Full HD resolution, also known as 1920x1080 or 1080p, has become the standard for HDTVs over the last few years, but it's not the only TV resolution game in town. Ultra HDTVs with four times the resolution are leading the next generation of television models, while the slightly lower 720p resolution is perfectly appropriate for secondary HDTVs.
But what is resolution, anyway? Simply put, it's the picture quality and level of detail you'll see on the TV screen. The higher the resolution, the more crisp and detailed the image will be. Keep in mind that any choice you make will be better than old-school standard-definition 480p (or, what you'd see on those big, boxy TVs of days past). That said, there are three major resolution formats to choose from.
Ultra HD: The Next Generation
Still fairly new to the market, Ultra HDTVs sport 3840x2160 resolution (colloquially referred to as 4K) and aspect ratios of at least 16:9. Ultra HD is four times as clear as Full HD and, to put it mildly, glorious. But that glory comes with a price: since the technology's so new, 4K TVs will generally be more expensive than 1080p HDTVs. On top of that, there's not a ton of Ultra HD programming available yet, so it could be a while before a 4K television is really used to the fullest.
Still, 4K has its advantages, namely that it presents movie theater-quality resolution right in your own home. Prices on 4K televisions have significantly dropped in the last two years, and buying an Ultra HDTV means it's basically future-proof, so you don't have to worry about your shiny new purchase becoming obsolete within months. And then there's that Ultra HD resolution… have we mentioned how good it looks? Even non-4K content gets a graphical boost with Ultra HD upscaling.
Full HD: Reigning Champ
Ah, good old Full HD. The market has been all but immersed with 1080p TVs over the last decade; you likely already have one in your house. And if you don't, this is a great place to start! With a TV capable of 1920x1080 resolution, you can be sure you'll get the most out of that upgrade. Most TV channels have HD versions available, so unlike 4K, you won't have to wait to really enjoy those crisp, gorgeous visuals. And the 1080p TV experience doesn't stop with live television--you'll also be able to watch your favorite movies or play video games in high definition (see Connectivity for more information).
For HDTVs larger than 32" diagonal, 1080p is the resolution you should be aiming for, especially if it's your family's main unit. You may not think you care about HD, but once you see the difference, you'll never go back to standard def.
720p: Entry-Level HD
While 1280x720 or 1366x768 resolution, also known as 720p, isn't as clear as Ultra or Full HD, it's a good starting point. It's still much better than old-school standard definition, and on smaller displays, you may not even notice the difference. In fact, many last and current-generation video games are displayed in 720p, even on 1080p-capable HDTVs.
If you're looking for the ultimate living room TV, 720p is probably not the way to go—we would recommend at least 1080p for your home's main set. But for secondary sets, a 720p TV is totally acceptable, particularly on displays 32" and smaller—think bedroom, office, and kitchen.
Picking the Right Size: Is Bigger Better?
Sure, the idea of ordering a 90" diagonal HDTV and plunking it down on your entertainment center seems like a great idea, but is it practical? Then again, is a large-screen TV necessary when you're just looking for a secondary model? When picking out your new HDTV, there are several factors about TV sizes to take into account.
Know your measurements
TV screens are measured diagonally, so take that into account when ordering. A 40" TV or 40" Class HDTV means a 40" diagonal display, for example. When considering TV sizes, check the actual dimensions listed with each model in addition to the screen.
TV viewing distance
The further away you sit from your television, the bigger the screen could be. There's no exact mathematical formula for this—even major manufacturers and technology websites disagree over it—but just think about where your couch is in relation to where your HDTV will go. If your TV room is in a cramped apartment and you only sit a few feet away, 40" diagonal to 50" diagonal will probably work well for your space. If you've set up a massive entertainment center with nine feet of space between your TV and you, well, you can go much larger. And, naturally, for rooms with secondary HDTVs, there will generally be less space, so we recommend a small flat-screen TV (40" and under) for bedrooms and offices. So remember, bigger isn't always the best—take TV size viewing distance into account before placing your order.
When we talk about a screen size, we're telling you the diagonal measurements of the actual display; this doesn't take into account the HDTV's height, width, depth, and weight. How big a TV can your TV stand support? Or, if you plan on mounting your new HDTV to the wall, how much wall space do you have? Knowing what size HDTV your room can fit is a key factor in deciding which display size to get; so before you shell out for that 90" class HDTV, make sure you've got about seven feet of open wall space.
That theater-like HDTV you're eyeing is going to cost you. If you're on a tight budget, prioritize which features mean the most to you: would you rather have a bigger, bare-bones 1080p HDTV or a slightly smaller one with Smart TV or other functionality? (See below for more on additional features.)
Display Types: Curved, Backlit, 3D?
You may have thought your decision was over after considering the resolution and size you're looking for, but wait! There's more! The type of display will help determine how good the picture is—a 1080p picture will look much better on an LED-backlit screen than an older model, for example.
Here are a few things you should know about the main types of displays currently dominating the market. Note that these aren't mutually exclusive; you can have an LED-backlit LCD or OLED curved 4K display, for example.
