Tips to Make Sure You’re Actually Watching HD on Your HDTV

Research groups like NPD and Nielsen regularly release statistics regarding the rate of HDTV adoption in U.S. homes. Not surprisingly, those numbers continue to increase. What is surprising is the little tidbit that sometimes accompanies such numbers – the fact that a large number of HDTV owners are not watching HD content. For instance, in a recent Nielsen report, we learned that, in May 2012, 61 percent of all prime viewing was done on an HD set, but less than 30 percent was with a “True HD” source.

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For some people, this is a conscious choice. For whatever reason, they need to upgrade their TV, but they aren’t yet interested in upgrading their sources, be it a cable/satellite box or disc player. They know they aren’t watching HD, they’re fine with it, and we accept that (we don’t agree with it, but I guess we accept it).

Then there’s that other group: those who believe they are watching HD when they aren’t. Nobody in the sales process explained to them the other requisite pieces of the HD puzzle, so they simply went home, added the new TV to their existing setup, and sat down to watch. Yes, their new TV is upconverting every source to the TV’s HD resolution (be it 720p or 1080p), but viewing an upconverted image is not the same as viewing a true HD source. Right now, these folks are probably a bit unimpressed with high-definition, wondering what all the hype has been about.

Does this describe you or perhaps someone you know – maybe a parent who had to upgrade after the 30-year-old CRT finally died or a friend who doesn’t follow the home theater business like you do? High-definition television has been around for so long now, we tend to take for granted that everyone understands the basics of HD viewing. But research and my own personal experience with friends and relatives consistently show otherwise.

Right now, lots of tech writers are debating the merits of UltraHD in the TV realm; at screen sizes of up to 70 or 80 inches, will people really notice the step up in resolution from 1080p to UltraHD at a normal viewing distance? It’s a question of just how much detail the eye can discern at a given distance on a given screen size. The jump in quality from SD to HD is much more pronounced, much more easily discerned in the average living room setup. Trust me, you will see a dramatic difference in clarity and color with an HD image, even from a larger viewing distance. If you don’t, then take a moment to read these tips and make sure you have the right pieces in place to exploit your HDTV’s full potential.

1. Upgrade Your Source
As I said earlier, all HDTVs will upconvert your current sources (DVD player, VHS player, gaming console, cable/satellite box) to match the TV’s native resolution, but that’s not the same thing as having a true high-definition source. Likewise, an upconverting DVD playerwill upscale to a 1080p resolution, but the source is still a standard-def DVD.

To watch true HD movies, you need to invest in a Blu-ray player and Blu-ray discs (these players also support DVD playback, so you can still watch your DVDs). Sony’s Playstation 3 gaming console has a built-in Blu-ray player. You can also get a streaming media player that streams “HD-quality” movies through services like iTunes, VUDU, and Amazon. I use quotation marks because the quality of streamed HD content depends on a variety of factors (your broadband speed, for one) and, in my opinion, has not yet reached the level of Blu-ray HD.

On the TV side, if you’re pulling in over-the-air signals, your existing antenna may work with your new HDTV, but it may not be the ideal type to reliably tune in the HD signals in your area. Visit antennaweb.org to make sure you’ve got the best antenna for your location.

If you use a cable/satellite box, you need to upgrade to an HD-capable box and you need to upgrade your channel package to include HD channels. This often comes with an additional fee; I have DirecTV and pay $10 per month for the HD service.

If you receive cable signals directly from the wall outlet into your TV via an RF cable (no set-top box), you might be able to pull in some local HD broadcast channels via your HDTV’s internal clear-QAM tuner. However, the FCC recently ruled that cable companies no longer have to offer unscrambled digital cable channels, so the days of receiving basic cable without a set-top box could be numbered.

2. Get the Right Cables
HDMI is the preferred and, in many cases, the only viable type of cable to transmit HD signals between your source and your TV. Some cable/satellite boxes, gaming consoles and older Blu-ray players allow you to send 720p/1080i (rarely 1080p) signals over an analog component video cable. Computer users can also send HD over VGA, but not all HDTVs include this type of input.

Regarding Blu-ray players, the Analog Sunset occurred back on January 1, 2011. Blu-ray players produced after that date aren’t allowed to output HD signals through the analog component video output; the HD signal is downconverted to SD. On all newer players, you must use an HDMI connection to pass the HD signal from the player to the TV.

