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There are some great TVs in our latest test.
We've tested models in a range of sizes, types and prices and found some good options. We also explain what to look for when you're buying a new TV and the difference between LCD, LED and plasma screens.
Snapshot: The Sony KDL42W670A is a 42-inch LED TV with WiFi. How good is the picture?
4K to the future
What’s more hi-def than hi-def? 4K.
Current HDTVs have a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. The new range of “ultra-hi-def” TVs have 3840 x 2160 pixels. Technically this is the consumer version because the industry standard for 4K is 4096 x 2160 pixels. But it’s twice the resolution of current HDTVs – and gives the viewer some fantastic images.
Recently we've had a “first look” at two 4K TVs: the Sony KD65X9004A and the Samsung UA65HU9000W. Both were 65-inch models and the Samsung had one of the new curved screens. We were supplied with some 4K content and watched extra 4K content on YouTube. (We haven't tested the Sony, but the Samsung 55-inch version is in our test.)
The amount of detail the new screens can show makes everything seem crisper and deeper. These ultra-hi-def TVs are still expensive, though prices will drop as more enter the market.
Our test includes an assessment of picture quality, sound quality and ease of use.
We set up the models in our TV test lab and adjust the controls to get the best possible picture quality.
With the lighting in the room low and the sound muted, our 3 experts view selected HDTV, DVD and blu-ray footage – and also some still photos and a computer game. Each type of footage is run simultaneously on all the screens. Our experts evaluate each screen’s picture quality for each type of footage and rate it out of 10.
We now use sports footage for testing the HDTV picture (previously we used movies). The footage we’ve been using is football matches taken directly from HD broadcast TV. We focus on how easy it is to pick out individual players either by their features or jersey numbers, any motion problems such as blurring or pixelation, and loss of detail when panning.
What the “picture” scores mean:
9.0 to 10: Excellent pictures. They may have some very slight technical failings, but these won't be visible under normal viewing conditions.
8.0 to 8.9: Very good pictures. They’re hard to fault and will often perform well in some of the more demanding technical tests.
7.0 to 7.9: Good pictures. There may be some slight picture errors, but blacks are black (not brown) and whites are white. These TVs will usually perform OK in the more demanding technical tests.
5.1 to 6.9: OK pictures that most people will be happy with. There are no major problems but there may be some colour shift and black levels may have errors. These pictures usually don’t do well in our more demanding technical tests.
5.0 or lower: There’s a noticeable problem with the picture. Our expert viewing panel believes the problem will be noticeable even if you don’t see the screen alongside other screens (as they did). The lower the score the more apparent the problem.
We listen to movies and music to check for rattles, hums, hisses and distortion – and for how well the high and low sounds are produced.
Ease of use
We use the remote control, front-panel controls and onscreen display for a number of common tasks such as channel and volume changing, setting up favourites and re-scanning channels.
The tester assesses how easy it is to find and use any of the smart TV features, where they exist. This is reflected in the Smart TV score.
Scores for DVR, EPG and 3D are not used in the overall score.
DVR (digital video recording): We record to both a USB hard drive and USB stick. We also check to see if the recording’s compatible with other TVs of the same brand, or other TVs of a different brand. Finally we assess how easy it is to set up a recording and to manage recordings.
EPG (electronic programme guide): We look at how easy it is to access the EPG info and how quickly it updates. We also assess the ease of setting up a recording.
They may have similar price tags and looks, but there are quite a few differences between plasma and LCD screens. And while LEDs are just a variation of LCD TVs, there are differences to consider there too.
Common sizes: 42 to 60 inches
Plasma is an array of very small dots called pixels, each of which is made up of a red, green and blue phosphor cell. The cells are filled with a gas - usually xenon, neon or argon. When an electric current passes through the gas, it's excited into a plasma state (hence the name) and the gas emits ultraviolet light which in turn causes the phosphor to glow.
Much has been made of the "burn-in" effect on plasma TVs. This is where an image frozen on the screen (such as a paused DVD or game) can permanently burn its shape or colour into the screen. But most newer plasma models have anti-burn-in technology (much like a screensaver) which has minimised this effect. It still pays to ensure you don't pause anything for too long though.
