It's no secret that TV sales are in the dumps. Part of that is the economy and part is that thanks to the transition to a digital TV standard, most families have purchased a new TV in the not too distant past. To get those TV owners to upgrade their sets again, manufacturers are cramming more and more technological wizardry into their products, including Internet connectivity to access additional content and the ability to watch certain programming in 3D. All of those features add to the bottom line of an HDTV, but how many add to the viewing experience?
Internet-capable TV has great promise, and many reviewers appreciate being able to stream movies and other entertainment from sites such as Netflix, Amazon.com, Hulu Plus, Vudu, Pandora and many more. Some companies also offer some type of mobile-phone-like app store, with Samsung's being the most advanced in that respect according to reviews. Many so-called Smart TVs also include at least rudimentary web browsing capabilities.
Entering text, scrolling through menus and the like can be a real pain with a standard remote control, so many higher-end sets come with augmented remotes with full QWERTY keyboards and/or some type of pointing technology to make navigation easier. The most advanced sets also incorporate some type of voice or gesture controls, but the success -- and usefulness -- of those varies. Built-in Wi-Fi is commonplace in all but the very cheapest streaming-enabled sets, so you don't have to worry about having a nearby wired network connection to access all of the online goodies.
Are smart features a must? Maybe not. Surveys continue to report that most people who have Internet-connected sets don't make much use of that functionality. Don't forget that you can also add Internet features to an older or less expensive set via a set-top digital media player like Roku.
Despite TV manufacturers' best efforts, 3D hasn't been a rousing success. ESPN, one of the first to offer a full-time 3D cable channel, has announced that it's pulling the plug on that service by the end of 2013. That said, a good amount of content remains available on-demand from many cable and satellite providers, as well as on 3D Blu-ray Discs. In addition, more and more sets are including 3D technology of some type.
All plasma sets and some LED TVs use an active shutter technique that delivers full 1,080p resolution. Issues like ghosting that plagued early 3D sets have been minimized but not completely eliminated. Active 3D glasses have become significantly lighter and cheaper than in early generation sets, and some have switched to a different syncing technology (RF) that no longer requires viewers to keep their eyes on the picture at all times to maintain the 3D effect.
A growing number of LED TVs, including models from Vizio, LG, Sony and Panasonic, use passive 3D technology instead. That cuts the resolution of the 3D image in half, which bothers purists more than typical viewers, surveys find. The pluses are reduced ghosting compared to active-shutter sets, and glasses that are still cheaper and lighter in weight. Glasses-free 3D TV remains under development, with early efforts by companies like Toshiba being costly and disappointing. Reports suggest that more glasses-free 3D sets will reach the market by early 2014, but how effective and expensive they'll be remains an open question.
When shopping for a flat-screen TV, you've probably noticed that manufacturers often tout models with higher refresh rates such as 120 Hz and 240 Hz. This refers to how often a TV image is repainted on the screen. Up until a few years ago, all TVs used a refresh rate of 60 Hz, which means the image is repainted on the screen 60 times per second. That's fast enough so the eye sees one fluid, moving image rather than a string of individual frames.
Boosting the refresh rate to 120 Hz or 240 Hz updates the image two or four times more often. What's the advantage? Not much if you're talking about plasma TV, and marketing materials that refer to refresh rates in plasma sets can be safely ignored. However, LCD TVs have traditionally been criticized for being prone to motion blur, which is caused by LCD's slower natural response time compared to plasma. A faster refresh rate in these sets forces the screen to update more often and overrides the slower response times, wiping out motion blur in the process.
Whether a faster refresh rate makes a noticeable difference in reducing motion blur is a matter of some debate. It does appear to sharpen test patterns and certain types of motion in LCD TVs, such as fast-moving text on a crawler. Lots of experts say they see the most improvement moving from 60 Hz to 120 Hz, with the jump to 240 Hz yielding little further sharpening.
The issue with enhanced refresh rates became more complicated last year when several TV manufacturers began marketing sets with inflated specifications, backed by a little technical sleight of hand. HDGuru.com's Gary Merson spilled the beans on this. Some reviewers, such as CNET, make a point of boiling away the marketing-driven numbers to report a TV's true refresh rate.
Enhanced refresh rates are sometimes confused with dejudder technology, which is no surprise since the two are often interlocked. Dejudder refers to eliminating a subtle shaking artifact in content originally recorded on film, resulting in movies that look like they were recorded direct to video. Some love the look of the smoother motion but others hate it, calling it a "soap-opera effect," or something worse. TV manufacturers market dejudder technology under various names, such as Sony's MotionFlow or Samsung's Motion Plus.
UHD or Ultra HD sets have screens featuring resolutions that are roughly four times that of standard HD sets. When fed with native UHD -- formerly called 4K -- content, these TVs are capable of incredible picture quality.
The downside of UHD is that there's virtually no UHD content currently available. Instead, at least for the immediate future, UHD sets will mainly be up-converting standard HD images to fit their screen resolution. The result can be very nice, but UHD TVs can't reproduce information that's not there in the first place. That's why DVDs up-scaled to high-definition resolutions by a Blu-ray player or HDTV can look very good, but not quite as good as a Blu-ray Disc. When, or if, UHD content becomes more widely available, UHD could become the new HD. At least that's what TV manufacturers are hoping.
Until then, choices are confined primarily to high-end LED sets that cost a few thousand dollars for "smaller" 50-inch displays to tens of thousands for mammoth screens like Samsung's 85-inch UN85S9AFXZA (Est. $40,000) . In addition, a few lesser-known companies have offered budget UHD sets with varying success. The first of those, the 50-inch Seiki SE50UY04 (Est. $970) , gets mediocre expert reviews but decent user feedback. Still, given the lack of UHD content, there are better-performing and otherwise better-equipped HDTV sets in similar screen sizes available for not much more, and sometimes for even less. See our Best Reviewed LED TV selections for some examples.