How to Buy a TV

Here’s what you used to do to buy a TV. You would go to Sears, look at the TVs, pick one that seemed to be the right size, take it home, plug it into the cable or antenna, and turn it on.

Because the consumer electronics industry has your interest and convenience as its highest priority, today I can write a 1500 word essay on how to buy a TV in the modern world. That’s called progress.

The Easy Way

There is really only one question you have to ask yourself to navigate the TV purchasing maze:

How big a screen do I want.

There are various ways to answer this question which I will not get into. Most people know the answer instinctively. Now, if your answer is 50 inches or larger, then what you want is a big rear projection set. If your answer is smaller than 50 inches, then what you want is an LCD or Plasma. That’s all you really need to know.

The Hard Way

The first thing to remember about the HD standard is that all HD televisions come in a standard resolution. The best thing about this standard is how there are actually around five standard video formats and how their names don’t really make any sense. Let me summarize:

1. 480i. This moniker is generally used to refer to the resolution of a standard TV. The 480 refers to the number of “lines”, or scanlines, on the screen. The “i” means that what you actually see on the screen is two interlaced images of 240 lines each. DVD playback is generally at this resolution. On a DVD, each line is 720 pixels of resolution. I’m not sure if this is relevant to the analog broadcast format or not.

2. 480p. This is the same resolution as the above, but no interlacing. Each frame is generated all at once, rather than by flashing odd and even lines at you quickly. Many DVD players will convert the 480i signal to 480p on playback. This sounds simple, but is in fact a whole subject for technical dorkery.

3. 720p (1280x720). Some LCD, Plasma and related rear projection sets use this as a native resolution.

4. 1080i (1920x1080). This is what most people think they mean when they say “HD” these days, and it’s the highest resolution broadcast format. Note that in deference to CRT televisions, this is an interlaced format. Most of the new digital TVs (LCD, Plasma, etc) are inherently progressive, and so convert the signal internally to “1080p”.

5. 1080p (1920x1080). I’m not clear on what this means. There are multiple interpretations and multiple standards. According to the obsessed, the Sony PS3 is the only real HD game machine, since it will output this signal even though no games can render at this resolution at full frame rate.

Broadcast HD is generally in a 16:9 aspect ratio, while the old broadcast format was in 4:3. This confusion causes people to do strange things like insisting on watching the 4:3 material stretched out to 16:9. I guess if you like all your people short and fat this is OK. To add to the confusion, most movies don’t use either of these formats. This leads to people posting to the support formums asking why their copy of The Matrix has black bars on it, and wasn’t their HDTV supposed to get rid of that. Don’t let this be you.

The next thing to remember is that there are several competing technologies for taking a video signal and showing it to you on a screen. These break down into three buckets:

1. Direct view. These are the CRT, LCD, and Plasma screens. These tend to be bright and quick sharp, but they also tend to be expensive or impossible to build in large sizes.

2. Rear Projection. These generate a tiny picture and then project that picture to a big screen that you look at. The digital version of this uses small chips to generate a high resolution image which is then projected. Because you don’t need to build a huge solid state panel, these are much easier and cheaper to build in the larger sizes.

3. Front projection. Like RP, but you hang the screen yourself instead of having the screen be attached to the TV. This is for people who are into this sort of thing.

Generally, for a given screen size and resolution, projection sets are much cheaper than direct view sets. This is the basis for my purchasing rule above. A 50 inch rear projection set will probably be about half the cost of an LCD or Plasma panel in the same size and resolution. You can’t even buy a CRT in that size, and CRT rear projection is all but dead, much to the chagrin of the old timers.

The Rest

Having picked a TV at the right size, the last puzzle is deciding how to feed the TV with HD content. Currently there are several sources of HD content:

1. Live TV. You can pick up many local broadcast stations in HD with an antenna at very high quality if you are close to the center of a city with several such channels. I personally could only reliably get CBS in Pittsburgh. To actually understand how to receieve these broadcasts, you have to learn a lot of weird acronyms like ATSC, QAM, OTA and such. Buying a Tivo is easier.

2. Cable, DirecTV, DISH. All of these services have HD channels. All of these services also have out-dated and archaic delivery models, weird pricing schedules, and shitty customer service. To make up for it, DirecTV and DISH both make you pay ludicrous sums of money to upgrade your existing hardware to receive HD channels. I’ve been a DirecTV customer for more than ten years, and my reward for this is having to pay for a new dish and HD receiver, whereas most cable companies will just give you a new set-top box, assuming you can get them to your place.

3. HD DVR. I can’t watch TV without a Tivo. Any DVR which is not a Tivo is probably some piece of shit that the cable or satellite company wants to lock you into. Don’t fall for it. Of course, getting your HD Tivo set up can be something of a trial. But it’s worth it.

4. Blu-Ray and HD-DVD. These standards are both cynical power-grabs and generally retarded. Players and media are expensive. Selection is non- existant. There are also no ripping tools, so you can’t, ya know, do the thing, at the place, at your convenience. Yet.

5. Upscaled DVD. Upscaled DVD looks almost as good as “real” HD, but with normal DVDs that are more convenient in various ways. The upscaled picture will tend to be noisier, especially in dark scenes, but it’s really not all that much worse for most purposes. Plus, ya know, the thing.

6. Game consoles. Unfortunately, the two consoles that put out an HD level signal are both crippled pieces of crap that either completely fail after a while (my Xbox 360 just died) or don’t have any actual high resolution games that are any good (hello, Sony). At least the PS3 makes a decent DVD player and doesn’t sound like a jet engine.

So there you have it, the simplest guide that I can think of for how to buy that new TV you need. My advice for you is to only have read the first section of this article, and also to think twice before wasting a lot of money on something this complicated. You could always just buy a computer instead. Computers are pretty simple machines by comparison.