Monday, December 06, 2010

Geekiness a plus when buying a new TV

Since I retired my husband and I have tussled over control of the big screen TV in the living room.  He likes to watch automotive shows like "Chop, Cut, Rebuild" or "manly" reality shows like "Swamp People" or "Ax Men" while I would rather watch programs about ancient history on Discovery, Nat Geo or History Channel International.  In the winter time, he has very little to do outside so spends a lot of time watching TV.  With my publishing and photography activities, I spend much more time on the computer.  But there are times when I do want to watch a particular program and find it frustrating when he won't surrender the remote.

Last Christmas I also got a Wii game system but, again, my husband didn't want to give up watching TV so I could play a game of Wii tennis, go scuba diving in Endless Ocean, go on safari with Wild Earth, go fishing with Bass Pros or work out with Wii fit.  The only solution was to purchase another television.  But my husband balked, complaining that I would spend even more time back in my office than I already did if I had my own TV back there.

Still, I kept researching specifications so I would be prepared if the opportunity to purchase one arose and learned that all 40" TVs are not created equal. My son had told me that I should look for an LCD instead of a plasma because LCDs are more energy efficient and do not suffer pixel "burn out" as quickly as a plasma set.  I'm one of those frugal types who keeps TVs, like my car, for literally decades.  In fact, we are still watching an old picture tube-style television in the dining room that we bought way back in the 80s. (It's so heavy that now I am older I have to have help to move it if I need to clean behind the entertainment center.)  So pixel burn out would be an important consideration for people like me who plan to keep their new HD TV for a long period of time. 

Articles I have read also mentioned that plasma sets were more susceptible to burn-in as well, particularly if you watch a channel that has its logo in the lower corner of the set for hours without changing it. 

My son also recommended getting a set with at least a 120 Hz refresh rate.  Some articles say the average person cannot tell the difference between a 60 Hz and LCDs with faster refresh rates but my son felt he could tell the difference.  Although this would not be a big issue if a set is being purchased primarily for use with a Wii game system capable of only 480p resolution, it may make a difference if you watch Blu-Ray movies on it or eventually use a higher resolution game console like the PS3 or X-box.and enjoy fast-paced "shooters". 

So I tried to keep all of these things in mind as I perused the sale ads.  I knew, though, the biggest challenge would be to catch my husband at a vulnerable moment just to buy one at all.  As Christmas approached I read about HD TVs being the big bargain this season and hoped I would find a way to finally get one.

In the meantime, the old computer my husband used to search for military vehicle parts on Ebay gave up the ghost. I offered to let him use my netbook that I use when I travel but he insisted he needed something with a screen bigger than my Asus' 10 inches.  So, I suggested it was time to buy him a new laptop - another tech product expected to be a bargain this year. 

When I got the stack of sale papers for Black Friday I looked them all over and pointed out that if we could get to Walmart early enough, we could pick up an E-machine laptop with 15+" monitor, 2 Gb of Ram and a 250 GB hard drive for less than $200 - a really good buy and more than adequate for his basic web browsing needs.  However, I also noticed that the local Office Depot had a similarly equipped Lenovo - generally considered a better brand - for only a little more.   I looked wistfully at the great buys on LCD TVs but didn't mention them.  Joe decided we would get up early and try to get one of the laptops.  Since I had never been part of any Black Friday crush and remember the terrible news reports of people being trampled to death at a Walmart back east, I tenuously agreed but cautioned him that we should view it as a holiday adventure and not be too disappointed if we come home empty handed because I had no intention of getting physical with anyone to grab a bargain.

Walmart said their sale would start at 5 a.m. so we got up at 4 a.m. and drove the ten minutes to Walmart.  I thought it was strange there was no line and the doors were open.  We went inside and discovered that Walmart, that is normally open 24/7, had allowed anyone in the store after midnight to pick up the doorbuster specials and put them in their cart.  They just couldn't check out until 5 a.m.  So there were all these shoppers with full carts just loitering around.  Naturally, all the cheap laptops were gone.  So we reverted to plan B and got back into the car and drove over to Office Depot which wasn't scheduled to open until 6 a.m.  There was a line but it wasn't too long. About fifteen minutes before the scheduled opening time, the manager came out and went down the line asking which computer, camera, etc. each person was hoping to buy.  He handed out coupons for each item in stock and still had some of the Lenovo laptop coupons left when he got to me so we were able to get my husband a decent laptop. I was not only relieved to know that we were guaranteed a laptop but glad I wouldn't have to be shoved around by other anxious shoppers once the door opened. In fact, I was very  impressed that Office Depot was so organized and thoughtful.  Then we drove over to Fred Meyer, a local discount department store, so I could get a couple of sale games. 

