5 Things to Do Before Buying an HDTV

By: Josh Briggs

Kicking your heels up to watch your new HDTV will be more satisfying if you do a little homework before you buy. See more HDTV pictures.
© iStockphoto.com/mgkaya

So, you're thinking about jumping into the vivid world of high definition, huh? Well, get ready for visual bliss. The difference between high definition and standard definition is night and day. Not since Peter Goldmark introduced color television in 1946 has there been such a significant shift in technology. Sure, remote controls, big screen TVs and satellite broadcasting have hit the scene, but the quality of the picture has remained fairly constant.

When HDTVs first hit the market, they were limited to actually receiving an HD signal. That took a bit longer to arrive and the result was a soft HDTV market for the first few years. In fact, most early owners didn't really reap the benefits of high definition. Around 2004, when Texas Instruments' Digital Light Processing (DLP) made its debut, HDTVs became much more affordable. With more HDTVs in consumers' homes, programmers caught on and offered more programming. Since then, HDTVs have become the standard.


Now it's your turn. If you're reading this, chances are you're doing your research. That's the best approach. You shouldn't have to spend more money than you absolutely need to. This article aims to provide you with the tools for making the best decisions before shelling out your hard-earned cash for your HDTV. Dropping $1,000 or more on a television is probably out of many people's comfort zones. The following five tips should give you a pretty good idea of what to look for and what you need to do before you purchase and bring your HDTV home.

5: Consider How You'll Use Your HDTV

Knowing how you'll watch your TV will help you judge what to look for when you get to the store.
Knowing how you'll watch your TV will help you judge what to look for when you get to the store.
© iStockphoto/sjlocke

Before you even consider buying an HDTV, you might want to ask yourself several qualifying questions. First, what type of programming will you watch on your new HDTV? Sounds pretty straightforward, right? While all high-definition programming looks clearer than shows shot in standard definition, some TVs may render the picture differently than others, depending on the type of technology your TV uses.

If you watch a lot of sporting events or other shows that feature a lot of fast-moving action, you should seriously consider a plasma HDTV. Plasma sets are known for rendering action better than other technologies, especially LCD sets. HDTV manufacturers are improving LCD refresh rates, which helps reduce the blurring that occurs when rendering action shots. However, if you're going to have lots of people over for the big game to show off your new HDTV, it's probably better to invest in the plasma.


Another thing to consider is the resolution of the TV you're going to buy. While many people will tell you that you should always buy a set with 1,080 horizontal lines of pixels, that may not be necessary. In fact, depending on the size of the room and how close you're going to sit to the TV, you may be happy with a set that displays 720-line resolution.

If you're a movie lover, chances are you either rent DVDs frequently or have an extensive collection on hand. You may even have invested in a Blu-ray player, which has an even higher resolution than DVDs. But if you purchase a TV with a 720-line resolution, you won't be able to get the most out of your Blu-ray player, simply because it can't display the full resolution. In this case, a 1,080-line resolution TV is your best bet.

4: Compare HDTV Technologies

Perhaps the most confusing part of choosing an HDTV is the type. There are several technologies used to display pictures in HDTV sets, and each has its good and bad points:

Direct-view: Initial direct-view HDTVs looked good, but they were quickly replaced by other technologies. Today's direct-view HDTVs are smaller and more suitable for smaller rooms.


Rear projection LCDs: Rear-projection LCDs have been losing ground to DLPs recently, but can still be found -- often inexpensively. LCD panels and lamps make whites brighter and blacks darker; however, replacement lamps are quite expensive.

DLPs: DLP HDTVs are still popular because of the relatively low cost. The picture quality continues to improve and the rainbow effect has decreased with newer technology. Read How DLP Sets Work for a complete understanding of DLP televisions.

Flat panel LCDs: Recently, LCDs have become the most popular HDTVs purchased. Once manufacturers surpassed the 42-inch mark, sales soared. Read How LCDs Work to learn everything you need about these TVs.

Plasma:How Plasma Displays Work is the best way to fully understand plasma TVs. The main benefits with plasma displays are bright whites and bold blacks. Also, plasma HDTVs are lighter and easier to hang on the wall.

Home theater projectors: DLP and LCD projectors use the same technology as the HDTVs mentioned above, only on a larger screen. As a result, a projector may not be for everyone. You'll also need plenty of room -- really, dedicated space -- with very little (or no) ambient light.

