So you want to buy a new big-screen HDTV for your home. Where do you start? You have so many options, features, and specifications to choose from that it can be confusing. And since you're likely to keep this set for at least the next five years, you want to make a smart choice that you can live with for a long time.

In this HDTV buying guide, we'll break the process down into some simple steps that will help you pinpoint the best HDTV for your needs and budget.

You must first choose between plasma and LCD technology. You also need to determine what size to buy.

You may also have to think about resolution, but that will depend on the size you're considering. If you're buying a set with a screen that's 35in or smaller, you may find 720p models available, but sets measuring 40in or larger will almost all be 1080p. The difference is that the 1080p sets have more pixels that make up the image; they are thus capable of providing the highest detail possible. If you're viewing a smaller screen from a distance, you'll be too far away to notice the added detail of a 1080p set, so in many cases 720p will be just fine for smaller TVs.

Flat-panel HDTV technologies

You have two technology choices: LCD and plasma. (Note that in spite of what some manufacturers would have you think, 'LED TVs' are not a different technology; they are simply LCD TVs with LED backlights.) The two approaches differ in the way that they create an image on the screen. LCD sets use a bright backlight that shines through a layer of liquid crystals, which move to transmit or block the light. Plasma sets, on the other hand, use an electrical charge to make a gas give off ultraviolet light, which in turn causes phosphors to glow - basically the same process that a typical fluorescent lamp uses.

Another alternative, rear-projection (DLP) TV, exists, but we're not discussing such sets here. Rear-projection models can offer incredible value - especially when you're looking at sizes of 60in or larger - but they're not popular because they're bulkier than flat panels. And flat panels are now available in comparable sizes.

NEXT PAGE: Selecting the right size

  1. We help you uncover what the specs mean
  2. Selecting the right size
  3. More on budgets
  4. Making sense of specifications
  5. 3D support
  6. Video connections
  7. LED backlight
  8. Shopping tips

Before you drop hundreds or thousands of pounds on the wrong flat-panel HDTV set, read our comprehensive breakdown of everything you need to know. Find out what features to consider and what the specs mean.

Selecting the right HDTV size

All HDTVs are 'wide format', which means that their proportion resembles that of a movie screen more than that of a traditional, standard-definition TV screen. In technical terms, the widescreen aspect ratio is 16:9 - for every 16 units of width, the screen is 9 units tall - while standard-definition screens have a 4:3 aspect ratio. The widescreen format should fill more of your field of view, much as a cinema screen does. As a result, the answer to the question 'How big a screen do you need?' is probably 'Bigger than you think'.

If you decide that you can get by with an HDTV smaller than 40in, you're limited to buying an LCD HDTV; plasma screens are not efficient to manufacture at sizes below 42in. If you're setting your sights on something larger, however, you have to choose between plasma and LCD. To make that decision, you need to consider other factors.

What kind of HDTV: plasma or LCD?

If your budget is tight and you want a set larger than 40in, you'll probably get the best deal on a plasma screen because such models cost less to make in large sizes than LCDs do (though the difference is shrinking all the time). Fewer companies offer plasma now, but you can still find good-quality models at prices that often beat the cost of LCD sets of the same size, especially in the 50in-and-larger range.

But what if your budget gives you a bit more leeway? How can you pick between LCD and plasma models? One way is to compare the specifications and features, but you should consider some other fundamental issues as well, since the two technologies have different pros and cons.

Plasma televisions continue to have an advantage in reproducing blacks. LCDs continue to enjoy an edge over plasma sets in brightness - which makes LCDs better suited for well-lit environments.

In general, LCDs produce a brighter image, so they are less likely to look washed out in a room with bright ambient lighting. (This is why LCDs sometimes look better than plasmas do in the well-lit showrooms of large stores.) On the other hand, plasmas tend to generate deeper blacks, which should result in better image quality in darkened rooms.

These generalisations don't always apply, however. While plasma sets can have rather reflective screens, we've tested an LED HDTV with a glass screen that is just as reflective, if not more so, than your average plasma display, and plasma manufacturers are always using different screens and coatings to reduce reflection as much as possible.

