How to Buy a TV: Simple Steps to a Great Purchase

Doug Bonderud | Apr 30, 2013

How to Buy a TV

For most consumers, the idea of upgrading their current television yields equal measures excitement and concern; a bigger, better TV sounds great, but many viewers worry about how to choose the best technology for their dollar. While the “best TV” ultimately comes down to personal preference over marketing specs, here are a few simple steps to help make sure your new purchase yields the best visual returns.

Size Matters

According to a recent CNet article, size is the one area most people skimp on and wish they hadn’t. In many cases, this is because buyers are worried their new TV will be too large for the room, but the CNet authors recommend at least 32 inches for a bedroom television and 46 inches minimum for one in a living or family room. The cost-to-size ratio of all TV types — plasma, LCD and LED — is such that going slightly bigger typically won’t break the bank. Saving money by going smaller seems less worthwhile the longer you own the television. In most cases, this is two to three years at minimum.

Be Suspicious of Specifications

If you’re looking for televisions online or in the store, expect to be bombarded with a wealth of statistics. You’ll see and hear terms like “contrast ratio,” which refers to the difference between the brightest picture a TV can produce and the darkest. 10000:1, for example, means the darkest image a television can display is 10000 times darker than the brightest image. While contrast ratio is an important measurement of picture quality, it’s important to know there’s no universal standard for measuring or reporting this number. In other words, you need to see the picture to believe it.

Refresh rates are also important and are measured in Hertz (Hz). They describe how often the image on a television screen is updated. Older model cathode ray televisions had a standard refresh rate of 60 Hz, or 60 times per second, while newer models can go as high as 240 Hz or even 600 Hz. Theoretically, these higher rates provide smoother moving images, but visual improvement is hard to measure and depends largely on the viewer, the environment, and personal preference. Ultimately, specifications provide an excellent baseline for comparing models but are no substitute for actual viewing.

Consider All Options

Plasma televisions have earned a reputation for “burn in,” which occurs when the TV is left turned on with a static image for too long. The result is a picture permanently stuck on the screen. Newer versions of plasma televisions have all significantly reduced the effects of this problem, and unless you leave a static image on screen for days at a time, you won’t have a problem.

LED and LCD televisions, meanwhile, typically have smaller, thinner frames and are available in a wider variety of sizes. Most plasma TVs are 42 inches minimum and use more power (on the order of $50 per year) than LED sets, but both technologies are now considered mature, offering similar features sets at a similar price.

Think About the Future

Purchasing a new TV means you need to think about the long term — which features will you want over the next two, three, or five years? Smart televisions that can connect to your wireless Internet and offer access to streaming video sites or movies are becoming popular, as are 3D-capable TVs and those with voice and gesture control. These features come with an extra cost, however, and this aspect of the television technology market is still in adolescence, with some features offering better value than others. 3D, for example, suffers from a lack of content, while most motion control isn’t entirely accurate.

When it’s time to buy a TV, you need to consider size, specs, type, and features before making any decision. Above the technical details, however, it’s always important to see technology in action. Never buy a television sight unseen, and worry more about what you like than which TV costs the most or has the best spec sheet.

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