plan on watching a lot of streaming content without tethering yourself to your computer. Many of them also include peripheral inputs (like a USB or DVI input) and memory card slots so you can use your TV as your computer monitor, or view images straight from your camera or phone. With streaming content availability and home Internet access on the rise, you can be sure that there will be plenty more smart TV features in the years to come.

On the horizon: Ultra HD TVs

If you’re reading this because you’re doing your homework before making a purchase (gold star for you!), there’s an emerging category of televisions coming down the pike that you should be aware of—Ultra HD TVs, aka 4K TVs. The 4K number stands for the lines of resolution these TVs are capable of (either 4,196 x 2,160 or 3,840 x 2,160), which results in a max resolution that’s about four times greater than the current HD standard at 1,080 x 1,920 lines. This increased resolution should result in noticeably improved picture quality for very large screen sizes, where image pixelization becomes more discernable at current HD resolutions. Note the increase in resolution does nothing to fix the motion lag typical of LCD TVs, and so far, all Ultra HD displays that have been announced as imminent are of the LCD variety.

Keep in mind however that the possibility of watching real 4K-quality images in your home is also purely theoretical at this point: Although many commercial theaters have been displaying native 4K images for some time now, as of this writing, there isn’t any domestically-available Ultra HD source material to speak of. What’s more, the jury is still out on whether 4K resolution results in any noticeable improvements for today’s typical screen sizes of about 55 or 65 inches. If you’re not in the market for anything bigger than standard, Ultra HD may be an irrelevant consideration.

There is however one current TV feature that would undoubtedly benefit from Ultra HD’s increased resolution, and that’s passive 3D processing. Since passive 3D displays cut the total resolution to each eye in half, using Ultra HD technology here should result in noticeably superior images over what’s currently available. This may be an important consideration if you’ll be interested in 3D technology at the lower end of the price spectrum sometime in the not-so-near future.

Still promising technology: OLED HDTVs

In simplified terms, OLEDs operate by putting electricity directly into “organic” materials (hence the “O” in OLED) such as carbon that emit the red, green or blue colors required to form a TV’s colored image. Since these pixel-sized materials are directly lit, they radiate light across their entire surface area, which results in pictures that are much brighter, richer, deeper, and better color-saturated than any existing TV technology available today.

Moreover, OLED TVs can be made much thinner than current production televisions due to their directly-lit design. LG, for example, recently demoed a super-light, super energy-efficient OLED display that was about as thick as a pencil. There’s even talk of making OLED screens that are paper-thin someday or even wall-paintable. All of which means that, by all accounts, OLED display technology promises to have the best of everything: awesome picture quality, inconspicuous form factor, and low energy consumption compared to today’s best and brightest TVs.

Of course, you’ve probably been about OLED displays for some time now and are probably wondering, “What’s the hold-up?” The answer is more or less twofold: manufacturing consistencies and longevity. For a more detailed discussion, see our opinion on the current state of OLED—and Ultra HD—here. Only time will tell whether OLED becomes a viable reality, but we’re certainly crossing our fingers for it—it’s the most stunning picture we’ve seen yet.

Cheat sheet

If you’ve read this far, you are now armed with all the knowledge you need to find the perfect flat-panel TV. Now get out there and shop! Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the most important points:

  • If you’re looking for 3D on a budget, look towards passive 3D in LCD TVs; for the best 3D experience possible, look at active 3D in plasmas.
  • Plasmas tend to look best for darkened, theater-like rooms; LCD displays perform better in bright rooms.
  • Many enthusiasts still prefer plasmas for overall picture quality and the most film-like experience.
  • When it comes to energy efficiency, LCD TVs (and particularly LED-lit LCD TVs) typically outperform plasmas.
  • LCD screens don’t experience “burn in,” making them preferable for gaming, showing static images or connecting to a PC.
  • Full-array backlit LED TVs use local dimming to achieve better contrast levels, but usually come in at the top of the price range.
  • Edge-lit LED TVs have thinnest form factor possible, but don’t look quite as good as full-array models.
  • Plasma displays don’t get any smaller than 42 inches, LCD TVs are available in almost any size.
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