How to Buy an HDTV

Whether you're looking for a very basic low-cost set or a feature-packed, razor-thin 4K HDTV, selecting the right television isn't easy. There are plenty of questions to answer: What type of display should you get? How big should the screen be? What about resolution, refresh rate, and other specs? What sort of extras do you need? Understanding the basics will help you make your choice (and your video) crystal clear, so here's what you should consider when shopping for your next HDTV.
LED or Plasma? Probably LED.
Plasma TVs were the only flat-panel models available when they were first introduced more than a decade ago. But given evolution of LCD and LED TVs in the past couple of years, many manufacturers have stopped making plasma sets, with only LG and Samsung staying in the plasma market. That means your choices will mostly consist of LED-backlit LCD HDTVs, or LED TVs, with the exception of even rarer and much, much more expensive OLED displays (of which only a handful have even been produced).

First, a note on LCD: "LCD" and LED HDTVs have been separate for a while, despite both using LCD panels. LCD panels themselves aren't lit, so they need to be illuminated. LED HDTVs simply backlight the LCDs with LEDs, while "LCD" HDTVs use CCFL for backlighting. CCFL-backlit designs have fallen by the wayside now, and even budget and midrange HDTVs use LED backlighting. They're lighter and more energy efficient than CCFL-backlit HDTVs, so at this point there's no reason to settle for an LCD that doesn't use LEDs.
There are further differences in the various designs. LED HDTVs can be either edge-lit or back-lit (though "backlighting" as a general term can refer to any method to illuminate an LCD panel). Edge-lit HDTVs light up their screens with arrays of LEDs along the edges of the panels, letting the HDTVs be very thin and light. Back-lit HDTVs use a large array of LEDs directly behind the panel, making the screen a little thicker but allowing it to more evenly illuminate the panel and, for high-end screens, adjust individual LEDs to enhance black levels in scenes. Very good edge-lighting systems can produce excellent pictures, though, and HDTV manufacturers are making back-lighting LED arrays smaller and thinner, so the distinction means less than it used to; regardless of the technology, an LED HDTV's thinness and brightness will be roughly proportional to its price range.
Curved HDTV
Plasma HDTVs can produce some of the best black levels and most accurate colors, but there aren't simply aren't many plasma screens around anymore. Even if you can find a high-end plasma like Panasonic's final plasma models, the now-discontinued VT60 and ZT60, you'll have to spend at least $2,500 for the excellent black levels they offer while you can get an excellent high-end LED TV for much less. If picture quality is your biggest priority and you have the money, hunt for a high-end plasma.
OLED, or Organic Light-Emitting Diode, displays are a new technology for HDTVs. Each diode both produces color and illuminates the picture, like plasma screens, but they can be much smaller and thinner than even LED-lit LCD panels. They're very and rare very expensive, but screens like like LG's 55EA9800 curved HDTV can get even darker blacks and better colors. Unfortunately, that new technology means spending closer to $10,000 than $1,000 on a screen. Unless you want to put the effort into getting a plasma, LED is the only affordable choice.
For a closer look at the difference between HDTV display types, read Plasma vs. LCD: Which HDTV Type is Best?
Choose Your Resolution
Right now, 1080p resolution (1,920 by 1,080 pixels, progressively scanned) is the only serious choice. Like LED and CCFL backlighting, the choice between 1080p and 720p has become irrelevant thanks to affordable 1080p screens. Even budget and midrange HDTVs are available in 1080p, and you shouldn't settle for the significantly lower resolution of 720p.

You may have heard some mutterings about 4K or Ultra HD, which is being billed as the next big thing in HDTV resolution. An Ultra HD television is one that displays at least 8 million active pixels, with a minimum resolution of 3,840 by 2,160. You can expect to spend $2,000 to $6,000 on a 4K HDTV from a prominent brand, and even less expensive, less-well-known models are pretty pricey compared to comparably sized 1080p screens.
4K Video
Considering there's little content in native 4K, 1080p upscaling isn't quite good enough yet to justify the higher price, and there are few ways to actually get 4K content on your screen (YouTube and Netflix stream in 4K, but Netflix suggests a whopping 25Mbps Internet connection to even hope to hit that resolution), it just isn't ready yet. For nearly all consumers, 1080p is the way to go.