High resolution plasma screens have very good picture quality.
Excellent for viewing fast-flowing action. Plasma screens have virtually no motion blur, unlike some LCD screens.
Plasmas have the best contrast, with richer, deeper blacks and vivid colours.
Screens can be viewed from any angle without losing picture quality.
Good picture quality in normal to low-light conditions.
Screens run hotter than LCDs and generally require an internal fan. Make sure this isn't too noisy.
Use more power than LCDs and can be expensive to run.
Screens can be very reflective in bright light.
Using them in temperatures above 35°C can affect the life of the screen.
Screens can be damaged by lying them flat – they need to be kept upright at all times. So you may not be able to take your new plasma television home in the back of the car.
LCD (liquid crystal display) televisions
Common sizes: 17 to 55 inches
Unlike plasma screens, LCD panels need backlighting to light up the pixels that make the picture. The pixels are tiny blinds that can be opened or closed to allow the light behind them to come through.
Standard LCD TVs use lamps called cold-cathode fluorescent lights (CCFLs). LED TVs (see below) use light emitting diodes for backlighting.
Very good picture quality.
Images tend to be brighter and screens less reflective than plasma TVs, making them a better choice for watching in bright rooms or in sunlight.
Use less power than plasmas.
Lighter in weight.
Run no risk of "burn-in" on the screen.
Limited viewing angle – the picture loses brightness and colour intensity when viewed from the sides.
Contrast is not usually as good as with a plasma screen, and blacks aren’t as deep. But they're getting better.
More prone to suffer motion blur during fast action or sports scenes than plasma. This isn't as big a problem as it used to be, and on some of the latest sets motion blur can be barely detectable.
LED (light emitting diode) televisions
Common sizes: 32 to 60 inches
An LED TV is simply an LCD panel that uses light emitting diodes (LEDs) for backlighting. There are 2 types of LED backlighting. The usual one is “full array” where LEDs are lined behind the LCD panel. The other is "edge-lit", where the LEDs are positioned along the 4 edges of the screen and project light inwards.
Edge-lit TVs can be thinner than full array models but can also have less consistent backlighting – for example, the edges of the screen can seem brighter than the middle.
When buying an LCD, LED or plasma television there are number of things to consider.
Confused by the numbers? It's not too complicated once you know what they mean. The numbers refer to pixels, so 1920x1080 means a screen 1920 pixels wide and 1080 pixels high – the higher the number, the better the resolution.
As screen sizes are standardised, so too are resolutions. They’re often abbreviated to only the vertical number: for example, 1920x1080 becomes 1080.
The letters that follow the numbers are p and i. The p stands for progressive and i for interlaced. These are the types of scanning used to refresh the picture on the screen. Progressive scanning is usually better, because interlaced can create a flickering effect at lower refresh rates.
720i is the lowest resolution that’s still considered to be HD. But a “full” HD screen is 1080p, and this is the resolution we recommend when you’re buying a new TV.
User test: To do your own "user test" take a favourite DVD (or 2) to the shop to check the picture. Try to watch a "talking head" so you can check skin tones and the quality of finer details such as hair texture. Also check out a nature scene, for any bias toward red or green colours. Be wary if you have to set a control to maximum to get the best picture.
Check action scenes – can the set keep up with fast movement?
Do you like watching sports or anything else with fast-paced action, such as playing video games? A TV with a fast refresh rate might be for you. The rate’s usually described in hertz (Hz) and it shows how many times per second the image on the screen changes. So a 200Hz rate shows you 200 images per second.
While this is good for fast action, it can produce an odd effect in slower and more filmic footage: faster rates seem to flatten these images and make slow movements seem unnatural. Luckily most TVs allow you to change the rate if needed.
When comparing your options, make sure you're clear on how big you need the TV to be – you don't want to be squinting at a screen that's too small or not seeing the full picture on a screen that's too big.
A useful rule of thumb is for the screen to measure a third of the distance from where you’ll sit to watch it. So if you have a smallish room and your couch is 8-feet (2.4m) from the TV, then the best screen size is 32 inches (81cm). If you have a bigger room, you’ll need to get a bigger TV.
