Aussies love their TVs. In fact, our infatuation with the small screen has resulted in twice as many working TVs in Australia as there are households. To maintain sales, manufacturers often have to come up with new ways to convince us that we need a new TV, or even two. So it's no wonder that TVs now come with long lists of features, full of technical jargon and important-sounding acronyms. And, that it can be very hard to figure out exactly what's important and what's not.
That's where a CHOICE buying guide comes in. We've been testing TVs for almost as long as they've been on the market in Australia. In that time we've learned a lot about what matters, and what's nothing more than marketing speak.
Does size really matter?
It's fair to say we like them big in Australia – our average TV size is now 100-106cm.
Aside from your personal preferences about how it looks and whether you really want a super-large TV in your lounge room, you should consider a few other factors before you buy.
- The size of your room, and how far you generally like to sit from the screen. This will help determine what size TV you should get. A 127cm (50") HD TV (1920 x 1080 pixels) will be fine at a viewing distance of two metres. If you want to sit closer, you'll need to get a smaller set to avoid seeing the pixels (dots) that make up the screen. A bigger TV means you'll have to sit further away.
- Based on what we've been told by our members, it might be worth considering the next size up. In the CHOICE 2012 Product Use survey, 51% of people said they would buy a bigger TV if they had to replace their current one.
- If you really want a really big screen, you might consider a projector.
Which features really matter?
Have I viewed it from all angles?
As you move sideways from the centre of the screen, most TVs will lose some colour and contrast. You want to look for a TV that keeps this to a minimum.
- Tip: Check this in store by standing in the middle of the screen at your normal viewing distance and then take a few steps sideways. If the picture degrades too much, keep moving till you find a screen that does a better job.
How can I tell if the picture's not right?
Most stores have the TVs at their brightest and most saturated colour settings to get your attention. When the TV is delivered it'll be in standard or normal setting and won't be as bright.
Look for natural skin tones and texture on a person in a studio setting, such as a news presenter. Beware overall colour contamination such as a greenish or yellow tint that can't be removed by adjusting the controls.
- Tip: Cycle through all the picture mode settings such as dynamic, standard, normal or vivid in the store, as this may change the picture quality markedly.
How smart is my TV?
The word "smart" is getting a lot of use with TVs these days. It's not a reference to a TV's artificial intelligence, just whether it can connect to the internet and home networks. Most smart TVs use DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance protocol), which lets you stream media from your computer to your TV over your home network. Some also allow you to connect via other wireless protocols such as the Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL).
Having a smart TV can be useful as it allows you to access services such as streaming movies and TV and catchup TV services, YouTube and Flickr.
- Tip: Ask the salesperson what apps are available and to show you the onscreen menus. Ideally, these features will be easy to use and understand.
Can I connect all of my devices?
PVRs (personal video recorders), Blu-ray/DVD players, media players (e.g. Apple TV) and AV receivers or computers all need to be connected in one way or another. You'll need to decide the type (usually HDMI, an all-digital connection for both sound and video in the one cable) and count the number of connections you'll need.
- Tip: If you're planning on mounting your TV on a wall, look at where the connections are located. Will they be difficult to get to?
What about recording my favourite TV shows?
Many TVs will now record shows. This can potentially eliminate the need for a PVR. However, most TVs will only do it for the program they're tuned to. Some TVs have two tuners and can record one channel while you watch another. If you think that's going to be enough for you it could help reduce the number of boxes (and remote controls) in your TV room.
What about the tuner?
All TVs have a digital tuner to pick up free-to-air signals. However, some tuners are better than others when dealing with poor signals. It's important that you have a good TV antenna and cabling.
- Tip: If you live in an area that normally has reception problems, get the retailer to agree to exchange the TV if its tuner can't cope in your area. Call ACMA for help when all else fails.
Wall-mount or table top: which is best?
It's not just reaching the connections that can become a headache if you're wall-mounting.