NEXT PAGE: More on budgets

  1. We help you uncover what the specs mean
  2. Selecting the right size
  3. More on budgets
  4. Making sense of specifications
  5. 3D support
  6. Video connections
  7. LED backlight
  8. Shopping tips

Before you drop hundreds or thousands of pounds on the wrong flat-panel HDTV set, read our comprehensive breakdown of everything you need to know. Find out what features to consider and what the specs mean.

Early plasmas had a problem with images becoming permanently burned into the screen. The latest plasma sets are no longer susceptible to permanent damage, but such image echoes can persist for as long as a few hours before fading away. If you tend to leave the television on for hours at a time on the same channel, you may want to select an LCD instead.

The nature of LCDs makes that technology prone to motion blurring. To create an image, the LCD's tiny, cylindrical molecules of liquid crystal material respond to electrical charges and move to either transmit or block the light from the panel's backlight. Making the molecules move takes time, however, and if they don't move quickly enough, they can produce motion blur on the screen. This effect can be most noticeable during sporting events when you're trying to follow a small object on the screen, such as a tennis ball.

Generally it isn't a problem for typical film or TV programme images. Some LCDs now have higher refresh rates of 120Hz or 240Hz, designed to reduce motion blur.

Note that some TVs are advertised as 'LED TVs'. This is not a new type of TV; it's simply an LCD panel that uses LED as its backlight instead of the traditional fluorescent tubes. We've found that LEDs often can produce a better image than older CCFL LCD TVs, but it's largely dependent on the individual model.

LCDs tend to have the advantage in physical dimensions, as they are typically thinner and lighter than plasmas of the same size, especially the edge-lit LED sets, which are often less than an inch thick. LCDs also tend to consume less electricity than plasmas of the same size do. The difference in power consumption can be difficult to assess, however, and some plasmas using newer display technologies can compete well with LCDs in this respect (and the comparison changes yet again if you factor in LED LCDs, which consume the least energy of all).

Though a plasma screen uses almost no power when it's showing a black screen, an LCD uses about the same amount of energy whether the screen is all black or all white - so its power consumption will depend on what you watch.

NEXT PAGE: Making sense of specifications

  1. We help you uncover what the specs mean
  2. Selecting the right size
  3. More on budgets
  4. Making sense of specifications
  5. 3D support
  6. Video connections
  7. LED backlight
  8. Shopping tips

Before you drop hundreds or thousands of pounds on the wrong flat-panel HDTV set, read our comprehensive breakdown of everything you need to know. Find out what features to consider and what the specs mean.

Making sense of the specifications

Whether you're buying your first HDTV or replacing an older model, you'll find all sorts of new specifications and features to consider when shopping. Some of these apply to both LCD and plasma sets, while others are significant for LCDs in particular. Here's a quick overview of the different choices and what they may mean for you.

Resolution
Almost all sets 40in or larger have 1080p resolution, which is 1920x1080 pixels. The 1080p resolution will give you the maximum detail available for almost all HD content. For some smaller HDTV sizes, 1366x768 pixels is often a lower-cost choice, but a 720p set has to scale 1080p images down to match its native resolution. This interpolation may introduce imaging artefacts, and the image may not appear quite as sharp or have the depth of the picture on a 1080p set.

While 720p models are available in many sizes as a lower-cost option, they remain prevalent in the 40in-or-smaller category. If you're shopping for a small HDTV, expect to pay about a 20 to 25 percent premium (as of the time of writing) for a 1080p set over a 720p set. All else being equal, we recommend that you pick a 1080p model, which will better match much of the content you can now get from broadcast, streaming and satellite services, and will match the native resolution of a Blu-ray Disc player.

Contrast
This spec (also known as 'Contrast Ratio') refers to the difference between the darkest images and the lightest images that a screen can produce; in general, it is determined by how dark the blacks are. Contrast is probably the most important factor in determining image quality after resolution. If the blacks are grey and the contrast is lower, the whole image can look washed out. If the blacks are deep and strong, however, the image will look sharper and the colours will pop.

