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      How To Buy A Flat Screen TV

      HDTVs are available in a variety of flavors, including front- and rear-projection, but flat-panel sets have emerged as the most popular option by far. What's not to like? You can get a big, beautiful picture from a display thin and light enough to hang on a wall. And the picture isn't the only attractive thing: Prices have dropped over 20 percent in the past year alone. If you decide that a flat-panel HDTV is the way to go, you still have to determine which kind to buy: plasma or LCD.


      For screens smaller than 42 inches diagonal, your only choice is LCD. But for screens of 42 inches or larger, it's a matter of assessing which technology better suits your viewing conditions and preferences--and your budget. Almost all sets on the market now, both plasma and LCD and LED, are wide-screen models. Translation: Such sets have a 16:9 ratio of screen width to screen height (aspect ratio), which is the standard for HDTV and very close to the ratio used for most modern movies. As a result, the displays are more rectangular than the traditional, almost-square 4:3 sets of the past.


      Essentially all current plasma displays offer HDTV resolution. Screen sizes begin at 37 inches diagonal and typically range up to about 65 inches. Prices start at around $800 and can reach about $7000 for large, very high-end models.  Typically you get what you pay for in both plasma and LCD and LED. A budget plasma model will usually have lower contrast and poorer reproduction of black and of dark grays, yielding a picture with less punch and detail. A bigger problem with a bargain set is that it may do a worse job of upconverting regular standard-definition TV programs and DVDs to its native resolution. The resulting picture could look softer, coarser, or noisier than if it had better processing. The most expensive plasmas in a given screen size are typically 1080p models, which offer 1920 by 1080 resolution. Whether that provides a visible improvement in picture quality over 720p, in either 1366 by 768 or 1024 by 768 resolution, depends on the screen size and viewing distance. The smaller the screen, the closer you must be to it to fully appreciate the benefit of a higher display resolution. For example, with a 50-inch screen you would have to sit within about 10 feet to perceive the difference between 1080p and 1366 by 768. That said, we recommend skipping the less expensive 720p models and buying one that supports 1080p, the resolution of Blu-ray Disc video. Even some online streaming services, such as Vudu and Dish Networks' on-demand options, offer 1080p today; we expect more services to do so in the future.


      Like CRTs (picture tubes), plasmas use phosphors to generate light, which means they can be subject to "burn-in"--or, at least, older plasma sets are susceptible. Burn-in occurs when a static image stays on the screen for a very long time; for example, it could be the health meter in a video game, or an annoying network logo that squats in the corner of your screen. Fortunately, you can minimize the risk--or in most cases, nearly eliminate it--by keeping the contrast and brightness settings reasonable (almost all TV sets come out of the box with their contrast, brightness, color, and sharpness controls turned up way too high) and by using stretch modes to fill the screen when you're watching 4:3 programming (though that will distort the picture). Plus, most of today's plasma TVs use pixel-shifting strategies that continually move the image on the screen in imperceptibly tiny increments to prevent burn-in. Such technology should help--that is, unless you plan to watch NCAA March Madness nonstop. Then you have bigger issues.


       LCD and LED screens range from desktop-friendly 15-inch models up to 65-inch wide-screen wonders complete with speakers and TV tuners. At screen sizes smaller than 30 inches, HDTV LCDs still come at a premium price relative to conventional picture-tube sets, but the cost difference is much smaller than it once was. In large screen sizes of 50 inches and up, LCDs are now price-competitive with plasmas. Average Internet price for LCD TVs fell by an average of 22 percent as compared with last year.


       LCDs and LEDs are immune to burn-in, easier to view in brightly lit rooms, and just about always include all the standard features of a conventional TV. LCDs also run cooler than plasmas, which minimizes the need for potentially noisy cooling fans. Another bonus of LCDs and LEDs is that they give you the freedom to set them up almost anywhere in your house. LCDs work well in bright-light situations that would be tough for most plasmas. If you want your TV to serve double duty as a huge monitor, consider that LCDs are about a quarter to a third lighter than plasmas of the same size, so they're easier to tote between rooms.

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