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A Guide to HDTVs

[Page 15] Conclusion

Before I conclude this guide, I want to cover a few issues that always seem to pop up when HDTVs are discussed. The most contentious of these is the decision between plasma and LCD. This guide has focused on plasma and LCD technology because these two display technologies between them make up the bulk of the HDTVs on sale today. However over time, people have come to question the viability of plasma as a display type, and some even consider it an outdated or dying technology. This might seem to make the decision much easier, because ruling out plasma means you're left with picking the right LCD. Not so fast.

As this report from the display technology research company DisplaySearch shows, plasma is far from dying: plasma shipments actually increased from under 3 million per quarter at the start of 2009 to over 5 million per quarter at the end of 2010. This report, this article and this article also confirm the strong sales of plasmas in 2010 and 2011. Both plasma and LCD have suffered a slight reduction in growth in the first quarter of 2011 as noted in this article due to oversupply, but plasma still showed a 6% annual growth rate, just below LCD's 9% annual growth rate. There is no doubt however that LCD is dominating the overall market with 80% market share, of which 35% of those are LED-LCDs of some type in the first quarter of 2011.

The key point is that despite LCD's dominance, plasma is not dying. In fact on most audio/visual enthusiast forums and in many professional reviews you will find there is a strong preference for plasma due to a range of advantages it has over LCD, including better blacks, better viewing angles, much faster response times which provide more natural motion handling, and a more accurate color gamut. A large part of the dominance of LCDs despite their higher price is due to consumer perception that LED-LCDs are "new technology" and plasmas are "old technology", a misguided view which is encouraged by sales staff due to the higher prices (and hence larger potential margins) on LCD TVs. The average consumer's somewhat outdated notions of plasma's drawbacks include exaggerated claims of image retention and burn-in problems, and odd myths such as plasmas needing to be regassed or having a shorter life span, or consuming hundreds of dollars a year in power. Hopefully this guide has clarified some of these myths. Right now the latest high-end plasmas not only provide excellent image quality, but are also bright, thin and efficient. As we saw in the Power Consumption section of this guide, Plasma also provides a lower total cost of ownership than LCD even when measured over a 5-10 year period running the TV at 5 hours a day. In short, do not rule out plasmas due to hearsay or mistaken assumptions.

Update: Despite the image quality benefits of Plasma, Panasonic has announced in late 2013 that they are ceasing production of plasma TVs due to cost pressures. Plasma TVs are still available from Samsung and LG, however Panasonic's exit is not a good sign.

In terms of HDTV prices, there is insufficient demand to maintain high TV prices, and these are continuing to fall as noted here. Competition is now intense, and although we as consumers obviously want lower prices, unfortunately as a result, the quality control on all displays also seems to be suffering as companies engage in a ruthless war to slash costs while also improving panel efficiency and providing more features.

This leads me to my next point regarding choice of brand and extended warranty, another couple of points of contention. Basically you should not make the mistake of falling prey to the "it can't happen to me" syndrome. HDTVs are complex electronic components, and anecdotally, appear to be experiencing more faults than ever before as quality control declines. It is strongly recommended that you spend some time in several prominent audio/visual enthusiast forums like those listed in the More Information section below. You will be able to determine what the current crop of issues are with your chosen TV, and read the user experiences with customer support for various brands. This research will not only save you headaches in the long run by not purchasing a potential lemon, if you are an existing owner it will also let you know the workarounds and fixes you can implement to address any issues you're experiencing. It also arms you for more productive interaction with customer support, because knowledge is power. Customer support from all brands have a habit of trying to minimize or ignore certain issues, and having some facts and links handy to back up your claims speeds up the process.

Furthermore, not all faults will exhibit themselves within the first 12 months of an HDTV's life while it's covered under manufacturer's warranty. Some TVs, as part of the cost cutting measures which severe competition brings, are effectively defective by design and may experience component failure within 2-3 years for example. Depending on how much your TV cost, and how much extended warranty will cost you, it is usually sensible to invest in at least a couple of extra years of extended warranty. A good rule of thumb is no more than 10% of the price of the TV should be spent on extended warranty, and you must read the terms and conditions carefully before signing up, as they are what make or break the usefulness of any extended warranty.

Future Technology

Future developments are an extremely important factor when it comes to any HDTV purchasing decision. Everyone wants to know what's just around the corner, and whether it's worth waiting for the next big breakthrough or new technology that will antiquate existing TVs.

