Big Screen Buyers' Guide: UPDATE

Taking the plunge with a big screen television? Here's 10 questions you should be asking yourself before you hit the shops.

Taking the plunge with a big screen television? Here's 10 questions you should be asking yourself before you hit the shops.

1. Do I have the room for a big screen television?
You may have your heart set on that enormous 65-inch display, but if you're going to cram it into a cubicle-sized room it may be better to lower your expectations. There's no doubt big screen displays look great, but they're not at their best if your nose is practically touching the screen. No matter what the quality of the product, the closer you are to a large screen, the more you'll notice flaws within the picture. A rough rule of thumb is to sit between 1.5 and three times the screen width distance away if you're planning on buying a widescreen television. For 4:3 screens, it's at least up to three times the screen width away. So if you're looking at a 42-inch widescreen, for example, your couch needs to be at least 1.6 metres away. For 60-inch widescreens, that increases the distance to roughly 2.3 metres away.

You'll need a decent sized room for larger TVs.

2. Where in the room should the TV go?
Where you want to put your new telly can have a large effect on the type of screens you should be looking at. If you've got a spare wall that you think needs a bit of sprucing up, then a flat screen plasma or LCD are your best bets. If you're happy to put it on a stand or on shelving with other components, then throw in wider rear projection screens or even wider CRT televisions into the mix. Just remember that if you're planning on wall mounting, you need to be sure that your wall can take a plasma or LCD screen's weight. Plasmas and LCDs may be light compared to other types of TVs, but they can still weigh upwards of 20-30kgs. Mind you, Panasonic's 65-inch Viera TH-65PV600A tips the scales at a massive 79kg!

3. What type of television is right for me?
If you want a full refresher on the different types of television technologies out there, have a look at our Quick Guide to TV types. There are basically four different types of television -- direct view tube TVs, plasma, LCD and rear projection. Direct view tube TVs are the televisions you grew up with -- they're the bulky CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) sets that most people still have. While they are quite heavy and take up a lot of space (particularly in these large sizes we're exploring), direct tube TVs still offer outstanding quality pictures at an extremely reasonable price.

Plasma screens, along with LCD screens, are what you should be looking at if you're after a set that will give you high quality mixed with good looks. Plasma and LCD screens are also your best way into the digital television world, particularly if you're keen on experiencing high definition TV. There are of course differences between plasma and LCD (read our article on plasma vs LCD to see what's right for you), but the rough rule of thumb is that plasmas are cheaper on a screen inches per dollar equation.

Rear projection televisions used to be as bulky as their direct view cousins, but some of the latest models being released are becoming extremely thin and stylish. You can't quite mount them on a wall, but some rear pros, such as the 70-inch Sony Bravia KDS-70R2000 can offer almost as much style as a panel display at a much lower cost per inch basis.

Make sure your new screen can display HD quality pictures.

4. Do I want to go digital?
While any new television you buy will be able to display digital TV, not all of them can get you the highest level of digital TV signal available in Australia. There are two 'flavours' of digital TV in Australia -- standard definition (SD) and high definition (HD). SD signals give you DVD quality pictures, while HD signals can produce a much sharper image that has up to twice the horizontal and almost three times the vertical resolution of SD. Any television, providing it has an appropriate tuner, can display SD television.

To be able to display HD, your new television must have a minimum resolution of 576 lines x 720 pixels @ 50Hz progressive (576p). HD can also be 720p (720 horizontal lines progressive), 1080i (1080 horizontal lines interlaced) or 1080p (1080 horizontal lines progressive). The 1080p format is the latest and greatest, appearing in high-end television models designed for Blu-ray and HD DVD video players.

If you want the best television experience, go for a set that can display HD (the sales collateral on these sets will usually say something like "HD Ready"). Bear in mind though that not all television shows are being broadcast in HD quality. For more information, check out our feature on digital TV in Australia.

5. What television specs are the most important to look out for?
You're bound to get hit with dozens of tech terms in your quest for a new TV. To keep it simple, we suggest focusing on three main technical specifications when making your decision: brightness, contrast and resolution.

Brightness (sometimes called luminance) is how bright a screen can get, and is usually expressed as a figure followed by cd/m2 (for example, 1000 cd/m2). Cd/m2 is a measurement based on the light wax candles produce and stands for candela per square metre. So 1000 cd/m2, for example, means the set has the equivalent brightness of 1000 candles packed into a square metre. Obviously the higher the number, the brighter the screen. If you want to place your new TV in a brightly lit room, then brightness is an important spec to note.