3: HDTV Price and Picture Quality

The price of HDTVs, like all technologies eventually, has come down considerably since their introduction. Yet even now, you'll still see a noticeable price difference when you hit your local electronics store. Why, you may ask? It comes down to picture quality and set reliability. In addition, some brands have a solid reputation as being manufacturers of sharp and vivid displays, but you're going to pay more for brand recognition.

The most recent mainstream breakthrough in high-definition technology is sets that feature a 120-hertz refresh rate, which is twice the rate of a standard interlaced television. The higher refresh rate reduces instances of blurring on LCD TVs (as mentioned earlier).


Movie fans, take note: An interlaced TV with the standard 60-hertz refresh rate refreshes one-half of the screen 30 times per second and the other half 30 times per second, for a total of 60 times. Since movies are filmed at 24 frames per second, and the TV is refreshing 60 times per second, the difference in the frame rate and refresh rate can cause movies shot on film to appear jerky.

To mitigate this problem, TV manufacturers use a technology called 3:2 pull-down, which brings the refresh rate and the frame rate into alignment. TVs that use a 120-hertz refresh rate -- or even the new state-of-the-art 240-hertz refresh rate -- not only refresh more often, but 24 frames per second of film divides evenly into the refresh rate, and the image appears more smooth on your screen without having to use 3:2 pull-down.

If you watch a lot of movies, it's probably worth the extra cash to get a TV with at least a 120-hertz refresh rate.

2: Choosing the Best-sized HDTV

Don't choose an HDTV by the way it appears in the store, base it on what you know about your home.
Don't choose an HDTV by the way it appears in the store, base it on what you know about your home.
Jochen Sand/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Before you head out to go HDTV shopping, it's a good idea to take some measurements of the room in which you'll be viewing it.

First, measure the entire room size and write down the overall dimensions. This information will help you choose the size of your HDTV and any other components, such as speakers, that you may decide to purchase to go with the home theater system. Next, determine where you plan to place the television and measure that area. If you're going to place your new HDTV in a cabinet, take that into account, too. Finally, determine exactly where you plan to view the television from. Measure the area to the central seating position -- with the sofa or chairs perpendicular to the set. It's this measurement you will most likely use to choose your new HDTV.


Generally speaking, the closer you get to most television sets, the more the picture appears to deteriorate. The human eye picks up imperfections when you're up close. With an HDTV, however, you can sit closer and not lose the picture quality that you would watching a standard-definition set.

Why is this important? When you get into the expansive world of a big-box retail store, the HDTVs appear much smaller. If you pick one on the fly, you may end up with a gigantic set which won't look right in your home watching environment.

You can find a cheat sheet at CNET that will help you when you go shopping.

1: Get the Necessary HDTV Accessories

An HDMI cable is something you may need if your HDTV doesn't come with one.
An HDMI cable is something you may need if your HDTV doesn't come with one.
© iStockphoto/mgouw

As it stands, you can receive high-definition programming one of two ways: You can pay for it through a local cable television provider or satellite service such as DirecTV or DISH Network -- or you can receive it free over the air (FOTA). If you choose to receive FOTA signals, you need a powerful antenna to attach to one of the coaxial connectors on the back of the HDTV.

If you choose a satellite or cable service, you'll still need a few things before you can view HDTV. For one, you'll need either an HDMI or component video cable to plug your set-top box into the HDTV. You cannot receive an HD signal from a set-top box through any other type of cable including composite video, S-video or RG-59 (standard coaxial) cable. The other thing to consider is whether or not the HDTV has a built in HD tuner. Most newer HDTVs typically do. If the one you're considering doesn't, you'll need to purchase one. Again, this can be solved by your cable or satellite set-top box most of the time.


Talk to your cable or satellite installer before hand to determine if you need to buy either a HDMI or component video cable. Most installers provide them, sometimes at an additional cost. Once you have everything you need, you're ready to enjoy the world of high definition.

For more information about high-definition TV and other related topics, tune in to the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • CNET. "Size Up Your TV Screen." Ultimate HDTV Buying Guide. Feb. 13, 2009. (Dec. 4, 2009)http://www.cnet.com/hdtv-viewing-distance/
  • Katzmaier, David. CNET. "Four styles of HDTV." Feb. 20, 2009. (Aug. 1, 2009) http://www.cnet.com/1990-7874_1-5108854-1.html
  • Patterson, Ben. CNET. "HDTV programming compared." May 14, 2008. (August 1, 2009) http://www.cnet.com/1990-7874_1-5108854-1.html
  • Yahoo Tech. "Philips preps wider-than-wide, 21:9 LCD HDTV". Jan. 19, 2009. (Aug 3, 2009) http://tech.yahoo.com/blogs/patterson/34233