Show Off Your Curves
Curved Ultra HDTVs are one of the most recent innovations in consumer technology. A curved TV has a slightly rounded look to it, which makes it a stunning centerpiece in any high-tech entertainment center. Aside from being aesthetically pleasing, the curved displays offer wider viewing angles, theoretically delivering gorgeous 4K resolution from anywhere in the room. On top of higher picture quality, curved TVs can cut down on ambient lighting reflections, creating a starker contrast between blacks and whites, as well as more vibrant colors.
As you've probably determined, curved televisions are top-of-the-line and would be wasted anywhere besides your home's main entertainment center. If you're looking for the newest, prettiest, most theater-like HDTV you can find, a curved Ultra HDTV is the one for you.
LED-Backlit: Let There Be Light!
Once a premier feature, LED backlighting has become the standard for most LCD HDTVs—but it's not as simple as it sounds. No, there are different kinds of LED HDTVs, and not all are created equal!
First, there's OLED backlighting, which you'll find on many Ultra HDTVs and other high-end models. The organic light-emitting diode technology allows each pixel to light itself up independently of others. Why does this matter? Because this allows OLED televisions to consume less energy while being lighter and thinner than other models. And hardware aesthetics are not the only reason to go OLED: you'll also get improved picture quality with this model.
Most LCD displays will either be direct-lit or edge-lit. Direct-LED backlit HDTVs use a full array of lights across the back panel of the television, but use fewer LEDs further away from the screen, making it a slightly thicker but more cost-efficient model. Edge-lit HDTVs, as you may have guessed, provide backlighting from the edges of the display, allowing for thinner models. However, because the light isn't distributed evenly, this could cause some issues in image quality. Does that mean it's a bad choice? Absolutely not! Regardless of type, if it's your first time getting an LED-backlit LCD television, you'll be impressed at the picture quality. Again, it comes down to priorities: would you rather have an ultra-thin display or one that's a little thicker but has more even backlighting?
It's important to note that some backlit models are simply referred to as LED HDTVs; know that this refers to LED-backlit LCDs, and the phrases are sometimes used interchangeably by television manufacturers.
LCD vs. Plasma: HDTV Showdown
LCD (liquid-crystal display) HDTVs make up most of the market, but there's still a place for plasma in homes and hearts. You may have heard horror stories about early plasma TVs, but issues like burn-in are generally a thing of the past. Plasma televisions are capable of deeper blacks for a superior contrast ratio and have wider viewing angles than standard LCD televisions, so they do have their advantages.
If you're looking for a future-proof HDTV, you're better off going with an OLED or LED-backlit LCD television, whether that means an Ultra HD curved display or just a really good-sized 1080p screen. If you're more concerned about your budget than the future of TV technology, a Full HD plasma display might just suit your needs.
The Third Dimension: Active 3D vs. Passive 3D
Gone are the days when you could only enjoy three-dimensional visuals in a movie theater. If you're a movie buff looking for a truly cinematic experience in your living room, consider HDTV models with 3D capabilities. These fall into two categories:
- Active 3D: Active 3D uses battery-operated glasses that rapidly shutter open and closed, which allows each eye to get 1080p resolution. While Active 3D undoubtedly delivers a great picture, the glasses do block some light, which might make movies look dimmer.
- Passive 3D: This technology uses polarized 3D glasses, which are the kind you'll generally find in movie theaters. Passive 3D uses a special filter that shows the odd lines on the left eye and even lines on the right eye (don't worry, it doesn't look as weird as it sounds). The downside of Passive 3D is the resolution isn't as good as Active 3D, but on the upside, the glasses usually aren't as pricey.
As you've probably surmised, 3D HDTVs require 3D glasses in order for you to actually enjoy those theater-like visuals. Most 3D TVs include a couple of sets, but if you want more than two to four people watching movies at once, it's on you to shell out for more. Additionally, you can't just watch any old thing in 3D; you'll need to purchase 3D versions of Blu-rays or look for 3D-capable video games and consoles, for example.
That said, if it fits your budget, modern 3D television models are incredibly impressive. Spending more money in the short-term might keep your family glued to the couch for movie nights, so it could be worth it in the long run! And if you really want a home theater experience from your entertainment center, 3D is a must.
Beauty and Brains: Smart HDTVs
If you've been eyeing the HDTV market looking for your new set, you've probably noticed the rise of Smart HDTVs. But what is a Smart TV? Essentially, Smart televisions utilize an Internet connection (via Wi-Fi or ethernet) to provide access to a variety of entertainment features that wouldn't be possible otherwise.
When you hear "Internet TV" you probably think of Web browsing and social media, and these are definitely things you can do on a Smart TV! Why do you need the Internet on your TV, you ask? Why get up and use a computer when you can browse right from the couch? Plus, YouTube videos and other visual media are sure to look way better on a big high-def screen than a tiny monitor or smartphone.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Most Smart HDTVs have manufacturer-specific features that offer lots of on-demand entertainment; for instance, Samsung Smart TVs have a Smart Hub that displays apps, games, VOD, and other options. On top of that, you can download apps to a Smart HDTV just like you can a smartphone or tablet. Streaming Netflix or Hulu Plus on a big screen instead of a small one? Game-changer. Blasting Pandora through your surround sound system instead of a tinny computer speaker? That's one way to get the party started.