While I was there, I was chatting with the store clerk about the good buys on HD TVs and she said if I was interested in a great HD TV, I should have been there earlier to get the 40" Samsung that was on sale for less than $500.  I purchased my game and started to walk out of the store but as I passed the sign still sitting there for the 40" Samsung LCD HDTVs (sitting on a stack of 32" TVs) I glanced over and saw there were two 40" TV cartons slid back along the bottom of the stack.  So I walked back in and asked the clerk if either of those were the ones she was talking about.  She said "Wow, I didn't think there were any left".  So, just hoping my husband would relent, I walked out to the car and told him about the sets.  He was still feeling lucky about his new laptop so he just said it was my money if I wanted to buy one.  I could hardly believe my ears So I raced back inside and wrestled one into my cart.

I thought the sale sign indicated the set I was buying had a 120 Hz refresh rate so I figured I was all set.

I got the TV home and hooked it up and was pleasantly surprised to find that it had 4 HDMI outlets, 2 USB ports, DVI audio and video connections for a PC, a couple of different composite video connections, optical audio and an ethernet jack. It's instruction manual said it could also be used with a USB Wifi adapter that, for me, would be much more convenient since my router is three rooms away from my office.  By using WiFi, I could stream Netflix directly to the set and get full 1080p HD resolution instead of reduced resolution by streaming Netflix through my Wii connected via composite video.  I tried using one of my spare Qwest DSL USB adapters but the TV wouldn't recognize it.  Samsung tech support confirmed that I had to purchase a proprietary USB Lan adapter (that I got on sale for $62 from Amazon) - a bit annoying but not a deal breaker.

With additional research, I also learned that the model I had purchased was not 120 Hz after all despite what the sign said .  I  called Fred Meyer but their customer service rep said the model I had was the correct model and that they had never even stocked any 120 Hz models.  Maybe I was wrong about the sign.  It could have been wishful thinking on my part and the sign is long gone.  I must admit I got so excited when my husband agreed to let me buy one I may have forgotten to check.

But, I also learned that this particular model had an excellent contrast ratio (90,000:1) compared to less expensive sets.  I had never considered contrast ratio and learned that the higher the contrast ratio the better range of difference between white and black.

This specification is especially important if you locate your TV in a brightly lit room or a room with a lot of windows.  As it turns out, my TV is on the wall opposite two French doors flanked by two windows - glass from almost floor to ceiling.  But I noticed that there is hardly any glare, the picture is finely detailed and the colors appear rich.   Many times, watching our old projection TV in the living room, my husband and I have been frustrated when movies would have night scenes because all we could see was a black screen.  We could only listen to the audio.

Later in the day on Black Friday, I managed to snag an internet ready Blu-Ray player for only $68.  So, I purchased my first Blu-Ray movie, "Prince of Persia", and when I tried out the new player on the new TV I marveled at how well I could see details, even in night scenes.  Contrast ratio, then must be an important consideration for settings like mine.

Reading over articles like this one  on my How-to-Geek website,  I also learned that pixel response time is considered important as well.  The model I purchased has a 6 millisecond pixel response time.  The 6 ms response time is not ultra fast but I must admit I didn't notice any motion blur with either my Blu-Ray movies or my Wii games so perhaps this spec, like the refresh spec, is not as important as some officianados may claim.  Even if I eventually add another game system, I personally am not interested in fast-paced shooting games so it probably is not that important to me anyway. 

Overall, for the money I spent, I managed to get a set that I think will serve my needs well for a reasonable price.  If  someone were to ask me which features I think are most important, I would rank them in the following order:

  • LCD (instead of plasma)
  • 1080p (instead of 780p)
  • Overall screen dimensions (get as much screen real estate as possible for your budget if your space allows)
  • Number and variety of component connections - at least 2 USB and 3 or more HDMI (especially if you plan to use multiple game systems or other high-definition components)
  • Wifi ready so you can view web-based content like Netflix instant streaming, YouTube videos, and other sites with streaming multimedia since streaming media is the delivery mode of the future (that's also why you need the second USB port until manufacturers start integrating Wifi)
  • High Contrast Ratio for use in brightly lit environments
  • At least 120 Hz refresh rate (a nod to my son's observations although the 60 Hz I ended up with has no problem with motion blur that my older eyes can detect) 
  • pixel response time ( as close to 1 ms as you can get without paying too much of a premium)
  • LED for energy savings if you can afford the price difference

As noted above, I realize an LED LCD would have been more energy efficient but I would have had to up the ante in price quite a bit to get it and since the set I purchased was for infrequent use in my office compared to daylong use in the living room, it was a good compromise. 

As I think back on all the information I tried to assimilate before taking the plunge of buying an HD TV I can't help but wonder, though, how regular people without the "geek" background that I have sort through all the confusing hype to actually select a TV.  Maybe, ultimately, that is what has been holding back adoption of HD for so long.

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