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Guide: How to shop for your first HDTV E-mail
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Written by Olin Coles   
Saturday, 21 April 2007
Table of Contents: Page Index
Guide: How to shop for your first HDTV
Television Technology Defined
Determine your HDTV needs
Know your budget

Determine your HDTV needs

In the last sections you learned of the upcoming transition to a digital-only network broadcast, and you might have even picked up a thing or two about television technology. In this section, we move on to the start of the decision making process: determine what you need. Before we get into the meat of the matter, it's important to note that this guide is not going to help you select the next gaming LCD for your computer or a huge plasma display for your cruise ship. Cruise ship advice will be given only after a complete site survey and world tour. The focus of this guide is on the primary household HDTV television set.

What TV are you using now?

The best way to start deciding on the size of your new HDTV is to look at what you presently use to watch movies and programming. The first step is to measure the display screen diagonally, since this is how television and monitors are measured, and then measure the distance from your seat to the front of the picture display. Since it applies to most people making the switch from analog to digital, I will use myself as the most common example for this guide.

Consider first that your old cathode ray tube television set used the 4:3 aspect ratio, meaning that for every 4 units of width there are 3 units of height. That was then, and this is now. Say goodbye to your full screen VHS cassettes, and get ready for the widescreen world of 16:9 picture ratio. I was perfectly happy with my 36" full screen CRT, but my new Sharp 52" LCD has pleasantly made me a widescreen believer. In terms of older CRT technology, larger screens would cost more; and that cost often determined the size of your set.

LCD and Plasma technology has changed all of this, since purchasing a set which is too large no longer just means that you might be sitting too close to the set, but it could mean staring at pixel dots and a grainy image. More important than picture size is where you sit relative to the picture screen. So if your small apartment forces you to sit close to a small TV, you won't have to spend as much on a big screen. In most cases, it feels more comfortable sitting away from a 4:3 television set at a distance that's between three and six times the width of the screen. The chart below gives a rough estimate for minimum and maximum viewing distances on 4:3 televisions. Use this in conjunction with your current environment to determine if your viewing habits need to be changed.

4:3 Screen Size
(in inches)
Min Viewing Distance
(in feet)
Max Viewing Distance
(in feet)








You may not understand the purpose of all this measuring just yet, so I will explain. Widescreen televisions showing high-resolution DVD and HDTV always look better than content displayed on full screen televisions. This dramatic improvement allows you to sit much closer to the picture screen and experience a more immersive theater like picture. For widescreen 16:9 televisions displaying HDTV or DVD content, you can comfortably sit as close as 1.5 times the screen's diagonal measurement and never notice a loss in quality. However, sitting farther away than three times the screen size means you're likely to miss out on the theater like feeling. Use the chart below to reference minimum and maximum viewing distances to the recommended widescreen screen size.

16:9 Screen Size
(in inches)
Min Viewing Distance
(in feet)
Max Viewing Distance
(in feet)









So lets say you are like me, and have a 36" full screen 4:3 CRT television. The most comfortable viewing distance for my old television set was between 7-15 feet. Essentially, this is really step one in this whole process. I now know that the same viewing distance would require a 60" widescreen HDTV set to get the same experience. Fortunately there are two factors which made the 52" HDTV a perfect replacement:

  • By replacing the 36" CRT for a slim 52" HDTV, I gained an extra 1.6 feet in viewing distance without moving any furniture.
  • Safe overlapping distances in comfortable viewing distances offer some degree of compromise in set placement.

If you plan on mounting the set on a wall, make sure to take the distance from the front of the viewing screen in your estimated viewing distance planning. Because both LCD and plasma televisions generate a considerable amount of heat. you should plan to leave at least two or three inches on all sides so that the TV has enough ventilation. This is critical if you plan on placing the unit inside an entertainment center. In most cases the HDTV will come with it own add-on stand, which means it could possibly sit in the same spot as your old analog television.

Peripheral Equipment Requirements

My old television set offered many connection interfaces with my home theater equipment. Component video used RCA cables from the DVD player into the A/V receiver, and then to the back of the television set. My DVD player offered digital audio output using another RCA cable, or if I wanted I could utilize a hard to find fiber optic cable if I was concerned about electrical noise reducing sound quality. I would often ask myself how it could get any better. HDMI, that's how. The High Definition Multimedia Interface offers a completely digital, totally uncompressed audio and video solution all in one sigle cable.