Unfortunately, manufacturers' methods for measuring and specifying contrast are almost useless for helping you predict how the screen will look. Manufacturers use full-screen measurements, all black and all white, in a darkened room. An all-black or all-white screen is not what people watch, and in computer terms it conveys precisely zero bits of information.

When you have actual content on the screen, you get internal reflections, ambient lighting effects, and other optical crosstalk that results in the light from one section of an image affecting the light levels of another. Basically, pay attention to the contrast with your eyes, but don't worry about the reported 'Contrast Ratio' spec.

Internet connectivity
These days, most big-brand HDTVs offer the ability to connect to your home network's router - either through a cable or wirelessly - so that you can view content stored on the computers on your network and access content from the internet if you have broadband service. Different sets have different features, such as Amazon, Netflix, or YouTube, so if you want a particular service, make sure that it's included before you commit to an HDTV - or find a Blu-ray player or media streaming set-top box that has the service you want.

Manufacturers are adding new services all the time, even to their existing models, so it pays to get the latest information. Note that if you use a wireless connection, 802.11n will give you the fastest performance.

NEXT PAGE: 3D support

  1. We help you uncover what the specs mean
  2. Selecting the right size
  3. More on budgets
  4. Making sense of specifications
  5. 3D support
  6. Video connections
  7. LED backlight
  8. Shopping tips

Before you drop hundreds or thousands of pounds on the wrong flat-panel HDTV set, read our comprehensive breakdown of everything you need to know. Find out what features to consider and what the specs mean.

3D support
By now, each of the major manufacturers has a fairly wide range of 3D TVs on the market at various price points. For most prospective TV buyers, 3D isn't a necessity quite yet simply because there isn't enough 3D content out there yet. That said, if you're intrigued by Sky's 3D channel or simply want to future-proof your TV, there's a few things you should know about 3D before you pull out your credit card.

Active shutter or passive 3D? There are currently two types of 3D glasses technology found in HDTVs right now: 'Active shutter' and 'polarised' or 'passive'.

Active-shutter glasses are more expensive (often about £100/pair) and a bit heavier, since they're actually two small LCD screens that alternately dim each 'lens' in sync with the TV by way of an infrared emitter so you can see a 3D image. Polarised glasses, on the other hand, are the kind you'll find in 3D cinemas - in fact, some TVs will even work with the exact same glasses from the cinema (which you were supposed to return, by the way). They're cheaper, lighter, and easier to wear, but they technically don't provide as high-quality an image since each lens blocks out some of the light to create the 3D image. (Whether the difference in image quality is significant or not is still up for debate, as the passive 3D sets are still making their way into the market.)

What are you going to watch? There isn't much 3D video out there at the moment. Sky offers a dedicated channel and other providers including Virgin have a 3D film rental service but otherwise you're pretty much limited to what's on the 3D Blu-ray market. Also, keep in mind that 3D TV manufacturers are still scooping up hot 3D Blu-ray movies for their 3D 'starter kit' bundles, which means that you can't buy the 3D version of Avatar on Blu-ray without shelling out for the two pairs of Panasonic 3D glasses - which won't work with anything but a Panasonic 3D TV.

Don't wait for glasses-free 3D TV. While we've seen some pretty promising prototypes over the years, the fact is that right now, glasses-free 3D is far too expensive and limited to implement in consumer-friendly HDTVs. If you're pondering getting a 3D TV, don't worry about glasses-free 3D TVs coming in a year or two - they're looking like they're at least five years, maybe up to 10 years away.

Yes, you can watch 2D TV. The only difference between a 2D and 3D TV is that the 3D model has a display mode that lets you use the included 3D glasses with the TV. You don't need to watch everything with the 3D glasses, though some TVs do support 2D-to-3D upconverting if you want to watch everything in 3D. (The upconverting isn't particularly impressive yet, though.)

NEXT PAGE: Video connections

  1. We help you uncover what the specs mean
  2. Selecting the right size
  3. More on budgets
  4. Making sense of specifications
  5. 3D support
  6. Video connections
  7. LED backlight
  8. Shopping tips

Before you drop hundreds or thousands of pounds on the wrong flat-panel HDTV set, read our comprehensive breakdown of everything you need to know. Find out what features to consider and what the specs mean.

