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HDTV Specs And What They All Mean

Buying a HDTV is hard enough with so many different manufactures, model numbers and sizes, so to make things a little easier we’ve put together a list of the most common specifications you’ll find on the box and broken them down to help you decide when they matter.If you need help picking out the size of your television, we’ve previously mentioned a few good tips for choosing based on your viewing distance. Once you decide on the optimal size for your space, you still need to pick through a ton of other details. Depending on what your primary use is, you’ll want to pay attention to certain numbers and features more than others.

Resolution

Since the release of 1080p HDTVs, people have argued over whether the higher resolution makes a difference in the viewing experience. The difference between 1080p (1920 x 1080 pixels) and 720p (1366 x 768 pixels) is the number of horizontal lines on the display. The p stands for progressive, which means the display refreshes the lines one after the other. 720p is often priced lower, but it also has to scale images presented in 1080p and may lose sharpness in the image when it does so.

In many real-world tests, people have a hard time telling the difference between the two. In TVs smaller than 40 inches, the resolution seems to matter less to most people, because it’s typically not as noticeable.

When it matters: Right now it’s highly dependent on what you plan on attaching to the TV. What you see on TV is not always in 1080p, but if you plan on watching a lot of Blu-ray movies, the native resolution is in 1080p, so the picture will be cleaner.

If you plan on using an Xbox 360 or PS3, it doesn’t really matter. Most store-bought games run natively at 720p but are upscaled to 1080p. There are native 1080p games out there, but since the consoles need to support everything on the market (including standard definition), most rely on 720p.

If you want a future-proof TV, the higher resolution (and cost) of 1080p will likely get you a little further, but it ends up boiling down to what you plan on using the television for and how big it is. Smaller TVs benefit less from the higher resolution, but if you plan on rocking a ton of HD content, 1080p is the way to go.

Photo by jsparksnj.

Contrast Ratio

Contrast ratio is often listed on TV sets in unfathomable numbers. For instance, a newer TV might have a contrast ratio of 150,000:1, which, to most people, means absolutely nothing. The term itself refers to the difference between the darkest and lightest images, or how dark the black can get and how bright the white can be. Supposedly, the higher the contrast ratio, the better the colours will look.

When it matters: Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Or rather, the numbers you’ll find on a television box don’t matter. It turns out, there isn’t a uniform way to measure contrast ratio and different TV manufacturers do it differently. The numbers mean nothing, so just go with your gut when you’re looking at displays at the store.

Picture Type

There are three main types of televisions being pushed right now: LCD, Plasma and LED. Each have their own advantages and disadvantages. Choosing which one is best for you is all about deciding how you’re going to use it most.

  • LCD: LCD (liquid crystal display) is the most common television you’ll see while shopping. The name means it uses the liquid crystals to display the picture and it’s lit by a CCFL (cold-cathode fluorescent lamp). These are the most common options on the market because the lighting works in most homes and the TVs come in any number of sizes.
  • Plasma: Plasma televisions have phosphors that create the image on the screen and light themselves, so they don’t have a backlight. With no backlight, plasma doesn’t have reduced contrast when viewed from wide angles, so if you have a giant, dark living rooming or your favourite chair is in the corner of the room, plasma might be best for you. However, if you’re an reckless-pauser who leaves games and movies paused for hours at a time, be wary of image burn-in on plasma televisions.
  • LED: LED (light emitting diodes) is marketing speak for LCD TVs illuminated by LED instead of CCFL. While they typically cost more than an LCD, LED-powered TVs consume a little less power, so if you’re power-consumption-conscious, it’s the way to go.
  • Dynamic backlight and local dimming: The other stat related to the picture you’re likely to see on a box is either “dynamic backlight” or “local dimming”. Dynamic backlight means the display can automatically adjust the brightness of the light being pushed behind it, while local dimming means that each LED or group of LEDs can be turned on and off independently. Most modern sets employ these techniques and you can ignore it as a selling point.
  • When it matters: Plasma is best for darker rooms and sports. LCD is good for everything else, but if you’re looking for a super-thin and slightly less power-hungry display, the LED lighting is better.

    Photo by christine.

    Refresh Rate

    The refresh rate might be one of the most confusing stats you’ll run into on a set. Typically, you’ll find one of three different numbers: 60Hz, 120Hz and 240Hz. These numbers refer to how often a TV changes the picture. The theory, according to manufacturers, is that the higher the refresh rate, the smoother the video.

    When it matters: Here’s the thing about the refresh rate, for most purposes, it doesn’t matter. Television, movies and games are all produced at 60Hz and adding more doesn’t add anything to the quality of the image. It may make video appear smoother at the store, but that’s artificial and not reflective of the media’s natural state. Basically, ignore this number on the box; it’s not going to be a noticeable difference either way.

    Connections

    The connections don’t matter as much as they used to, but if you’re using a mix of hardware, it’s still worth paying attention to what you have. These are the connections you’re most likely to come across:

  • HDMI: HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) is an all-purpose HD input used for both audio and video. When you’re picking out cables, remember the price doesn’t matter, so just find something cheap.
  • Component Input: Component video is the pre-HD, analogue version of HDMI. You would likely want to use these for DVD players, Wii or other older hardware that supports both 4:3 aspect ration and 16:9.
  • S-Video: S-Video never really picked up much traction in its integration into devices, but TVs continue to support them just in case. If you’re using one, you’ll know it, but if you don’t, it will most likely come packed with your TV anyway.
  • Composite Video and RCA: Composite video and RCA cables are the yellow (video), red and white (audio) cables. For the most part, if you’re purchasing an HDTV, you won’t use these for much, but the input is nice to have around for older gaming systems or cable boxes. They cannot carry an HD signal and the display ratio is locked at 4:3.
  • When it matters: Modern streaming and disc boxes use HDMI, so you want to make sure the TV has enough inputs for the devices you have. If you have an Xbox, a Blu-ray player and a pay TV box, for instance, you’ll want at least three. If you’re using older hardware, say an old gaming system, make sure the TV has what it needs.

    Photo by Chris Kelly.

    All the numbers and stats can be confusing, but hopefully this will help you make a bit more sense out of it all. Once you’ve picked a TV out, make sure you properly calibrate it for the best picture quality.