Make the Right Connections
Your ideal HDTV should provide enough video connections not only for now, but for the foreseeable future. The most important input is HDMI, which supports all major forms of digital video sources including Blu-ray players, game consoles, set-top boxes, cameras, camcorders, phones, tablets, and PCs through a single cable. Most HDTVs have three or four HDMI ports, but some might only have two. It's the best way to send 1080p video from your devices to your screen with one cable, and will be the main way you connect your main sources of entertainment to your HDTV.
LG Ports
HDMI ports can have different variations, but all should work with normal media hubs, Blu-ray players, set-top boxes, and game system. An MHL-equipped HDMI port can power a mobile device plugged into it (if the device is built to handle MHL), so a second cable for power isn't required and its battery won't drain. An HDMI 2.0 port is relatively "future-proofed," supporting 4K video at 60 frames per second for when the content becomes widely available. They're nice extras, but currently they aren't a significant factor unless you want to get a 4K screen.
If you plan to hook up older, analog video devices to your HDTV, make sure your new set provides enough of these connectors too, as many manufacturers are reducing the number of analog inputs on newer sets.
Refresh Rate and Contrast Ratio
One of the biggest problems with narrowing your choices to a single HDTV is the sheer number of specs. To make your job a little easier, two of the biggies, refresh rate and contrast ratio, are safe to ignore.

Refresh (or response) rate, the speed at which your TV's panel refreshes its image, is expressed in hertz (60Hz, 120Hz, 240Hz, 480Hz, or 600Hz). The theory is that a faster refresh rate results in a smoother image. But in reality, there are several reasons this simply isn't true, and it's not worth paying more for a set with a faster response rate. In many cases, 60Hz will do just fine for films and 120Hz will be enough for video games and sports.
Contrast ratio is the difference between the darkest black and the brightest white a panel can display. In theory, the highest contrast ratio possible is desirable since dark blacks and bright whites contribute to a high-quality picture. There isn't a standardized way for manufacturers to measure this spec, though, so Samsung's numbers aren't directly comparable with, say, Panasonic's or Sharp's numbers. And, as you might imagine, vendors are vying to come up with the highest ratios, so they can charge more. Ignore any claims of contrast ratios in the millions or infinity; with the exception of the LG 55EA9800 curved OLED, the only HDTV we've tested to actually produce an "infinite" contrast ratio with a perfect 0 black level, the best HDTVs tend to have contrast ratios in 30,000 to 50,000:1.
3D, Web Apps, and Other Extras
3D is well-established at this point, though as a feature it still commands a premium. 3D HDTVs can use active 3D, which use battery-powered shutter glasses, or passive 3D, which use polarized filters. Passive used to be the most economical choice by far, but now that even most active 3D HDTVs come with a few pairs of glasses and new pairs are usually available for $20 instead of $50 to $100, the difference is mainly academic. Of course, if you don't plan to watch 3D movies, you can skip 3D entirely and avoid the premium placed on those screens.

Netflix TV Experience
Besides 3D, expect any mid-range or high-end HDTV (and many budget HDTVs) to offer Web apps and built-in Wi-Fi. These features let you connect your HDTV to the Internet and access online services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and YouTube. Many also integrate social network services like Facebook and Twitter, and many manufacturers offer entire downloadable app ecosystems with other programs and games you can use on your HDTV. These apps are also available in most Blu-ray players, all major video game systems, and even on inexpensive media streaming hubs, so they're not vital. However, their presence indicates some effort was put into designing the screen, and can give you a hint about whether your inexpensive HDTV will be a great deal or a disappointment.
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