Video connections
You have to get the image from your disc player or set-top box into the TV set, and to do so you need to use a video connection. Only three connectors - HDMI, component video and VGA - can deliver HD-resolution images, and of those only HDMI is capable of providing full 1080p HD over an HDCP-protected connection.

  • HDMI: This is a digital connection, so it delivers the image data exactly as the player or set-top box sends it. HDMI can also carry sound - eliminating the need for extra cables - and it may let you control more than one device with a single click of the remote. The newest version of HDMI is 1.4, which adds more features such as the ability to carry a network connection, but it is not yet available on many devices. HDMI is definitely the connection of choice, as it gives you the most accurate transfer of the image data, and it also supports the HDCP copy-protection features that can help guarantee that you get the best-quality image from your source. One note: Making HDMI cables doesn't involve a lot of magic - a £10 cable bought on the internet is likely to perform just as well as an £80 cable purchased in some shops. Try a cheap cable first, and if it works, you're done. If it doesn't, you can then try a more expensive cable to see if it solves the problem.
  • Component video: This connection relies on three separate RCA connectors, marked red, green and blue. An analogue connection, it can handle 1080p signals, but it cannot carry the HDCP copy-protection signal required for some devices. In theory, it may not be as good as a digital connection - especially over a long distance - but you're not likely to notice the difference.
  • VGA: This label is a misnomer, but it refers to the d-Sub 15 connector that computers use to make an analogue connection to a display. In many ways, it's similar to the component video connection. Often it's the easiest way to link a computer to your HDTV. This connection can handle up to 1080p resolution HD.

In addition to those three connectors, you are also likely to find two others: S-Video and composite video. They can carry only standard-definition video images, typically from older devices such as a DVD player, a camcorder, or a VCR. Depending on how you set your HDTV, it can scale standard-def images up to HD (interpolation).

  • S-Video: This is a round DIN connector that offers slightly better quality than composite video connections do.
  • Composite video: This is a single RCA plug, typically yellow. Cables with this plug often also have the standard red and white RCA plugs for stereo audio channels.

How many connections do you need? Most HDTVs today offer at least three HDMI connectors, while many provide four, and some have even more. Get as many HDMI connections as you can; doing so will allow you the most flexibility in attaching devices. For instance, you'll probably want to connect a set-top PVR, a Blu-ray player, a camcorder, or a media streaming box, which links a hard drive and your network to your TV for displaying media content. If possible, use HDMI for your high-definition connections, and try to buy an HDTV that has one more connector than you currently need, to allow for the future expansion of your home entertainment system.

If you have too few HDMI ports on your set, you can always add a switch that will multiply how many devices you can connect to a single input on your HDTV; but this device adds a level of complexity and one more remote control to keep track of.

NEXT PAGE: LED backlight

  1. We help you uncover what the specs mean
  2. Selecting the right size
  3. More on budgets
  4. Making sense of specifications
  5. 3D support
  6. Video connections
  7. LED backlight
  8. Shopping tips

Before you drop hundreds or thousands of pounds on the wrong flat-panel HDTV set, read our comprehensive breakdown of everything you need to know. Find out what features to consider and what the specs mean.

LED backlight
'LED' TVs are LCD TVs with an LED backlight instead of a standard fluorescent backlight. LEDs consume less power and produce better colour response than traditional backlights do, and they also make it possible to create a much thinner LCD TV.

Dynamic backlight or local dimming
Some LCD TVs with LED backlights have the LEDs in a matrix behind the LCD panel, as opposed to other designs that put the LEDs along the edge of the panel to make a thinner TV set. It is possible to turn the LEDs in some sections down or even off, independently of the rest of the backlight. This means that the set can lower the backlight for portions of an image that are dimmer and do not need the backlight's full power. The result is that the set can increase the contrast significantly, as well as save energy.

120Hz refresh rate
A set running at the 120Hz rate takes the normal 60 images per second from the video signal and creates an intermediate image between every pair to create 120 images per second. This increase in refresh rate can help reduce motion blurring in LCD TVs.