Based on announcements from the major manufacturers, plasma and LCD will both continue to improve. However they both have inherent technological limitations which make improvements of a marginal rather than a breakthrough nature. At the moment, there is a great deal of expectation surrounding the use of Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) technology in big-screen TVs. OLED essentially combines the positive characteristics of plasma and LCD displays. It is extremely thin, but has no backlight and emits light directly from the screen. Cells which are not active can also be completely switched off. In short the advantages of OLED include:

  • Wider viewing angles than an LCD.
  • Deeper blacks due to the lack of a backlight.
  • Response times approaching a plasma, at around 0.01ms.
  • Highly flexible and light-weight, allowing for screens as thin as 3mm.

  • The key disadvantages of OLED at the moment are the high cost of production, its relatively short life-span, and much greater susceptibility to uneven pixel ageing and burn-in. There are other disadvantages too, but basically, OLED is not going to be a perfect display technology either, at least not in the immediate future. The main benefits of OLED are that it offers an extremely thin and light display, opening up the potential for new form factors and applications as the technology is developed.

    Click to enlarge

    At the time of this writing in late 2011, big-screen OLED displays are not widely available. Most are under 15 inches, and restricted to applications such as smartphone displays using AMOLED. LG has announced a 55" OLED TV for 2012, but with its smaller 31" OLED TV brother priced at over $9,000, it's obvious that a 55" model will be incredibly expensive, especially when compared to plasma and LCD TVs. In fact one manufacturer has recently said that large OLED TVs won't be feasible until 2014 at the earliest due to high costs and low yields.

    A quick mention should also go to Surface Conduction Electron Emitter Displays (SED), which at one point promised to be the next big thing in display technology, giving CRT-like image quality in flat panel form. However in mid-2010 Canon Inc., the primary developer of the technology, halted development for home use of SED TVs, so it is as good as dead right now.

    In other words, the next big thing is not quite around the corner, and certainly not without its disadvantages and a heavy-duty price tag. For now plasma and LCD TVs can provide superb image quality at a much more reasonable cost, and are also quite thin and efficient as well. There's no reason to sit and wait in fear of something coming out of the wings to make your new HDTV completely obsolete.

    Another consideration is the evolution of source material. It was only in 2008 that the Blu-ray vs. HD DVD war came to an end, resulting in Blu-ray emerging as the victor. However this NPD Report shows that only 15% of US consumers used a Blu-ray player in the year to March 2011, compared to 57% using a standard DVD player over the same period. While this is an improved result over previous years, given Blu-ray was officially released in 2006, the uptake has been very slow. As we've seen in the Source Material section, Blu-ray definitely has advantages over DVD by allowing much higher bit-rates for video material. However on smaller screens and standard definition TV, the advantage is almost impossible to detect. In any case, there is no contention that HDTV owners should definitely invest in a Blu-ray player to get the most out of an HDTV, especially as the prices of both the players and the discs continue to drop.

    It needs to be kept in mind however that Blu-ray is simply an evolution of video storage, just as DVD and VHS were before it. It will not remain the best format for too long, simply because as we discussed under the Source Material section, movies shot on analog film - even old ones - are actually capable of much higher resolutions than 1920x1080. So perhaps in the next 5-10 years as HDTVs become capable of even higher resolutions, a new standard video format far exceeding Blu-ray will emerge to give us an even higher fidelity source, and force us to once again repurchase all our favorite films.

    At the moment though, what is likely to occur is an increasing divergence between physical discs and movie download/streaming services. That is, movies stored on Blu-ray, as opposed to those delivered via the Internet through a service such as Netflix. Although very convenient, streaming services do not provide the exact same quality as a Blu-ray disc as demonstrated here for example. For the best possible quality, maximum convenience, infinite replayability and lack of any viewing restrictions, a Blu-ray disc still provides the best choice. This may change as both bandwidth and streaming services improve, though it's unlikely that streaming will exceed Blu-ray quality anytime soon.

    One last area of curiosity for HDTV users is developments in 3D TV. At the moment, many people have expressed concerns over the inconvenience and cost of having to use special glasses to view 3D content. A common desire is to see glasses-free 3D, which is currently available in the form of Autostereoscopic 3D. This technology isn't perfect, because it is the display itself, rather than the glasses, which attempts to direct the relevant image to the appropriate eye of the viewer, and this can limit viewing positions. As this article points out, the technology is not really effective in providing convincing 3D, and is unlikely to be implemented for many years to come.

