HD Televisions Demystified

It seems that anything bought today comes with a dizzying array of technological bells and whistles, hard-to-follow jargon, and acronyms. Take televisions, for example. Do you know the difference between an LCD TV and an LED TV? What’s a plasma screen? Should you buy your HDTV in 1080i or 720p? Thankfully the answers to these questions and more are pretty straightforward. Here’s everything you need to know about buying a modern television set, and what the difference is between the various types.

Philips 32 Inch LED LCD HDTV

Philips 32 Inch LED LCD HDTV

1. HDTV

“HD” here stands for “high definition,” and it refers to screen resolution. Modern televisions like this Philips can display images with more than two million pixels per frame. Pixels, if you’re wondering, are the tiny colored dots that compose the images on our television displays and computer monitors, and more pixels means a sharper, more detailed image. You’ll notice that this specific TV is “1080p,” which denotes its resolution (it’s actually short for 1920 x 1080, which equals out to the number of pixels per frame). Television signals are now digitally broadcast in America at 720 and most people aren’t actually going to notice the difference between resolutions anyway, but if you’re a true videophile like me and you watch more Blu-Ray movies than run-of-the-mill television, a 1080 display is absolutely worth it.

Coby 32 Inch HDTV

Coby 32 Inch HDTV

2. Old vs. New

High-def televisions basically come in two breeds: plasma and LCD, and each have their prospective pros and cons. Both types are an improvement over the old CRT televisions of yesteryear. “CRT” stands for “cathode ray tube” and refers to the giant electron gun hidden inside the “fat” television sets we all had before the advent of HDTVs. Ignoring the obvious problems of size and weight, CRT displays also consume a relatively high amount of electricity, generate a lot of heat when running, and they’re hazardous to repair and dispose of. The slim profile of modern televisions means a significantly lighter weight and the ability to mount the display on a wall. Consider this 32 inch Coby TV – the ultrathin design of LCD TVs means they can build a DVD player right into the television and have it remain invisible, saving on space and clutter in your entertainment center.

LG 55 Inch LED LCD HDTV

LG 55 Inch LED LCD HDTV

3. Plasma vs. LCD

So now that you’re sold on HD, the question remains: which is best, plasma or LCD, and what does that even mean? “LCD” stands for “liquid crystal display,” which is the same technology used in calculator displays and digital watches. LCD technology is compact, light, and versatile, and only gets better with further technological advancements. Plasma televisions are light and compact as well, but aren’t quite as versatile. LCD televisions basically come in every size imaginable, from the screen of today’s top-of-the-line smart phones to LG’s 55” wall-mounted monsters. Plasma screens are all big: it’s not cost-effective to produce the displays below 32” and it’s difficult to find them even that small, and a plasma television is going to be a bit thicker, heavier, and bulkier than its LCD cousins. Furthermore, plasma displays have a major flaw intrinsic to the technology: burn-in. You’ve probably seen burn-in without realizing there was a name for it: ever been to a sports bar and noticed the way the logo of their channel-of-choice remains as a ghostly after-image even as the channel changes or during commercials? Persistent images get “burned in” to the display, marring your high-def experience.

So why would you ever choose plasma? Well, it’s got one major benefit over LCD technology: it looks better. Plasma is up to four times better at reproducing color and produces deeper, sharper blacks than LCD, and plasma displays generally have a wider viewing angle (that is, you can watch from farther to the sides of the screen).

 

Panasonic 42 Inch Plasma HDTV

Panasonic 42 Inch Plasma HDTV

4. LED

Oh great, more acronyms. You may have noticed certain super high-end televisions with incredibly long, complicated names like this Panasonic Viera 42” 1080p LED LCD HDTV. It’s okay though! If you’ve been following along closely, you should know what all of that means save the LED they’ve got tacked on there. “LED” stands for “light emitting diodes” and it refers to a specific method of backlighting in LCD televisions. Let me explain: LCD screens need to be backlit because the liquid crystals don’t actually produce their own light. Your standard LCD televisions are backlit with…well, another acronym I won’t hit you with, but they’re basically florescent lamps, which are cheap but inefficient and relatively short-lived. LED technology brings LCD TVs more in line with plasma displays, improving color fidelity and contrast while using less power and lasting longer. Now, if you compare this standard 55” LG LCD TV with a rival brand’s LED offering in the same size, you’re going to quickly notice that LED technology commands a premium – $100 extra at least – but keep in mind that you get what you pay for (in this case a better image).
You’ll sometimes notice marketing materials declaring their LED LCDs “edge-lit” or “full-array” – edge-lit displays are going to be thinner because the diodes are located only along the edges, but your color quality is going to suffer a little as a result. Full-array models are as they sound: a full array of diodes positioned behind the entire screen for optimal color quality and a brighter picture. If you’re going for the best of the best, opt for a full-array. If you’re trying to decide between an edge-lit LED LCD and a regular LCD TV though, don’t get scammed: in terms of picture quality, an edge-lit LED and a regular LCD aren’t that different.

Sunbrite 46 Inch All-Weather Outdoor HDTV

Sunbrite 46 Inch All-Weather Outdoor HDTV

5. So what’s the verdict?

Look, nobody said buying the perfect TV was going to be easy. Now, more than ever, there’s a strong model to cater to everyone’s unique needs. If you’re going for the absolute best picture quality with the deepest blacks and sharpest colors, you’re going to want to go for the best plasma display you can find – perfect for an action movie fanatic and the guy who only watches on game-day. If you’re a video gamer though, steer clear: persistent elements like your heads up display guarantee burn-in, and if that’s a concern, opt for an LCD’s versatility. But don’t let yourself feel like you’re settling for a lesser design – LED LCDs handle picture performance at a near-plasma level, and the technology improves every year. They even have a waterproof LCD for use outdoors. What more can you ask for?

So, now that we’ve made sense of all those pesky acronyms…which is the perfect HD television for you?

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