I just bought a TV for the first time in my life — even though my wife and I don’t really watch television.
That’s crazy, I know. I get that look every time I say it. I still own the big, bulky tube set I was given as a teenager, and I used a 24-inch flatscreen computer monitor to play video games and watch movies.
But after recently moving to a bigger apartment, my wife and I decided it was also time for a bigger screen. And we’re not alone. About 1 in 10 Americans made plans to buy a TV in the weeks surrounding the Super Bowl, according to a new FatWallet.com survey of 1,000 adults.
That makes it the most popular time of year to buy a new TV, even ahead of Black Friday. Does popular also mean the best prices? Not always, although both CNET and Dealnews sound optimistic about finding good deals. I certainly feel like my $350 was well spent on a 42-inch, 120Hz, 1080p LED Sharp.
Based on the responses FatWallet got, the typical TV Super Bowl shoppers are interested in looks something like this…
- $300-$499 (41 percent)
- Samsung (33 percent)
- 40-54inches (45 percent)
- 1080p HDTV (46 percent)
I’d say that’s setting the bar a little high. While learning about and browsing options the past few weeks, I saw a couple 39- or 40-inch Samsungs for just under $500 before taxes, and a 43-inch 720p Samsung for under $400, but anything bigger (and with a decent resolution) costs more.
But the TV I ended up with fits all those most-popular criteria — except for the brand, which I have no regrets about so far. After reading three great TV-buying guides (Consumer Reports‘, CNET‘s, and Crutchfield’s), here’s how I picked my new TV…
1. 1080p resolution was mandatory
The last time I was paid attention to screen terminology — more than four years ago, when I last bought a computer monitor — people were still debating 720p versus 1080p. Now it seems pretty much settled that 1080p is the resolution you want for anything bigger than a 35-inch screen, where you’ll start noticing the loss of detail.
It’s definitely what I wanted as someone who regularly connects my laptop to the screen. Consumer Reports says 720p can properly capture all the detail of the 1366x768 computer resolution that many current laptops come with, but not more. If you have a 1920×1080 display or you’re planning for the future — or if you actually care about watching TV and Blu-Rays at all — you want 1080p. That goes for gaming too, by the way. Anything newer than a Nintendo Wii (not to be confused with Wii U) looks best on 1080p.
Speaking of planning for the future, there are 4K sets available now. That’s a resolution roughly four times better than 1080p, and some films such as The Hobbit are being made for it. But they’re not worth buying yet. You need an enormous screen — we’re talking 80 inches or more — to appreciate the extra detail, and the prices aren’t where they should be yet, according to CNET.
2. Bigger is better
Many people can’t be bothered to learn all the terminology for TVs so they can understand the associated numbers. And honestly, you shouldn’t bother trying to decipher spec sheets, which CNET says are full of lies:
Contrast ratio is basically a lie, refresh rate (120Hz, 240Hz, 600Hz, etc.) is complex and ultimately subjective, seemingly related numbers like “CMR,” “TruMotion,” MotionFlow,” SPS” and the rest are fake, viewing angles for LCD and LED-backlit LCD TVs are bunk, and LED does not mean a better picture.
But there’s one number that’s pretty easy to understand: Screen size. All you need to know is that it’s measured diagonally, and it’s one of the best features to blow money on. Size isn’t everything, but it does affect everything about your viewing experience.
How big is big enough? I’m pretty stoked about 42 inches, which is more than double the screen area I had before. Consumer Reports says that’s on the low end of ideal for a main TV, and CNET suggests going for 55 inches or more. Crutchfield has a handy size chart based on the distance between your couch and the set.
3. Brand isn’t everything
Crutchfield doesn’t really talk about brand. CNET simply says TV shopping is about “choosing the cheapest from a brand you trust,” leaving it up to the reader. And even though Consumer Reports is all about ranking quality, its TV guide takes the “everybody’s a winner” approach to describing brands.
Here’s what it says about Samsung: “Samsung is a market leader and top-tier TV manufacturer. It is often an innovator, as with its use of LED backlighting in LCD TVs, and was one of the first TV brands to offer 3D TVs and Smart TVs.”
Compare that with what it says about Westinghouse: “Westinghouse Digital has emerged as a lower-priced alternative to more-established brands and remains focused on the value-oriented segment of the TV market. While it typically doesn’t try to be the first brand to market with the latest and greatest high-end features, it competes with other brands in terms of pricing and features.”
I’m not picky in general about brands, but I was cautious about ignoring them when it came to a major purchase like a TV. I read dozens of reviews about the particular TV I was looking at, along with reviews about the manufacturer. Some people said the out-of-the-box picture quality was bad but the settings were easily corrected, and some said the sound was pretty weak and you’d want external speakers. For my part, I’ve been impressed with both the picture and the sound — and I feel like I got one over on the people shelling out for Samsungs.
4. Plasma is good but limited
There’s a lot said about plasma, both good and bad. I wasn’t sure what to think going in, but here’s what the three guides I looked at have to say…
- “Plasma sets tend to cost a bit less than comparably sized, full-featured LCD TVs,” according to Consumer Reports, have good contrast, and are great at displaying fast motion without blurring.
- Plasmas are bright enough for very sunny rooms, according to CNET. But they’re not as bright as LCDs, according to Consumer Reports.
- The size range plasmas come in is more limited than LCDs, according to Crutchfield: 42-inch to 65-inch. They’re also not as energy efficient as LCDs.
- Consumer Reports and Crutchfield both say plasma has the best range of viewing angle — meaning how far from the center of the screen you can sit without losing picture quality. CNET says viewing angle isn’t really an issue.
- While a lot of people talk about burn-in — where an image left on the screen too long leaves lasting, faint traces on the display — with plasmas, all three guides say it’s really not a big risk. CNET also notes plasmas have the same deathspan as LCDs.
There are always exceptions to the general rule. But if I had been looking for a larger TV, I definitely would have considered a plasma. Instead, I went with an LED TV — which I learned is just a more energy-efficient kind of LCD.
5. HDMI cables should be cheap
While TVs can take a lot of different inputs, HDMI seems to be the most widely used, and most electronics I own didn’t come with the cable. You end up buying a few.
But even though I bought the new TV at Best Buy, I wouldn’t buy HDMI cables from them in a thousand years. They’re ridiculously overpriced. They wanted $30-40 for a 6-foot cable. (Best Buy isn’t the only one guilty of this, of course, and they do sell somewhat cheaper cables online.)
I laughed all the way home, then went online to Monoprice.com and ordered a 10-foot cable — which can easily reach from the TV to my laptop on the couch — for $5, plus $3 for shipping. They also sell 90-degree port savers for a couple bucks, which makes it so much easier to reach and swap out cables.