3. Tune to the Correct TV Channels
As I mentioned above, cable/satellite subscribers must upgrade to an HD package that includes HD channels. Every service provider is different in how they handle the placement of HD channels in the lineup. Many cable providers group all of the HD channels together up in the higher number realm, perhaps starting at channel #1000. The SD version of CBS may be located on channel 2, but the HD version is located on a different channel. Make sure you tune to the HD version of any desired channel. Not all channels will have an HD counterpart; that depends on your provider’s HD package.

In my case, DirecTV places the SD and HD channels right beside each other in the lineup and gives them the same number. It makes the HD version easy to find, but can also be confusing. I created a customized channel lineup in which I omitted all the duplicate SD channels.

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Buying a TV? Here Are Things You Should Know

Smart TV. LED. OLED. 4K. HDR. The world of TVs is looking better every day, but also more confusing. Today, there’s a ridiculously wide array of high-definition (HD) and 4K Ultra HD sets in stores, from bargain big screens to high-end displays that can cost as much as a car.

We’re here to help you decide.

Quick Tips

If you’re in a hurry, here are the most important things to consider before you buy a television. We explain each of these points in greater detail in the text below:

  • Don’t buy a TV with less than 4K resolution (i.e., avoid 1080p sets) if you want a future-proof set.
  • Expect to pay about $500 for a solid 50- to 55-inch bargain 4K TV and at least $900 for a 65-inch model.
  • Don’t buy a TV with less than a 120 Hz refresh rate.
  • For state-of-the-art models, look for an HDR-compatible set, which offers more realistic colors and better contrast.
  • OLED TVs look much better than a typical LED LCD, but they are considerably more expensive.
  • Ignore contrast-ratio specs: manufacturers fudge the numbers. Trust your own eyes.
  • Look for at least four HDMI ports; 4K shoppers should ask about HDCP compatibility.
  • Curved TVs are a fashion statement. They don’t benefit image quality.
  • Most TVs are “smart TVs” these days with easy access to Netflix and other online apps. Don’t be tricked into thinking this is a big deal.
  • Plan to buy a soundbar. TV speakers are worse nowadays because the screens are thinner.
  • Avoid extended warranties. Your credit card company may already provide purchase protection.
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Audio: Get a Soundbar

Even the finest, most expensive HDTVs have an Achilles’ heel: poor sound. It’s a consequence of the svelte design of flat panels — there’s not enough room for large speakers that produce full, rich sound. So, you have three choices: Use headphones (which can make you seem antisocial), buy a surround-sound system (which can be a hassle to set up and produces clutter), or get a soundbar.

Soundbars are popular because, for $300 or less, they can significantly improve the cinematic experience and yet be installed in minutes. Check out our top soundbar picks. Newer models are thin enough to fit under a TV stand without blocking the bottom of the picture. Most can also mount under a wall-hanging TV. Several companies also offer sound boxes or stands that can slide under a set.

Bottom Line: Movies and sports benefit from the addition of a soundbar.

Extended Warranties: Save Your Money

One of the biggest revenue generators for big-box electronics stores is the extended warranty. Why? Because they are so rarely needed, especially for a flat-panel LCD set. Most of the components in an HDTV are remarkably resilient; even the LEDs used to light the picture are virtually shockproof.

So, if you do get a lemon, it’s likely to be apparent immediately or at least within the first 30 days of ownership — a time period usually covered by a regular store-return policy. Beyond that, most manufacturers offer a one-year warranty. Credit card companies may offer additional automatic coverage on purchases, so check with your provider.

Bottom Line: Save your money and contact your credit card company to see if it has a price protection policy.

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Contrast Ratio: Unreliable Numbers

The contrast ratio describes the range of brightness levels a set can display. Better contrast ratios display more subtle shadows and hues, and thus better detail. However, the way manufacturers measure such ratios varies widely. Indeed, the specification has been so thoroughly discredited that if a salesperson uses it as a selling point, you should shop somewhere else.

We use the same method for examining contrast ratios in all the TVs we test, so we can say roughly how well they compare to each other. Nevertheless, it’s still best to see for yourself how a TV displays shadow detail by finding a movie with dark scenes and seeing how well it reveals detail in the shadows of, say, a Harry Potter movie. Experiment with the TV’s brightness, sharpness and other picture settings before making a final judgment. (Hint: select “movie” or “cinema” mode on the TV.)

Bottom line: You can ignore manufacturers’ contrast-ratio specs, since they are not comparable across brands.

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Smart TVs: Most Already Are

An increasing number of sets come with built-in Wi-Fi for connecting Internet-based services like Netflix for streaming videos or to run apps for watching special-interest programs, downloading on-demand movies, playing games or even posting to Facebook.