You might be wondering how to connect a TV to the Internet; thankfully, that's easy to do even if you're not completely tech savvy. Simply use your existing Wi-Fi network or, where applicable, connect the HDTV to your router with an ethernet cable. Voila! You've connected the Internet to the TV and you're ready to rock. And since the standard TV remote isn't exactly ideal for typing in search terms and website URLs, some Smart HDTVs come with an enhanced remote or allow you to use an iOS or Android phone as a remote control.
Just a few years ago, Wi-Fi TVs were higher-end models that required a separate adapter, but now not only is the Internet completely integrated, Smart HDTVs are quickly becoming the standard. If you spend a lot of time streaming media or posting to social networks—or you just don't want to hear the refrain of "there's nothing on TV" ever again—these babies are a smart choice.
The Hook-up: Ports and Your HDTV
One of the things that makes HDTVs so wonderful is that there are so many ways to get more entertainment (and therefore more value) out of your new TV. By understanding your HDTV's ports and what they do, you'll have a better idea of what best suits your family's needs.
- USB: Like your computer, your HDTV may have a USB port or two. These are typically used to connect flash drives so you can show off digital photos or play music.
- HDMI: If your family uses a lot of high-def devices, definitely pay attention to the number of HDMI ports; you need these to get the best possible picture quality from your cable box, Blu-ray player, and video game consoles. Smaller TVs may only have one or two HDMI ports, with bigger models boasting three or four. Keep in mind you'll need HDMI cables to connect those devices, which aren't included with most HDTVs; and not all HDMI cables are alike. For example, if you're purchasing an Ultra HDTV, make sure your HDMI cable is 4K-compatible; if you're hoping to hide or conceal your cables, a flat HDMI cable could make that task easier.
How many HDMI ports do you need? Depends on where your HDTV is going and what you'll do with it. If you've got a household full of gamers and several newer consoles, you'll definitely want more ports. If you only need to hook up a high-def cable box and a Blu-ray player, you can get away with less.
- Component: You may not know it by name, but you'd probably recognize the blue/green/red ports for component cables if you've purchased a TV in the last decade. While definitely not as good as HDMI, component allows for better visuals than old-school composite ports. This makes component inputs useful for some cable boxes and slightly older gaming consoles without HDMI ports like the Nintendo Wii.
- Composite: Lots of modern HDTVs have a shared component/composite port, because you probably won't get a lot of use out of this one. The red/yellow/white ports allow for standard-definition video via composite cables. Of course, if you're buying a TV for the 1080p (or higher) visuals, why even bother? Well, if you're ever nostalgic for an old movie (like VHS old) or video game from the PS2 era and older, you'll still be able to hook them up to your HDTV using composite video cables, also called RCA cables.
- Audio: Don't worry, you don't need to hook up a fancy surround system to get sound from your HDTV; all televisions have built-in speakers and many have enhanced audio features like Virtual Surround Sound or decoding from DTS or Dolby. That said, connecting external speakers can certainly create a more immersive, theater-like experience.
So how do you hook up a surround sound system to your HDTV? Using the digital audio output, which can be either optical or coaxial. A coaxial digital audio output requires an RCA cable, while an optical audio output uses a light-based cable. Most surround sound systems are either 5.1-channel, which utilizes five speakers and a subwoofer, or—if you're really going for the home theater—7.1-channel, which uses seven speakers and a subwoofer.
No matter what kind of HDTV you're looking for, it's important to know its ports before buying, so you'll have an understanding of how well it suits your home.
HDTV + PC = BFF
There's one more thing to think about when considering the ins and outs of HDTVs: how to connect a computer to the TV. Why would you want to do this? There are a few reasons, among them showing off a presentation on the big screen and playing PC games on a 1080p display.
Many modern computers have HDMI ports, which means connecting your computer to your TV is easy: just use an HDMI cable as detailed in the section above. If your computer instead has a DisplayPort, you can get an adapter to use with your TV's HDMI port and still get fairly good video and sound.
If it has neither of these, you're likely dealing with a DVI or VGA port, which require adapters to work with modern HDTVs. Both of these only transmit video, not audio, so your computer will have to handle sound if necessary. You won't get HD visuals from either DVI or VGA, but they'll get the job done.
If you're planning for your HDTV to double as a computer monitor, even temporarily, have the right tools for the job, whether it's an extra HDMI cable, VGA or DVI cables, adapters, and so forth.
Now you're ready to buy a brand-new HDTV! Making a large electronics purchase can be overwhelming, but being armed with knowledge ensures that your choice will keep your family happy and entertained for years to come. Whether you're getting a curved OLED Ultra HDTV for your den, a 1080p model for the bedroom, or a smaller 720p display for the kids, this guide has everything you need for a high-tech home.