240Hz refresh rate
Some sets double the 120Hz approach, creating three intermediate images per pair of frames. Other models simply use the 120 frames but flash the backlight two times per frame. Both of these approaches are intended to reduce motion blur even more, but you are not likely to notice the difference.

Energy Star logo
These indicate the TV complies with energy-consumption standards for appliances and consumer electronics. The current standard is Energy Star 4.0. Manufacturers are eager to promote a TV's energy-efficient status, so it's a safe bet that sets with the Energy Star logo will consume less power than ones without.

Automatic brightness control
This function will adjust the brightness of your set's image depending on the amount of light in the room; it can be a significant power-saving feature.

Automatic volume levelling
This feature will reduce the difference in volume levels, especially between TV programs and their commercials, which tend to be much louder.

VESA mount holes
Many people now hang their flat-panel TVs on the wall, and they often do the installation job themselves instead of hiring someone. Most wall mounts are designed to match the standard VESA hole patterns, so you may find it easier to mount a flat-panel TV that offers one or more of these patterns on its case.

NEXT PAGE: Shopping tips

  1. We help you uncover what the specs mean
  2. Selecting the right size
  3. More on budgets
  4. Making sense of specifications
  5. 3D support
  6. Video connections
  7. LED backlight
  8. Shopping tips

Before you drop hundreds or thousands of pounds on the wrong flat-panel HDTV set, read our comprehensive breakdown of everything you need to know. Find out what features to consider and what the specs mean.

Shopping tips

Once you've examined the pros and cons of the two HDTV technologies, as well as to study the various features and specifications that HDTV sets may offer, you're ready to look at some specific models, keep the following shopping tips in mind.

Select the right size
Be sure to choose an HDTV that is big enough for your needs. If it's too small, you may find yourself shopping again in a year or two, and moving this set to some other room where you can sit closer to it.

Look at the black
All else being equal, pick the set that has the best blacks if you want to get the best picture quality. This is the key to getting good colours and great contrast.

Test the set if you can
If the shop will let you, bring a DVD or a Blu-ray disc to test the set you think is the best. You can buy one of several test discs that will run the HDTV through a video obstacle course to help identify the set's strengths and weaknesses. Alternatively, bring a movie that has plenty of dark scenes. (Avoid computer-animated movies, as they are 'too perfect' and won't show you the subtleties found in live-action movies.)

Look closely for problems with scaling standard-definition content (such as on a regular DVD), since a lot of movies and television programs still aren't in high definition. Check out the HDTV's configuration settings, and see how easy it is to fine-tune the set (and how easy it is to reset the HDTV to its factory defaults).

Don't overspend on internet features
Built-in internet-connected features are great, but check and see if the channels and apps can be had in an internet-connected Blu-ray player or media streamer. You can often get a wider streaming selection for less money than you would spend upgrading to a high-end feature-packed set, so unless you're really interested in the manufacturer-exclusive features or a custom remote control, you'd be better off buying a cheaper set and getting a media streamer.

Get enough connections
Three or four HDMI connections is about the minimum these days, to handle a set-top box, a video disc player, a computer or gaming console, and a network device. Make sure that you have plenty of connections for your future needs.

Don't overspend on cables
Resist buying everything at the store. A £10 cable off the internet will often perform just as well as a £80 cable from the store. Save your money to pay for a Blu-ray player or to upgrade your television service to get more HD content.

Watch out for long-term annoyances
You will probably spend a lot of time with this television, so don't be swept away on the first date. While you can find third-party alternatives that will help make up for many possible shortcomings, it's better to get what you want from the start.

For example, is the remote control easy to read and to use? Does it have lighted buttons? Will it also control your other devices, like a DVD player? What about the set's sound quality? Is it good enough for your tastes, or will you need to add a surround-sound system to bring the audio up to snuff? Will it be easy to connect the cables if you mount the set on the wall, and how will you hide them (or at least make them somewhat neat and tidy)? Little things can mean a lot in the long run.

See also: Revealed: the truth about the future of 3D TV

  1. We help you uncover what the specs mean
  2. Selecting the right size
  3. More on budgets
  4. Making sense of specifications
  5. 3D support
  6. Video connections
  7. LED backlight
  8. Shopping tips