The interfaces are generally getting better. Vizio, LG and now Samsung use a handy bar of icons at the bottom of the screen. Roku offers its famously intuitive interface in budget TVs from Hisense, Insignia (Best Buy’s brand) and TCL. Google provides its Android TV platform to companies such as Sony and LeEco. While most smart TVs include the major services, such as Pandora, Hulu and Netflix, check to make sure the TV you buy has the options you want.

In the past, you could have bought a less expensive “dumb” TV and made it smart with a streaming device like the $50 Roku Streaming Stick. But nowadays, it’s hard to get a TV that isn’t smart, even if you’re going for a small bargain model.

Bottom line: Smart capability is becoming a standard feature in TVs, so it’s less and less of a factor in your buying decision.

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Curved Screens: Not Needed

Another innovation intended to attract shoppers’ attention is curved screens — mostly used for OLED TVs and 4K LCDs. The idea, say manufacturers, is to make the TV-watching experience more immersive.

However, not only do curved screens have no technical advantage over the other sets, but they actually have some distinct disadvantages. For one, the slightly curved aspect distorts the image and reduces the available side-viewing angles, thus limiting the best view to a few people sitting in a narrow, center sweet spot. LED models also are less likely to produce uniform brightness across the screen.

In addition, some testers, such as Consumer Reports, have reported viewer fatigue caused by the curvature. Conversely, other early owners have reported that after living with a curved screen, they don’t notice the difference or detect any distortion.

Curved models are more expensive: A 4K, 65-inch curved LCD model, for example, costs about $200 more than a comparable flat model. Samsung and LG are two supporters of curved screens, but other companies have eschewed them.

Bottom line: Curved TVs are primarily an extra-cost fashion statement, without delivering any appreciable benefit in image quality. Most companies are phasing them out.

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OLED TVs

OLED TVs go one better than full-array LED-LCDs with a few dozen lighting zones. In place of a backlight, OLEDs use a layer of organic LEDs, controlled at the pixel level, to achieve absolute black and stunning levels of contrast. (Footage of fireworks against a black sky is a favorite demonstration of OLED technology.)

LG isn’t the only company actively pursuing OLED technology in large screen sizes, with new OLED models arriving from Panasonic, Philips and Sony this year. Most new models have Ultra HD 4K resolution, but a few, cheaper HD OLED models are still around. Prices range from about $2,000 for a 55-inch HDTV to $5,000 or more for a 65-inch Ultra HD 4K model.

Pros: Best TV picture, bar none; Colors truly pop, deeper blacks and better contrast and shadow detail than LCD TVs achieve; Retains image quality when viewed from the side.

Cons: Stratospheric prices; lower peak brightness than some LCD sets, uncertainty about how screens will fare over time, including whether they will retain “ghost” images (also known as burn-in) from displaying a static picture for too long.

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LED and LCD Sets

The lion’s share of televisions today are LED LCD. These HD and Ultra HD sets use light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to illuminate the LCD screen and can be extremely thin. Many of these TVs can dynamically light up specific portions of the screen and dim other parts to better represent a mix of light and dark areas in a scene — a feature known as active dimming or local dimming. No-frills LED LCD sets can be had for as little as $200 for a 32-inch screen, while a top-of-the-line 90-inch model can go for $8,000.

Most LCD sets use LEDs on the edge of the screen. The better of these models support active dimming, but it takes some digital sorcery to do this by merely manipulating lights along the edge.

Full-array LED sets have light-emitting diodes directly behind the screen, in a grid of “zones” that can be lit up or darkened individually. Such an arrangement makes the backlight more precise and allows a more-detailed picture regarding contrast. Full-array backlighting was once reserved for top-tier models, but with more Ultra HD sets appearing at lower prices, this feature is becoming more common on modestly priced sets.

Another LCD technology, called quantum dots, is becoming more common, spurred on by the requirements of HDR to produce a wider array of colors and more brightness. An LCD that uses quantum dots basically has another layer, or added “rail,” of different size nanocrystal dots that light up when the LED backlight hits them. The result is a wider color spectrum and increased brightness.

Be aware that some brands offer confusing labels. Samsung’s newest sets are dubbed “QLED.” These are quantum-dot LCD TVs — not to be mistaken for OLED.

Pros: Wide array of prices, sizes and features; Some affordable Ultra HD 4K models; Bright screens visible even in a sunny room; Image quality steadily improving with full-array backlighting and quantum-dot technology.

Cons: Exhibits imperfections when displaying rapid motion, as in sports; Loses some shadow detail because pixels can’t go completely black (even with full-array backlighting); Images fade when viewing from the side (off-axis).

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