But before we jump into the benefits (and pitfalls) of stepping up to HDMI, let's examine what kind of equipment you will connect into your HDTV. This is really a list which is subject to change, especially since the Sony Playstation 3 and X-Box 360 have revealed future releases with HDMI connections, and the HD-DVD vs Blue-ray war is far from over. There are more than a few things to consider here, and they play an important role in the overall selection of your HDTV.

Source material is important, whether VHS, DVD, or HDTV, a display will always convert (scale) to fit its native resolution. If the incoming source has more pixels than the display's native resolution (ie. HD-DVD or blue-ray on a 720p HDTV), you will lose some visible detail and sharpness, though often what you're left with still looks great. If the incoming source has fewer pixels than the native resolution (ie. VHS, DVD, and some high-definition broadcasts on a 1080p HDTV), you will not get any extra sharpness from the television's pixels; in fact, it will look worse.

So what do you do? You want great picture image quality, but you don't want to sacrifice resolution. Here are some simple question to help guide you in selecting the best native resolution for your needs:

  • 720p: Progressively scanned 1,280x720 resolution.
    • Is this HDTV going to ever see anything more than high-definition broadcast content, VHS, and DVD? If yes, then move on to the next item. If not, this is going to be the best possible resolution for your needs. Don't be intimidated by the fact that there are higher resolutions, because these sources would actually look worse on them.
  • 1080i: Interlaced (every other line is rendered) 1,920x1,080 resolution.
    • 1080i has more lines and pixels, but 720p is a progressive-scan format which delivers smoother images that stay sharper during motion. This is suitable for upscaled/upconverting DVD players, X-Box 360 (HD-DVD), and certain programming such as CBS, NBC, PBS, DiscoveryHD. Do you plan on purchasing (or already own) a Playstation 3, Blue-ray, or HD-DVD player? If you answered yes, only a native 1080p HDTV offers the resolution you will need so please continue to the next item.
  • 1080p: Progressively scanned 1,920x1,080 resolution.
    • Rendering a 1,920x1,080 pixel progressively scanned picture is going to come at a slightly higher premium, but it is presently the full embodiment of High-Definition. Generally found in larger LCD and Plasma televisions, the full high-definition resolution looks great when using native 1080p content. 1080p Content presently includes the Playstation 3, Blue-ray, and HD-DVD, but because technology develops so fast these sources could be standard in just a year or more.

For most people who are buying for their present day needs, and plan to upgrade in the 2-3 year future, then a 720p HDTV is perfect. Offering the most affordable HDTV solution, but compromising top-end picture quality, this is a shallow recommendation. The widespread availability of 1080p HDTV's has made the 1080i alternative not really a technology worth having. With that said, those of us who want to make our best attempt at a future-proof HDTV purchase should begin looking towards 1080p solutions.

Other peripheral considerations include component controllers. While everything you will buy for your entertainment center no doubt came with a simple remote control, you will eventually have yourself a large collection of basic control devices cluttering your coffee table. I was not a big fan of using a universal remote control until my home theater expanded to over six devices. Most components offered a decent remote, but the functionality was limited and it didn't help the appearance of my home theater. This is why I ultimately decided on the Logitech Harmony 890 Pro Advanced Universal Remote to control every single device in my home theater, as well as a few other devices all around the house.

But before we move on, let's address the subject of HDMI and it's relationship to your HDTV purchase.

Without going into the boring details describing the many ongoing revisions to the HDMI standard and what they might mean to you, this portion of the article will focus on the more important question: will you need HDMI in your HDTV? The honest answer is yes. If for nothing more than the fact that HDMI allows uncompressed audio and video to travel in digital format over just one cable. Technically, HDMI is the replacement for many older cables, such as coaxial cable, composite video, S-Video, component video and VGA D-Sub. Additionally, some industry critics claim that Intel's High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) will soon be the standard DRM protection for most all movies published. So if you plan on watching DVD-quality or better digital content, you had better begin planning a home theater system which involves HDMI.

In my particular case, this project meant not only replacing my 36" CRT television with a 52" LCD HDTV, but the DVD player and A/V receiver were also replaced with versions supporting HDMI. None of these items were inexpensive, and knowing your budget for a project like this is essential to putting all of the pieces together.


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