The Specs That Matter [and the Specs That Don't]

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High-Definition Viewing

A closer look at an HDTV ad.
A closer look at an HDTV ad.
Are you ready to treat yourself to a new television set? HDTVs--whether plasma, LCD, or rear-projection--are easy to use, but far too many retailers hype them with confusing and often incomprehensible sales jargon. Let's decode what it all means.

Contrast ratio: In HDTV ads, this number enjoys way too much prominence. It measures the difference between the darkest and brightest light values a display can produce at the same time. The benefit of a high contrast ratio: It provides a more detailed and realistic image. But specs for contrast ratio are not measured consistently among vendors. LCDs start at a 600:1 ratio, and plasmas kick off at 1000:1; some sets boast high numbers up to 1,000,000:1. Trust your eyes first, and look to the numbers second.

Manufacturers crank up the contrast on their LCD TVs so that the images will look brighter under showroom lights. Try adjusting the image at the store to get a better sense of how the picture will look at home.

Refresh rate/response time: These numbers show up occasionally, and they are useful if you play video games or watch fast-action programs such as NASCAR races. Shopping for a plasma TV? Move along: Neither of these specs will come into play, as plasma technology is fast enough to handle the content. When it comes to LCD sets, look for a low response time. These days, we rarely see a response time above 10 milliseconds. Refresh rates, measured in hertz (Hz), matter for LCDs, too. A high refresh rate translates into less on-screen blurring. An HDTV with a 120-Hz refresh rate should handle fast-moving action.

Resolution: If you plan to buy a Blu-ray player, get a 1080p set; that spec means the TV will display 1920 by 1080 lines of resolution. No Blu-ray? Then just about any HDTV that supports both 1080i and 720p (1280 by 720 lines of resolution) content will do. All current models have one of these two resolutions. The "p" stands for "progressive scan," which produces superior images without antialiasing and better video scaling than interlaced video (the "i" in the 1080i specification).

The 1080p spec represents the maximum resolution of the TV and the maximum resolution of Blu-ray Disc. If you aren't diving into Blu-ray--or if you're buying a TV with a screen smaller than 40 inches--get a 720p/1080i set. The image won't match the crisp detail of a 1080p set, but the difference is less noticeable on a smaller TV screen. And since cable, satellite, and over-the-air HD video is currently broadcast at only 720p or 1080i (depending on your provider), the native content won't take full advantage of a 1080p set, anyhow.

Screen size: A 65-inch monument to couch-potato excess may look gorgeous until you put it in your den. To determine the ideal TV for your home, multiply screen size (in inches) by 2; the result is the optimum viewing distance for the set. Thus, the viewing sweet spot for a 52-incher is 104 inches (8.5 feet) away. Lack the space? Get a smaller TV or a bigger room.

Buying Guide: How to Buy a Flat-Screen HDTV

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