Plasma or LCD? LCD TVs -- including LCD TVs with LED backlights, which are often called LED TVs -- are the most popular type of flat-panel TV. However, plasma TVs remain available and are popular with -- and more appropriate for -- some TV buyers. Plasma TVs typically have deeper blacks than all but the best LCD TVs, wider viewing angles (a wider range of seating positions from where the picture can be seen without losing quality), and better uniformity (screens that don't suffer from bright spots or color shifts).
However, LCD TVs do better under a wider range of viewing conditions (such as well-lit rooms, in which plasma TVs can look washed out), are thinner and lighter and are more energy efficient --sometimes by a considerable margin. In addition, LCD TVs are available in a wider range of sizes (the smallest plasma sets currently available start at around 40 inches). If you think a plasma TV might be for you, they are covered in their own report.
What about the backlight? Prior to 2012, the question was do I want an LED backlight or a standard CCFL backlight? Now, however, use of CCFL technology has dropped dramatically, so the question most often is do I want an edge-lit LED design (LEDs are only located at the edges of the screen) or a full-matrix array? (Each pixel subgroup is lit by its own LED.) Each type has its advantages and disadvantages. Sets with full-matrix backlights are usually (but not always) more expensive than edge-lit ones, slightly thicker and more prone to an artifact called blooming, in which light appears to leak from bright objects surrounded by a dark background.
However, they also produce the darkest black levels -- important in making movies look their best. An edge-lit LED backlight can't quite produce the same level of black as a full-matrix one -- though both can outshine conventional CCFL backlights in that regard. In addition, edge-lit LED TVs tend to struggle more with screen uniformity. Consumer complaints of edges or corners that are brighter than other parts of the screen, especially in very dark scenes, are commonplace. However, that issue can vary from specific set to specific set, and bothers some more than others.
Do you want streaming features? Many reviewers appreciate sets with the ability to stream movies and other entertainment from sites like Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, Vudu, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Pandora and more. Many TVs are also incorporating full web browsers and even adding QWERTY keyboards to their remote controls, though often with mixed results. Sets that are DLNA-compliant can also stream content from another DLNA-compliant device -- most often a personal computer -- on the same network. A built-in Wi-Fi connection makes getting to that content easier (otherwise you'll need a hardwired Ethernet connection).
One thing to watch out for are TVs that are Wi-Fi ready -- with those you'll need to spend an additional $80 or so for a Wi-Fi adapter if connecting wirelessly is a must. Also, don't forget you can get streaming features for as little as $50 via a set top box -- or you might have them already via a Blu-ray player, videogame console or other consumer electronics device.
What about 3D? 3D is now offered in lots of sets, including some budget choices. Two types are available. Passive 3D, used in LG and Vizio sets, for example, sacrifices resolution (each eye only sees half of the HD resolution of 1080 lines) and reintroduces old-fashioned artifacts such as visible scan lines. Video purists are aghast, but consumers don't seem to mind as much, especially those who sit at conventional viewing distances -- which are still far enough from the screen to make those drawbacks less of a deal breaker. The big advantage of passive technology is the use of lightweight and cheap glasses like those used in movie theaters, and relative freedom from crosstalk -- a ghost-like artifact created when one eye sees information intended for the other. All passive sets currently include glasses -- as many as six pairs in some cases.
Most other makers use active-shutter 3D. Active-shutter 3D lets you see 3D images in full 1080p. Glasses, once heavy and expensive, have been slimmed down and priced down extensively -- some are only a little heavier and a little more expensive than passive ones. Crosstalk has been better controlled, but issues still crop up more often than in passive sets. Some active-shutter sets now have at least some glasses in the box -- a far cry from a couple of years ago, when you had to spend as much as $150 per pair.
Is the refresh rate worth worrying about? Many experts -- CNET, for example -- say not so much. While blurring will occur in standard refresh rate (60 Hz) sets, it's hard to see outside of test patterns. Instead, in normal programming, blurring appears so rarely and so briefly most will never notice it. Of course, we say most: As CNET notes, some viewers might actually be rather sensitive to it. The biggest improvement is seen in the jump between 60 Hz and 120 Hz sets. Some higher-end sets jump that again to 240 Hz, but most say that improvement is so incremental in real-world viewing that it's not worth the cost bump up, all other things being equal. Be aware that in the race for better specs at cheaper prices, some makers have taken to quoting what they call an "effective refresh rate" rather than the actual refresh rate, which can be misleading. HDGuru.com blows the whistle on that practice.
Match the TV size to the size of your room and how far away you plan to sit. Because HD LCD screens have higher resolutions than older TVs, you can sit closer to them, meaning you can get away with a bigger screen. Even so, 55-inch screens that look great in a showroom could overwhelm a smaller room. On the other hand, THX reports that the biggest regret new TV buyers voice is that they wish they'd bought a bigger set. THX offers some suggestions as to the proper screen sizes for rooms with limited space. Audioholics.com takes that a step further by suggesting a way to figure out just how big a big-screen TV you'll be happiest with.
Few types of products carry a wider range of price tags than LCD TVs. Some can be snagged for under $100, while others can cost well into the thousands, with some breaking the $10,000 barrier. The key factors separating these sets are screen size, picture performance and features. Among equal-quality TVs, the bigger the screen the more you will pay, with only rare exceptions. The latest technological wizardry will always add a few hundred dollars to a TV when first introduced.
However, as the cost of the R&D is offset over time, those features will filter down into less expensive TVs, and we are seeing that now with 3D and, especially, streaming. One would expect that the relationship between picture quality and price would be linear, but it's not. Reviews tell us that finding a less expensive set that puts on a better show than a pricier one is not all that rare an occurrence. For those on a budget, our recommendation would be to shop based on picture quality first -- after all, that's the main reason most are buying a TV in the first place.
Two terms are beginning to enter the TV set lexicon: 4K and OLED. 4K sets offer roughly four times the resolution of standard HDTVs, though the specific pixel count varies by manufacturer. In late August Sony, for example, announced an 84-inch 4K set, the XBR-84X900, which will be the sole XBR model for 2012. Other makers, including LG and Toshiba, are also heavily invested in 4K technology.
The rub, of course, other than the cost, is that there's no content that will support 4K; instead, for now, these sets will upscale 1080p content to fit the screen. The biggest short-term benefit is that 4K will allow full 1080p auto-stereoscopic (i.e., without glasses) 3D. Whether or not 4K sets make sense is subject to some debate, but some experts say flat out that they're "stupid."
Expert opinions about OLED technology are quite different, however. Those who have had some limited time with OLED TVs are beyond impressed (see this report, for example). For some basic details regarding LG's model, which will be the LG 55EM9600, see this blog post from last January's Consumer Electronics Show. Samsung is bringing a similar OLED set -- the ES9500 -- to market, and both are expected to go on sale in the U.S. later this year. Expect to see more OLED offerings in 2013, hopefully at prices lower than the $8,000 to $10,000 this year's models are expected to demand.