- Often viewers are sitting below the set when it's on a wall.
- Make sure the angle of view is OK in both horizontal and vertical planes.
- Sitting the TV on a table top is easier, but make sure it's stable and preferably secured to the base, so small children can't pull it over.
Which remote control is right for me?
Make sure the more commonly used buttons (volume, channel selector, standby and mute) can be located at a glance. If you have young children or an absentminded partner and your remote is likely to go missing, choose a TV with easily accessible controls on the TV itself.
EPG, say what now?
The EPG (electronic program guide), or onscreen program guide, should be easy to navigate and read. Ideally, you should also be able to see what's playing on the current channel when the guide is on the screen.
Wired for sound?
Sound is a real problem these days. Generally the TV's sound unit is fairly poor or only just acceptable.
Things that don't really matter
...but sales people will say they do.
What about 3D?
These days, a lot of TVs are 3D compatible. If you are looking for a 3D model we suggest you look for a passive system (rather than active) because the glasses are lighter, cheaper and they work just as well.
Screen resolution: is there such a thing as too many pixels?
High definition refers to the number of pixels on the screen. More pixels means higher resolution. Anything above 1366 x 768 is generally considered HD, but many manufacturers advertise TVs as "Full HD" (FHD) or "True HD", meaning it has 1920 x 1080 pixels.
Paying for more pixels doesn't guarantee a better picture. Colour accuracy, smooth transitions between colours, and blacks that don't look muddy or lose detail are far more important. More pixels may actually make it harder for the TV's picture processor to deliver a good image.
On smaller TVs (under 94cm) it's difficult to see the difference between HD and FHD. The advantage of a higher resolution screen is that you can sit closer and still get lots of detail in the image.
UHD (4K): don't believe the hype
Ultra-high Definition (also called 4K) could be the next 3D in the sense that there's a lot of hype, but virtually no content available. UHD TVs have a lot more pixels than an HD TV, but they also cost a lot more.
They can look great with proper UHD content, but the processor will have to work really hard to up-scale and display a lowly DVD or standard definition broadcast. The result can be soft images, which don't have the punch or smoothness you expect of HD.
Is the refresh rate (Hz) everything it's cracked up to be?
The refresher rate (Hz) is the number of times in a second that the screen is refreshed. Supposedly the higher the number (often expressed in Hz) the smoother the image, particularly with sports.
Unfortunately, this is not entirely true and manufacturers have taken to making up new ways to measure it, which just gives them big numbers to put on the box.
- Tip: Ignore the Hz figures and look at the image on the screen.
Which screen type is right for me: LCD, OLED or Plasma?
These terms all refer to the type of screen and each type has a different way of lighting the screen to create an image. No matter how a salesperson tries to get you hooked on one particular type of screen, if the TV is well made, the Plasma, LCD or OLED credentials will make very little difference to the quality of the image. There are differences but for the most part they're a good deal less important than the quality of the manufacture.
An LCD (liquid-crystal display) screen needs a light source behind it, which will either be CCFL (cold cathode fluorescent lamp) or LED (light-emitting diode) technology.
CCFL technology still exists but it's older and is being replaced by LEDs. These cost more at the outset, but are cheaper to run because the lights have a relatively lower power usage.
- Tip: Some manufacturers and retailers will have you believe that LED is a completely different technology to LCD, but it's just a marketing ploy.
Plasma uses a completely different sort of technology. It's an array of very small gas-filled cells that glow red, green or blue when an electric charge is passed through them. Plasma TVs are relatively cheap to buy in bigger sizes and can produce very good pictures, but they cost a lot more to run and most manufacturers have stopped making them.
OLED (organic light emitting diode) screens also use LEDs. But unlike LCDs, which must be backlit, OLEDs have millions of LEDs which actually make up the screen. LG, Sony and Samsung have products using this technology, which can produce very good colour and contrast. But they're relatively expensive, and for now they're only just entering the mainstream.