Welcome to the lab, where your friendly, experienced, and above all hard-working CNET reviewers, David Katzmaier (left) and Ty Pendlebury, test televisions. If you think our hard work involves mainly just sitting around on incredibly comfortable brown leather couches watching TV all day, you're only half right. We have plenty of comfy chairs, too.
(These captions were updated in February 2013, as was our How We Test TVs article.)
To the left you see David seated in the sweet spot at the nexus of "the lineup." At CNET we compare every TV we review directly with other competing models side-by-side, and in our reviews, explicitly call out the differences we see. If this was a real lineup, the TVs pictured would be better matches for one another and their placement equalized for height and seating distance.
Meanwhile, Ty occupies a second testing area that we're building out this year to allow another lineup.
Most of our TV tests are done in a completely darkened environment, achieved by blackout shades drawn down over the windows. For testing purposes, David likes color bars, whereas Ty prefers wildlife that reminds him of home.
If this were a real test, the PC would be controlling the signal generator to fill the screen of the TV being calibrated with a white, gray, or occasionally colored rectangle. All of the other TVs would be turned off, with the lights out and curtains drawn, to assure the accuracy of the measurements and to allow David to nap.
At CNET we calibrate every TV we review to both establish a level playing field for comparison and to enable us to publish our popular picture settings. They enable users to easily set up their own TVs' picture controls to replicate as closely as possible the picture we see in the lab.
Last year CNET transitioned to using CalMan software by Spectrcal to both help calibrate the TV and to generate reports that capture many of the TVs' characteristics. In 2013 we have begin using version 5 of the software. We publish those reports with every TV review.
In 2012 we will began using a new signal generator, the VideoForge by AVFoundry (left, above the mouse) to generate the test patterns for our calibrations. In 2013 we switched to using the Quantum Data 780 (not pictured) as our primary generator.
A "Spek-tra-ray-dee-ah-meter" measures the color and luminance of light six ways from Sunday. This particular model is the Konica Minolta CS-2000, the most expensive device in our lab (about $30,000) and capable of accurately measuring the color and brightness of "black" down to 0.003 cd/m2--darker than many TVs can display. OLED's "absolute" black might kick its butt, however.
In addition to sophisticated inorganic measuring equipment, CNET's reviews make heavy use of the most accurate instrument on the planet: our eyes. Here, Ty notes the characteristics of a hockey game on a 60-inch Sharp Elite--notoriously difficult material on a notoriously expensive and excellent television.
CNET's comparisons usually include a "reference" TV in the lineup against which all of the others are measured. On the left there's the 2008 50-inch Pioneer Elite Kuro, and on the right the 2011 Sharp Elite, the best TV of last year. Both will be kept for different reference situations this year, along with a Panasonic TC-P65VT50 and a Panasonic TC-P55ST50--our favorite high-end and mid-tier (respectively) TVs from 2012.
To compare between TVs, we use a distribution amplifier and switch combination, both from KeyDigital. This setup allows us to feed four different sources to as many as eight displays without any signal degradation. We use primarily Monoprice cables and have for years to help demonstrate that all HDMI cables are the same.
Testing TVs isn't all lineups of TVs. Our shelves are literally bulging with accessories, sources, cables, media, and more. Can anybody spot the DirecTiVo straddling the D-VHS deck? What about the first-gen HD DVD player? Good times.
Last year we took over a couple of shelves from CNET's PC test lab for the seven plasma TVs we're running 24/6 as part of a long-term plasma test. The Illuminati has taken an interest in the results. As a result we have decided to scuttle long-term testing in 2013.
We currently have 25 TVs we're keeping for comparison purposes or long-term testing, a few queued for return to the manufacturer, and a few more we bought and plan to give away to readers. Stay tuned for more on that.