Big screens with built-in HD tuners are becoming more commonplace, and this new LG 50-inch plasma throws in a digital recorder as well.

Contrast is how well a screen can produce blacks or whites. This spec is usually expressed as a ratio, such as 1200:1 for example. What the contrast ratio measures is how many 'steps' the screen has between displaying full black and full white -- in other words, how many shades of grey it's capable of producing. A set with a high contrast ratio can reproduce dark scenes with plenty of detail, producing images with a smooth shift from light to dark areas without any patches.

Resolution essentially measures how many pixels there are on a screen. The higher the number of pixels, the sharper and more detailed an image the screen can produce. You'll often see this spec expressed in two figures, such as 1024x768 (which means the set has 1024 horizontal lines and 768 vertical lines of pixels).

But remember that just because you have a screen with a high resolution doesn't mean you're always going to see high resolution images. Your source signal (such as the TV signal or a DVD) needs to be equally high -- you'll need a high definition TV signal playing on a high definition resolution screen to get a true HD experience. In fact, normal analogue signals may even look worse on high res screens because they can expose the poorer signal's faults.

6. What about widescreen?
We know that most television programming is still being broadcast in the traditional 4:3 box format, and that may tempt you to look for non-widescreen televisions. But consider the fact that almost all DVDs playback their movies in widescreen, and that more and more television is being shown in that format as well thanks to digital broadcasts, and the case for getting a widescreen television becomes much stronger.

7. What do I want to plug into my new television?
Gone are the days where all you needed to plug into a TV was a video player and your antenna. Before you start your TV trek, you need a list of what types of other equipment you'll want to plug into your proposed new screen to make sure that firstly, it has the right inputs, and secondly that there are enough inputs to accommodate all your gear. Gear you'll probably want hooked up includes DVD recorders, video players, game consoles, digital set top boxes, or even things like photo printers and handheld multimedia devices (like a camcorders). Of course, you may want an AV receiver to be your input centre instead, but it won't hurt to have a big screen with an extensive array of connections.

Check if the television you're considering has HDMI capabilities.

The types of connectors a screen sports are also important. The most advanced and future-proof connections are the all-digital HDMI ports that can carry high definition video and several digital audio channels all on the one cable. You should also look for at least one component connector (for the best analogue video signal), along with some S-Video and composite ones -- for connecting devices like camcorders and cameras on an ad-hoc basis, these ports should be in accessible locations on the side or front of the television panel.

8. What other accessories will I need?
In 2006, most major manufacturers finally introduced flat panel televisions with built-in high definition tuners, so you may no longer have to hook up an external box to receive free-to-air high definitions signals. Be aware, however, that these models are still at the top end of most ranges, and many budget big screens out there are cheaper precisely because they only offer an analogue tuner (and probably lower resolution). Depending on the shows you want to watch, buying an external digital set top boxes may still be a good option, as they can be added for as little as AU$120. But upgrading from SD to HD, and added extras such as a hard drive for recording TV shows, can push the price of a STB to more than AU$1500.

Although most televisions come with built-in speakers, the sound output rarely matches the picture quality standards. For a better home theatre experience with surround sound, you should also shop for a 5.1 speaker system.

Big screens such as this LCD from Acer are becoming cheaper every day.

9. How much do these things cost?
The good news is that big screen televisions are becoming cheaper every day. The cheapest 42-inch plasma TVs are now well and truly below AU$2000 -- street sales prices are even better. Of course these are not the latest and greatest models; large plasmas with 1080p resolutions can soar up to AU$17,449 for a big 65-inch screen.

Even though LCDs are still slightly more expensive than plasmas on a per inch basis, the disparity is diminishing. Today, 40-inch LCDs carry RRPs from as low as AU$2699. Again these models have lower specifications, but even 40-inch 1080p LCD offerings are in the AU$5000 range.

Rear projection televisions, if you have the space, may represent the best value of all. Some 56-inch models are under AU$3000, while giants up to 72-inches can be found for less than AU$6000.

10. If big screen TVs are getting cheaper all the time, shouldn't I just wait for prices to fall further?
Fair point, and it's one that could be made for almost any technology purchase. With big screens becoming cheaper to make as more and more consumers buy them, prices falling further are a certainty. But holding off won't get that television into your living room, and as long as you make an informed decision about the type of big screen that's right for you then it's money well spent. Besides, no matter how much you pay for your big screen now, it's still nowhere near as much as what someone paid for the same thing 12 months ago.

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