The reason behind this is getting the right amount of the screen in your field of vision. Too much and you’ll have to move your eyes or head too often while watching; too little and you may struggle to see the details. Think of it like choosing a seat in a movie theatre: most people don't want to be in the front row.
Also note that TVs in stores look smaller than they will in your living room. You may bring home your new 50" TV that seemed reasonable in the shop only to find it's far too large for your house.
LCD and plasma screens are promoted using quaint old-fashioned inches. If you want to do your own conversion, multiply the inches by 2.54 to get the centimetres. Or use our table (below).
Upgrading to a new wide flat screen? The table below shows you the size of widescreen set (16:9) you'll need if you want to be able to see a normal TV picture (4:3 shape) that is almost the same picture height and width as common older style sets. You won't get 4:3 pictures across the full screen as it will normally show black side bars to fill up unused areas.
(Note: On most wide screen sets, you can 'zoom' 4:3 pictures to completely fill the screen, but that causes distorted images.)
4:3 (older style)
On LCD sets check how the picture looks if you step to the side or move up and down. Viewing angles have improved, but some models still have a dimmer picture when not viewed centrally – important if several people are watching at once.
The new gimmick in TV tech is a curved (concave) screen. Not all manufacturers are going down this route, but those that do are touting their benefits. The claim about reduced light reflection is only partly true: we discovered that while there’s less direct reflection, the light instead “streaks” across the curved screen. It’s better – but it’s still an odd effect.
With very large TVs, the curved screen does create an immersive feeling and is best seen at a distance of roughly two metres. Obviously the curve limits the viewing angles slightly, because those at the extreme edges will have to peek around the corner.
This is usually referred to in units of measurement called candelas per square metre (cd/m²) or sometimes nits (1 nit = 1 cd/m²). The more nits, the brighter the picture. TVs are usually turned up very bright in stores to compete with other TVs around them. It’s unlikely you’ll need this level of brightness at home.
Check the contrast ratio – the difference between the brightest white and deepest black the screen can produce. You'll see some pretty impressive numbers (such as 25,000:1 and more) in brochures; but 600:1 is usually fine. Let your eyes be the guide. Take a DVD with clear blacks and whites with you, and get the shop to play it.
Also take a good look at the "depth" of the blacks on various screens. Good screens will have more uniformity with their blacks and smooth gradients from black to white.
More features to consider when buying an LCD, LED or plasma television.
When checking the sound, listen for clear high notes – they shouldn't sound tinny or harsh. Mid-tones should be full-bodied and voices should be clear. Bass should be more than just a booming sound, and it shouldn't distort. Check where the speakers are placed, as speakers facing to the sides can produce a muffled sound.
Every time we test flat-panel TV sets we find many with average to poor sound quality. As manufacturers make the sets slimmer and reduce the edging that holds the screen in, they make decent sound increasingly difficult.
There's really only one answer: an external sound system. A relatively cheap home-theatre system will improve the sound of any TV we've tested. And true surround sound gives you a much more satisfying movie experience. We’ve also found an amplifier and speakers connected to a TV has produced better sound and cost significantly less than many expensive home-theatre systems.
Look for a remote where the most frequently selected buttons (volume, channel selector, standby, and mute) are easy to use and placed prominently. It's best if these buttons are a different shape or size from the rest, so you can locate them by touch only.
Voice and motion controls
Some of the TVs we've tested have voice and motion controls. Samsung and LG especially have been pushing this new technology – but the results are mixed.
The voice controls are generally good, even when your accent’s Kiwi. You can change volume and channels by saying numbers and you can ask the TV to suggest something for you to watch. But the microphone’s in the remote control – so you can easily just press the button instead of talking.
Motion controls are less successful. There are 2 versions: 1 uses gyro-sensors in the remote control (much like Wii or other video game consoles); the other uses a camera in the TV to detect movement.
While the remote version works OK and is reasonably good for navigating smart-TV menus, the camera-in-the-TV version is terrible. The motion either takes ages to detect (leaving you with your arm in the air) or picks up false positives (people in the room moving their arms can set it off). This idea needs much more work.