    As an aside, it's interesting to note that 3D was a method used in the 1950s to lure people back to the cinemas after TV started gaining popularity. The same strategy is being tried again in the 21st century, not only to get people back into cinemas, but to also drive sales of HDTVs. Not surprisingly though, 3D at home isn't proving to be particularly popular as pointed out in this article and this article for example. Just as the 3D fad died off in the '50s, there's potential for it to run out of steam in the new millennium - at least until some breakthrough such as holographic projection comes along. For now it's there as a feature on most recent high-end TVs, whether you use it or not, and can provide a novelty aspect.

    Any major developments in HDTV technology will be noted here in future updates to the guide, but for now things seem relatively stable, and the ability to enjoy movies on a big screen at home is within the reach of more people than ever before.

    4K Ultra High Definition

    Updated: December 2012

    A recent major development is the accelerated pace of the adoption of 4K Resolution standard by electronics manufacturers. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) announced in late 2012 that this new 4K standard would be known as Ultra High Definition, or Ultra HD, to distinguish it from the existing HD notation for TVs.

    Current HDTV screens have a 2K resolution (1920x1080), remembering that as we discussed in the Source Material section, the 2K or 4K notations refer to the horizontal resolution. So 2K refers to displays that are approximately 2,000 pixels wide, such as 1920x1080 HDTVs, while 4K refers to displays with an approximate width of 4,000 pixels, such as 3840x2160, which is the Ultra HD standard.

    Some 4K displays already exist, such as Sony's 84" XBR 4K Ultra HDTV, which is priced at $25,000. While 4K TVs have around 4 times the resolution of current 2K TVs, there are several reasons why these displays will not be replacing your current HDTV anytime soon:

  • Price. As noted above, initial 4K TVs are around 10 times the price of an average HDTV. It will take quite some time before the prices of Ultra HD displays fall to more palatable levels, especially as current HDTVs continue their dramatic decreases in price.

  • Size. As discussed in the Screen Size & Viewing Distance section of this guide, there is an optimal viewing distance for every screen size, based on a combination of taste, resolution and source material. This chart takes the point a bit further by demonstrating that to see the full benefit of 4K resolution over the current 2K resolution, you need to sit 5 feet away from an 80" screen, or 8 feet away from a 140" screen. Even to see some of the extra detail from the higher resolution of 4K, you either need to sit very, very close to a standard sized TV (e.g. 5 feet away from a 60" screen), or at a normal viewing distance of say 8 or 9 feet, you need to have a extremely large screen (i.e. 80-90" and larger), which many people simply could not fit into their viewing area, much less want to.

  • 4K content. Aside from some demo material, there is currently a complete lack of any movies that are released in native 3840x2160 resolution. This will change over time as studios start shooting films in 4K, and some existing 35mm movies have already been scanned in at this resolution. There is also no medium that presently holds 4K material, as the current Blu-ray standard only goes up to 2K (1080p) resolutions. Of course there is no reason why the Blu-ray standard could not be revised to include 4K, and streaming content can be provided at any resolution right now. However Blu-ray discs store a maximum of around 50GB of content, which is a tight fit for longer movies at 4K, and streaming content providers already reduce quality to save on bandwidth, so quadrupling resolution, and hence bandwidth requirements, is not high on their list of priorities at the moment.

  • Consumer Acceptance. As we saw with the DVD to Blu-ray transition, most consumers strongly resisted the push to adopt the Blu-ray standard introduced in 2006. It's only been in the last few years that the Blu-ray format has become more widely accepted and is rising in sales. This is because in the initial few years after its release, most people didn't have the hardware or the screen sizes to fully appreciate the benefits of 1080p, and couldn't justify the hefty cost of an upgrade.

  • In short, although consumer electronics manufacturers will be pushing the 4K standard, in large part to ensure that consumers buy more of their wares, the reality is that there is no pressing need for 4K at the moment. While higher resolution displays are certainly nice, and in many respects, 4K Ultra HD is an inevitable step after 2K HD, in my opinion it will be many years before 4K becomes mainstream. First, we will need the 4K content. Secondly, we will need hardware prices to fall to more acceptable levels. And thirdly, consumers will need to become accustomed to larger displays, typically around the 80"+ size, and at closer viewing distances. All of this will take time.

    The upshot of it is that even if you can afford a 4K Ultra HDTV right now, and even with good upscaling of existing 2K content to 4K, there will be an imperceptible benefit at normal viewing distances, even on a larger screen. I'd suggest a 5-10 year timeframe before 4K becomes standard.

