Stump the Geeks

What to look for in a TV

CorrespondentAugust 22, 2011 

Q: I have never bought a new TV and now at 45 find myself interested in/in need of a new TV. I work in technology marketing and am pretty tech savvy, but frankly have not kept up with TV technology. I want a midsize flat screen that will give me a lot of years of use, is HD compatible and that I can network into my computers.

I have finally sworn off cable, so I will be looking for reception alternatives. I now watch most TV programs through downstream recordings or Netflix, and really only watch news or some sporting events live. Given the above, what should I look for in a TV?

S.M.

A: The flat panel TV market has become extremely competitive and for the most part, the quality of the sets available now is fantastic, said Leon Shaw, chairman and founder of Audio Advice, a Raleigh home entertainment technology company.

Even so, a shopping tip: If you don't need the very latest features, buy last year's model as soon as the current year's model comes out. There are two benefits to this strategy. You can see a year's worth of reviews before you buy, and you can get a better price.

Now, on to size. The size of your TV depends on the size of your room and how far you'll be sitting from the TV. Tech site CNET.com recommends buying at least a 32-inch TV for a bedroom and at least 40 inches for a living room or main TV. Another rule of thumb, CNET reviewer David Katzmaier writes, is to place your seating no closer to the TV than 1.5 times the screen's diagonal measurement and no farther than twice that measurement.

So for a viewing distance of 5 to 7 feet, you'd want to consider a 40-inch TV; 6 to 8 feet, you'd look for a 50-inch TV; and 7.5 to 10 feet, you'd pick a 60-inch TV.

When you're talking flat screens, the main two types of monitors are LED/LCD and plasma. Shaw thinks the current plasma sets have the best and most natural picture quality. They have also gotten more energy efficient, and most are Energy-Star rated. If you have a room that might have light reflecting off your set, LED would be the better choice. But in a controlled light environment, he would pick plasma.

By the way, as TVs have gotten thinner, their audio has gotten poorer. You might want to make room in your budget for a sound bar, if not a speaker system, Shaw said.

Once you get your TV home, the first thing you should do is to adjust your picture settings. Most TVs have been tuned up to overcome the harsh store lighting that manufacturers know the sets will be displayed in, and yours must be adjusted for your home.

"It makes a huge difference, which is actually greater than any difference you would find between good quality brands if all settings were equal," Shaw said.

If you purchased your TV from an A/V specialty dealer, they will typically do this for you, he said. If not, there are several set-up discs that will walk you through the process. The best-selling on Amazon.com is Disney WOW: World of Wonder, sold in versions for Blu-ray and regular DVD players for about $26.

Now for content. While connectivity within your TV is important to some degree, more important is the content box that you're connecting it to. As technology progresses, it's easy and relatively cheap to switch out your box.

For the most choices in streaming content, you'll want to consider Roku, says Jeremy Behrens, an IT consultant in Audubon, N.J. This little box allows you to stream channels including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video and Pandora.

He recommends the most expensive $100 version for its USB port, which would allow you to stream music, video or photos to your TV from your local network, and for its dual-band wireless N connection, which should allow you a better signal quality for the data. Other versions are $60 and $80.

Another option is the Apple TV, which retails for $99 but doesn't have as many streaming choices as Roku, Shaw said. "For someone looking to cut the cable cord, Roku is the best choice," he agreed.

Most mainstream TVs also have a Web browser built in for accessing content, along with things like Netflix and Hulu, but the interface is not as good as Roku's, he said.

One final note. The best thing Behrens can recommend to anyone who wants to cut the cord on cable TV completely is to invest in a wired network connection to your new TV or streaming device. This means running a cable directly from your router to the box.

"Streaming video consumes a lot of bandwidth, and there is sometimes just too much information in an HD video stream to push out over Wi-Fi," he said.

However, if you must use wireless to connect your streaming device to your network, he recommends that you make sure that the device and your router support the latest 802.11n ("wireless N") technology.

Send technology questions to stumpthegeeks@newsobserver.com. Include your name, city and daytime phone number. Sorry, we can't answer every question.

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