On-screen menus and instructions
Check the on-screen menu to see how easy it is to read, and whether you'll be able to follow the instructions. As well, look for a manual with clearly labelled diagrams and step-by-step instructions, written in plain English.
What to think about before you install your new television.
TV screens aren't always supplied with a full range of cables. Talk to the retailer about the best setup for you, and get this sorted before you take delivery of the TV. Make sure you get the right cables and connectors for your needs: your DVD player/recorder, home-theatre receiver, Sky decoder, cable decoder, camcorder, and so on.
For digital cables like HDMI cables and optical audio cables, remember there is little to no difference between an expensive cable and a cheap one, so don't be pressured into buying an expensive gold-plated version.
Camcorder users should look for easily accessed front or side connections. That means you won't have to fumble around at the back (or even worse, un-mount the screen from the wall) to plug in.
If the connection challenge is too much for you, ask how much it would cost to have the television installed.
Ask about the cost of a wall mount (if that's where you want your screen). And think about where all those cables will go! To make it all look clean and tidy, the cables may have to be put inside your walls – usually at further cost. You'll need an electrician to fit an electrical outlet behind the screen and to install inside the wall all the other connections.
A child lock disables specific channels or locks the on-board buttons, useful if you have small children.
A smart TV has most or all of these features.
Connects to the internet via cable or WiFi (or both).
An internet browser.
Built-in apps that can connect to services such as on-demand TV, Facebook and YouTube.
DLNA functionality (this lets you connect your TV to your home network and stream media from a computer).
Built-in games and other apps that might be useful (such as weather updates or a world clock).
Some form of speech or motion control.
A specialised remote (or other device) to make entering text easier.
Upgrades software via the internet.
Records and plays back from a USB device.
Accesses content from a smartphone or tablet.
Identifies upcoming programmes you may be interested in.
We think WiFi should be standard on TVs now. Why’s that? Because in the next few years you’ll be using the internet increasingly on your TV. More importantly, you’ll be using your home WiFi network to connect your portable devices (phones, tablets and whatever) to your TV so you can share content between them.
A good example of this is the YouTube app, available on almost every “smart TV” system. Once it’s set up you can easily “flick” videos you find on your phone to the TV. Perfect for showing your friends that cute cat video you loved.
Digital living made easy
Our Digital Living Guide is full of tips and practical advice on how to make the most of your digital technology. It's free for all Silver and Gold members.
According to the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA), TVs are often the 4th-biggest energy-consuming household appliance. Their energy consumption has been spurred on by increases in screen size and the use of games consoles, digital video recorders and other electronic devices.
A minimum energy performance standard (MEPS) for televisions was introduced on 1 October 2012. The standard applies to all new TVs.
TVs sold here must also carry energy-rating labels. The labels use a “star” system, which makes it easy to compare the energy consumption of different TVs with the same size screens. So if you're comparing 46" TVs, the ones with the most stars will be the cheapest to run.
Some TVs carry the Energy Star mark, which is awarded to the most energy-efficient appliances and products.
Passive vs active 3D
Our test results show you whether the TV’s 3D technology is active or passive.
Passive 3D uses polarised glasses and screen treatments; active 3D uses shuttered glasses that open and close in sync with the TV’s refresh rate.
Active glasses are more expensive and bulkier whereas passive glasses are similar to large sunglasses. So passive is usually regarded as better than active – although the image you see is slightly dimmer because the glasses cut out part of the light.
If you wear spectacles or have any trouble focusing – even just in one eye – then we recommend you try both options. Check you can wear them with your glasses … and also whether you can see the 3D effect at all!
6207 members told us about their TV's reliability in our 2014 appliance reliability survey.
Connections used for older analogue video signals. Composite uses a single cable for video (usually yellow) and is often paired with stereo RCA (left and right stereo cables usually red and white). Component breaks the video signal into 3 channels: this gives a better picture but it also requires a separate audio signal.
Similar to bluetooth. It establishes a direct link between 2 devices and allows them to exchange data.
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