Giz Explains: How to Buy an HDTV Like a Pro

The economy sucks. But like Warren Buffett, you should be greedy when everyone else is skurred. If you've got the extra scratch, this is probably the best holiday season ever to buy an HDTV, since retailers don't want a pile of them going obsolete in their warehouse. But what should you look for in an HDTV? HD Guru Gary Merson—a dude who's reviewed 125 TVs at once—uses sophisticated gear for his own studies, but told us the five most important things that all the rest of us Joe the Plumber types can look out for when buying an HDTV.

You can't exactly load up a bunch of test signals and spectrum analyzers to carry into Best Buy to check out their TVs (though Gary has been known to do this). Still, there are some basic things you can look for beyond the specs, which are at times intentionally misleading. Once you've swept the reviews from the likes of HD Guru, CNet and Home Entertainment, giving you an approximate idea of the best performers in your price range, find out where they are and visit them in person. Obviously, the sets on the shelf aren't always properly tuned, but if the store is committed to making a sale—and they are more now than ever before—they should produce a remote and let you mess around to properly vet it for your living situation.

The contrast ratio is the most important thing to look for in today's HDTVs. But don't be fooled by crap like a 1,000,000:1 dynamic contrast ratio—it's truly meaningless, since there's not even test equipment to provide documented proof of the retardedly high numbers they throw out. What you can do, though, is check out the blacks. Bright whites aren't a big issue today—most TVs now perform admirably on that side of the spectrum—so blacks are the most important.

Take a dark scene, and cup your hands around a black area of the screen, blocking out all the ambient light from your view. What it's look like? Does it glow? Or is it really black? Next, how does it flow from dark to light? Is it a smooth gradation or is it a harsh step up? You want really deep, dark blacks and bright whites, but you want a nice even gradation between the two. Historically, plasmas have been better at blacks, but LED-backlit LCDs are catching up. Since the latter are ridiculously expensive, you'll probably find a better deal on a plasma.

Angle of View
This test is pretty easy. Stand in the centre of the TV. Then move off to the right or left. How quickly do the colours start to turn unnatural or seriously lose saturation? If colours shift or fade quickly, you will have problems. You want the widest viewing angle possible—that is to say, you want the picture to look as good as far off to the side as possible—so people stuck on your sofa's netherparts aren't left out of the I Am Legend suckfest. As you can see here, even LCDs from the same maker can have different viewing angles:Vertical viewing angle is less important because you will generally place your TV level with your eyes while seated, but if you watch TV while doing other things, and don't have a fancy swivel wall mount, you should try to see how colours shift or fade as you crouch down or tiptoe up above the TV screen.

LCDs tend to have more problems than plasma in this regard—the costly, otherwise awesome LED-backlit LCDs are especially known to have reduced viewing angles. Microdisplay projection TVs, like the Mitsubishi LaserVue and other DLPs, are also subject to viewing-angle issues, mostly a reduction in brightness.

Static Resolution
Static resolution is a little difficult to comprehensively evaluate without test signals, but you can kind of eyeball it by looking at fine detail on a set. If you're watching a Yankees game—one of Gary's favourite examples—can you make out the pinstripes cleanly? On a close-up of a head of hair, can you see every strand? It's all about the details. On a crappy set, you just can't see 'em.

Motion Resolution
Motion resolution matters a lot if you're a sports or action movie fan. It's also fairly easy to test, just have them put on a baseball or football game. Remember the Yankee pinstripes? Sure they might look clean when a pitcher is chilling on the mound, but how about when he winds up? Or when a football player is dashing down the field, can you see his legs, or are they a total blur? On a set with good motion resolution, you wouldn't lose those details. Again, plasma traditionally has the edge here, though 120Hz LCDs do make up for LCD's inherent motion-blur weakness.

Overall Impression
This is probably the most subjective, though ultimately what really matters. Do you like what you see? On a great set, the picture will be crisp, the colours will be vibrant and rich (aka saturated) and it'll have a nice pop to it. As much as personal taste matters, the most "objective" way to evaluate this is to look at faces. Do they look real, with natural, smooth transitions from lighter to darker areas, or are there severe discrepancies between one area and another? Some older HDTVs gave standard-def faces a waxy look. Just take a step back and think about what you really think looks fantastic (within your budget, of course).

That should cover most of the basics of eye-on-the-tube picture quality evaluation—it's not the only thing to look for in an HDTV, but definitely the most important after price. And speaking of price, stay glued to Giz for heads-ups on the best TV deals to put all this new insight to use. And if you've got any other TV buying tips, let 'em loose in the comments.

Special thanks to Gary Merson!