Judging television picture qualityUpdated February 13, 2009
The most difficult thing to judge when shopping for a TV is how good the picture looks. Good is a subjective term, so relying on the judgment of reviewers (such as CNET) may not get you exactly what you want. Then again, many reviewers scoff at the kinds of pictures that impress TV shoppers in the store. In this section, we'll offer some tips on become a more discerning viewer and what separates good pictures from the rest.
Most electronics stores show their televisions on a big wall, fed by the same video signal split a hundred times. Although bright lights, suspect salespeople, and a lack of remote controls will probably make any picture-quality judgment difficult, here are a few things to look for on the wall.
- Don't fall for brightness. Almost every television on the sales floor is set to the brightest picture settings, so try to get the salesperson to reduce the controls of the TVs you're comparing. You want the pictures--not necessarily the controls--to be roughly equal in brightness, contrast, and color.
- Go out of the light. Few living rooms are as well lit as the sales floor, so see if the salesperson can reduce the amount of light shining on the picture. If nothing else, try to shade the screen if light is shining directly on it.
- BYO DVD or Blu-ray. If you have a disc that you're familiar with, see if you can use it instead of the TV signal that's normally shown. Blu-ray provides the best picture a television can display, so it makes for the best reference from which to judge. And if you're used to the look of a particular DVD, use it instead.
- Try all the picture modes. Many sets come with numerous picture presets, such as Movie and Sports, which radically affect how the image appears. After you peruse the manually adjusted pictures, try the different presets and modes to see which ones look best.
Picture quality is the main characteristic used to sell TVs, but very few features actually affect picture quality in a helpful way. We'll run through a few here.
- Picture Settings. Proper adjustment of a TV can have a larger impact in picture quality than anything else, and for proper adjustment you'll need a good range of picture controls. Many controls are superfluous, but quite a few, including color -temperature presets, a full-range backlight control (LCD flat-panels only), and the ability to turn off harmful picture-affecting features can go a long way toward making your TV look its best. For more on setting up the picture, check out Picture perfect: HDTV tune-up tips.
- TV technology type. The technology behind an HDTV is probably the second-biggest "feature" to impact picture quality. LCD, plasma, CRT, and rear-projection all have different, if sometimes subtle, differences, and it pays to get a handle on each before you buy. Further details can be found at Four styles of HDTV .
- Resolution. In the realm of HDTV, resolution is the most often-cited spec. And while resolution is important, nearly all HDTVs have enough pixels to do high-def sources justice. In other words, you don't need 1080p to enjoy a great HDTV picture, and in fact, many times it's almost impossible to tell the difference between a 1080p TV and a lower-resolution model of the same size. For details, check out HDTV resolution explained.
- Video processing. Many new HDTVs have video processing modes, such as 120Hz (more info) and de-judder or smoothing processing that have a major impact on picture quality. Before you spring for a TV with this kind of processing, check it out in the store to see if it's right for you.
- Noise reduction. Many sources, especially low-quality standard-definition sources, have lots of video noise, which can appear as moving motes of faint, snowy-looking dots. If you're susceptible to such issues, be sure the TV has noise -reduction processing that actually works without softening the picture too much.