    Updated: November 2013

    There has been further movement towards 4K Ultra HDTV, not so much by consumers, rather by manufacturers. In late 2013, news has leaked that a 100GB 4K Blu-ray disc format is being developed.

    The second piece of news is the wider availability of 4K displays in stores, and prices falling to a more affordable range for the smaller sizes, such as the 55" and 65" Sony Bravia Ultra HD TVs which are below the $5,000 mark.

    The HDMI 2.0 standard has also been approved in late 2013, allowing sufficient bandwidth for 50p/60p playback at full 4K resolution. This means that if you are purchasing a 4K TV, make sure that it has HDMI 2.0 support.

    As of late 2013 however, no true 4K movie content exists, 4K TVs are not flying off the shelves of retail stores, and as noted earlier, it can be somewhat pointless to buy a 55" or 65" 4K TV, as the benefit over 1080p would be imperceptible at that size unless you literally sit a couple of feet away from the screen.

    It does seem inevitable that 4K will be the new high resolution standard at some point in the future, but for now, purchasing a 1080p HD TV still seems to be the wisest option.

    More Information

    Aside from researching the Internet using a search engine like Google or Bing, there are several good sources of the latest information on HDTVs. The most prominent of these are as follows:

    High Def Junkies - A US-based A/V enthusiast forum. See in particular the Plasma (PDP) Displays and LCD & LED Displays sub-forums.

    AVS Forums - Another US-based A/V enthusiast forum. See in particular the Plasma Flat Panel Displays and LCD Flat Panel Displays sub-forums.

    Home Theater Forum - A mature forum for discussion of home theater and movies. The Blu-ray sub-forum in particular contains excellent discussions and reviews of blu-ray films, by professionals such as noted film restoration expert Robert A. Harris.

    AV Forums - A UK-based A/V enthusiast forum. See in particular the Plasma TVs and LCD and LED LCD TVs sub-forums under the Video Electronics>TVs sub-category. - The main site is a good source of information on Blu-ray releases. The majority of discussions on their forums on the other hand focus mostly on superfluous gimmickry such as slipcovers and collectibles.

    FlatpanelsHD - A European site which provides a range of reviews on the latest HDTVs.

    HDTVTest - A UK site which provides a range of reviews on HDTVs.

    CNET - A US-based site which provides reasonable reviews of a range of HDTVs.

    There are of course a range of other sites and forums where you can find discussion and reviews of HDTVs, but bear in mind that many of them can be of limited value in providing useful information, or worse, may give you misleading or biased advice. Read as widely as possible to get a better idea of what's true and what's simply myth or false information.

    Further Reading

    You may have noticed that I have linked extensively to Wikipedia for references to various terms throughout this guide. However Wikipedia is not the main source used to research this guide. The main reason I have linked to Wikipedia is because it is a stable, reasonably up-to-date and accurate (for technical topics) and summarized source for key concepts. In the past when I've linked to other sites for key references, I've found that the links change or die very quickly and require constant maintenance. So Wikipedia's stable presence is a primary factor in its use throughout this guide

    In any case, I strongly urge readers not to rely solely on Wikipedia and to research and read widely on any of the topics covered in this guide. As well as those linked throughout this guide, the following articles were just some of those used as part of the research for this guide and may be of some interest to you:

    Frame Rate Basics
    What is Deinterlacing? Facts, solutions, examples
    What Exactly is ATSC?
    Contemporary LCD Monitor Parameters: Objective and Subjective Analysis
    LCD Response Time: Is Faster Always Better?
    The Contrast Ratio Game
    Image Sticking in LCD and LED HDTVs
    What Does 600Hz Sub Field Drive Mean?
    How Plasma Displays Work
    LED Backlighting
    xvYCC and Deep Color
    LCD-Plasma Display Technology Shoot-out
    Contrast Ratios Pt.II
    2K, 4K, Who Do We Appreciate?
    Understanding Gamma
    Ten Lies in HDTV Sales


    I hope you've found this guide informative. This guide is not sponsored by any hardware or software manufacturer or advertiser. If you wish to see more of these types of guides/articles, consider purchasing the TweakGuides Tweaking Companion Deluxe Edition both as a form of support, and to also gain a comprehensive PDF guide to understanding and optimizing Windows. More importantly, if you find the guide useful, please spread the word by linking to it on forums, blogs or websites so that more people become aware of it and can potentially benefit from it.

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    Until next time, take care!