Choosing a TV Tips

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Do I have to buy an audio system to go with my TV?

What Will It Sound Like?

While most new TVs will have speakers, many TV makers assume that you don't buy a TV for the audio. If you care about audio, they assume, you will filter the sound signal through your own audio system.

This means that if you want a good sound without buying extra components, you'll have to listen to a number of choices at your TV store before making a selection.

It may be worthwhile to bring a favorite DVD with you, so that you can compare different TVs' audio performance in scenes you already know well.

By listening to different televisions you may be able to find one that delivers acceptable audio, or at least good enough to last while you save up for a surround-sound system.

How big a TV should I get?

How Big a TV Do You Need?

The best TV to buy is the one that fits your lifestyle. Deciding how big a TV to get involves three main considerations:

Budget,of course. Getting a bigger TV generally means spending more or sacrificing quality.

Available space and configuration. If your living room is a rectangle, the optimum TV size will depend on whether the set will be along the long wall or the short wall. A TV that is too big can overwhelm a small room; too small a TV can be hard to see in a large one.

Your TV-watching style. For some viewers, size is vital -- they get totally absorbed and don't want to miss a single nuance of a movie set or a drop of sweat from a quarterback's brow. They want the biggest screen they can cram into the room. For others, TV is background noise or a source of information rather than an all-consuming experience and they'd rather have a more balanced room that reflects some of their other interests, as well as TV. (Often, these two kinds of people marry each other, leading to interesting discussions in the TV store. It may be worth setting a budget and reaching a consensus with your partner before you go shopping.)

What are some things I might need to include in my TV budget?

What Else Do You Need?

You've got a budget to buy a new TV. But does it cover everything you'll have to buy? Be sure you've allowed for:

  • Wall mount or TV stand
  • DVD player, if needed
  • Speakers, subwoofer and audio controller, if needed
  • Cables, beyond those that come with the TV
  • Power strip/surge protector
  • Outside antenna, if needed
  • Universal remote control

What is an aspect ratio?

What's an Aspect Ratio and Why Should You Care?

If you've ever watched a wide-screen movie on a standard TV, you already know about the problem of "aspect ratios."

In TV terms, the "aspect ratio" is the ratio of screen width to screen height. Analog televisions have an aspect ratio of 4:3. Movies are shot for a more horizontal screen, with a ratio of 16:9. Converting one of these for a TV screen means either showing it with black bars at the top and bottom (letterboxing) or going through scene by scene and choosing which side of the screen to show the viewer (pan and scan). Neither of these gives the at-home movie viewer the same experience the director had in mind.

If you buy a flat screen TV today, it will almost surely be 16:9. Now the opposite problem occurs -- differences in the size of your screen and the aspect ratio of standard programming. The solution has been moved into your hands. With a touch of a button on your TV remote, you can watch in a letterboxed format (with the black bars now on the sides), a "stretched" format (fills the screen, but causes some distortion), or a "zoom" format (fills the screen but cuts off parts of the picture).

I don't want to install my TV myself. What can I do?

Who's Going to Hook Up All Those Wires?

After you buy a TV comes the challenge of installing it. Gone are the days when you could just plug it in and put the antenna on top! Your television's user manual will give you the information you need to get it hooked up properly to your cable, DVD and audio systems.

If that last sentence sounded scary, or if you just don't want to be bothered, you can hire professional installers to hook everything up for you. They may also be able to handle challenges such as wall-mounting your new TV and concealing wires and speakers. Your TV store may have an installation team on staff or be able to recommend one.

The in-between option, of course, is to find an electronics-minded friend or relative who's willing to do the job in exchange for help with something you do well -- even if that's just buying beer or pizza.

What are the basic types of TVs I can buy?

What Kind of TV is Right for You?

Going to buy a television was a pretty simple task for many years -- you chose a screen size and that was it. Today, people seeking to buy televisions face many more choices, starting with how they want their pictures displayed. Here are the choices:

Cathode-ray tube (CRT): These are "regular" (quickly becoming "old-fashioned") TVs, the kind you watched as a kid. They're bulky in the back and have limited resolution, but they still work (and they still will when U.S. television stations switch to digital in 2009). There is good news. More people are replacing these with newer models, so you can get them very cheaply, sometimes even free.

Plasma: One of two types of flat-panel display, plasma TVs are widely perceived to have the highest picture quality.

LCD: The other type of flat-panel display, often less expensive and more durable than plasma, but with a slight loss of picture quality.

Projection: The largest pictures are often obtained by projecting an image from the front or rear of the screen itself. This can create a high-end home theater experience, but requires extra planning for your room and lighting.

How can I tell what resolution will look best?

How Much Resolution Do You Need?

If you're spending the money to buy a big-screen TV, you don't want to get it home and find out you don't like the picture. So it's worth learning how the resolution of television screens is described so you can compare the models you see in the TV store.

The resolution of television screens is described with a number and a letter. The number tells you how many lines of visible information appear on the screen. For an ordinary analog TV, the number is 480; for a plasma or LCD TV, the number is usually 720 or 1080.

The letter is either a "p" or an "i," denoting whether the picture is "progressive" (received from top to bottom) or "interlaced" (received in two or more passes that start out blurry but resolve to a clear picture in a fraction of a second). While you can't see the interlacing on an "i" TV, serious TV experts tend to think that the "p" models are clearer to watch.

"Aha!" you say. "I want the best possible picture, so I'll get a 1080p!" Not so fast. Even if you find one -- and they're available -- no one is yet broadcasting television signals in 1080p. The best you can find on a high-definition channel is 1080i.

Buying televisions is partly a subjective, personal decision as to what will look best. Many people can't tell the difference between 720p and 1080i. For them, the extra resolution isn't worth the extra money.

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