Checking TVs on the shop floor
The Australian TV market is dominated by Samsung, LG, Sony and Panasonic, in roughly that order. The smaller players you'll see in major retailers generally try to position themselves at the cheaper end of the market.
Very cheap TVs outside the major brands of Samsung, LG, Sony and Panasonic only occasionally make it into our lab for our TV reviews, because we're limited in the numbers we can test each year. However, even the bigger brands are now producing cheap models to compete at the low end of town and some of them exhibit the same faults and poor performance of the lesser known brands.
So if you're keen to save money without being stuck with a second-rate screen, we suggest you begin by insisting the store allow you to see a free-to-air broadcast in standard definition (SD) and high definition (HD). You should be able to see differences pretty quickly when watching SD footage, particularly sport footage, and HD footage performance will depend on both the quality of the screen as well as the TV processor.
If they refuse to let you watch anything other than the specially prepared optimised video, go somewhere else. You can't make a judgement based on a Blu-ray cartoon or digitally mastered movie – some TVs can do an OK job with this input, but will look awful with standard definition or free-to-air HD footage.
Ten tips for comparing TVs in a store
- Look for details in the shadow areas of a scene. You may even be able to play your favourite movie on a Blu-ray or DVD where you are familiar with particular scenes.
- Skin tones on live news presenters in studios should look natural, and primary colours shouldn't have obvious faults (reds looking orange, for instance).
- Judging blacks can be tricky if you can't control the source, but with very poor TVs they'll be more dark grey than black. Some of the latest OLED TVs deliver very good blacks as each pixel can depict black by simply turning off.
- Look carefully at faces to see if the skin looks blotchy, or if areas of the face move at different rates.
- Things like judder (lack of smooth panning) and motion blur (trailing elements behind fast-moving objects) can be in the source, so be careful to make sure that all the TVs on display aren't doing it.
- Insist on using the TV's remote to access its main controls – you should be able to get around and do basic things like selecting a source, changing channels and selecting an app without having to look at the manual.
- Look around the back of the TV to see where the connections are. If you're going to wall-mount the TV, check that it's possible to get to them easily from the side or underneath. The labelling should be legible and of high enough contrast to be visible even in poor light.
- Ask to see the electronic program guide (EPG) and have a flick through some menu screens. We've seen some that make it very difficult to get around and find the programs you're looking for. Freeview Plus is becoming more common and is worth considering as it ensures you'll be getting the popular catch-up TV channels such as iView, as long as the TV has access to the internet.
- If the TV can record to a USB device, check what restrictions there are for the type of device you can use (some won't accept certain hard drives and others require a specific formatting). These TVs should have two separate tuners so have the retailer record some live TV and switch to another channel to see if it's being recorded properly.
- Forget comparing sound quality in a store – it's just not possible.
All of these tests and many more are part of a CHOICE TV test. Of course, we have the luxury of using expert testers in controlled conditions with identical source video, so we can be certain our results reflect the TV's real performance in relation to the others in the market.