An HDTV Feature List

Apr 08 2008

lcd.jpgRecently I've been pondering more and more what makes a good HDTV set. I pulled out my excellent Oppo 981HD and found that I should recalibrate my TV, however my quite basic 3 year old LCD TV is not able to save essential things like contrast and brightness per input. It groups the inputs. All the standard definition (composite, s-video, component #1) inputs share calibration settings, and likewise all high definition capable inputs (component #2, DVI-D, VGA) share settings. So sadly one of the sources had to be compromised a bit by adjusting at the player instead of at the TV.

This incident, and the fact that I noticed that HD material looks nice and sharp when at the edge of my bed, but more like really nice SD when I'm all the way back in the room, made me start thinking about TV features and proper sizes for a given room. I have a 27" 720p LCD TV, and I sit anywhere from 3' to 8' away, which is just fine for SD material, but at 8' back I'm not able to resolve 720p.

What's more there is banding in what should be smooth gradations and the analog standard definition quality leaves quite a bit to be desired including really poor deinterlacing, it looks like the TV is just blindly bobbing everything and scaling to 720p. Lastly, fast motion smears, the response time isn't great, but the TV set is from 2005 and was rather inexpensive even then.

Now I'm not actually able to replace my flat panel right now, but it got me thinking about features I want, and those that I won't compromise on, even when trying to stick to a budget.

Read on for my list of HDTV features and comments about why I picked each feature.

Features checklist

Basics: 

  • Independent input memories
    This is a biggie: If at all possible calibration should be done at the TV, not the source device.
  • A 1:1 pixel (dot-by-dot) mode
    There's no need or want for overscan on HD sources
  • A variety of aspect ratio controls including a non-linear stretch
    A variety of zoom modes is important when dealing with things like a 480i 16:9 source with embeded letterboxing or a 1080i 4:3 source that is pillarboxed.
  • Ability to disable integrated speakers and route built-in tuner audio to a receiver
    Pretty basic feature, sadly my current TV doesn't disable its own speakers when connected to a stereo
  • Input labeling
    This handy feature let's you assign device names to an input, great for the non-techies in the house
  • 10-bit (or higher) video processing
    This is important because the more processing, the more potential errors to the source are made, so the higher the internal accuracy for manipulating video the better. Vendors like Sony and Toshiba tend to be clear about this, other vendors not so much...
  • Quick panel response time [this is an LCD TV specific feature]
    This is really pretty important for an LCD set, however the ratings vendors list are generally total BS, it's far more important to read professional reviews and see the TV in person.
  • Controllable backlight [this is an LCD TV specific feature]
    This lets you fine tune black levels, this is key on LCD TVs which are prone to a dark gray rather then true black.

The good news is that most 2007 and 2008 mid-range and high-end models of large brand name companies (Samsung, Sharp, Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba, etc.) tend to have all of these. Low-end models and budget brands (Olevia, Westinghouse, Vizio, etc.) can't be counted on to have these features.

Advanced features that are somewhat less important but pretty darn important:

  • Ability to accept 1080p/24 and display at a proper multiple of 24fps (48Hz, 72Hz, 120Hz).
    This is something that I almost put up in the first list, but there are some great flat-panels that do a good job with 3:2 pulldown (ex: Most of Panasonic's plasma TVs accept 1080p/24 but turn it back into the panel native 1080p/60 with fairly good results.)
  • Ability to fine tune color temperature presets
    Still not standard, rarely is the out of box color temperature presets perfect D6500K. Sony still seems to leave this feature out of most of their mid-range flat-panels.
  • Correctly deinterlace film and video material of both 480i and 1080i sources.
    This is also one I debated about putting up top, but so many otherwise great sets fail 1080i film deinterlacing, I can't be that picky, especially if you use a Media Center PC which will be doing the processing instead.
  • Decent SD processing with customizable levels of noise reduction and sharpening
    This is also pretty important since standard definition resolution TV isn't going anywhere (just turning digital), it's also key that this be totally defeatable should the results be unwanted. In the past, both Sony and Samsung have been guilty of always having some level of image processing on no matter what.
  • If considering an LCD TV, that it use a 10-bit panel (to reduce false contouring/banding).
    This is a good feature to look for but it only comes with the higher end of mid-priced sets. Many vendors don't disclose this; Sony and Toshiba are both good at mentioning when a TV set has a 10-bit LCD panel.

Other niceties:

  • A full resolution VGA input
    Far too often VGA inputs seem to be thrown in and not treated well, many don't actually accept the native resolution of the panel, a VGA input isn't so important given the good state of DVI/HDMI output from PCs today.
  • RS232 control port for automation
    This is a neat extra useful for integrating your HDTV into potential home automation projects.
  • A QAM capable digital TV tuner
    Most mid-range TVs today include an ATSC tuner that is also a clear QAM tuner (for getting local HD channels via digital cable) however, it isn't always a given and would be a nice feature to have for cable customers.
  • TV volume normalization
    A neat extra feature that helps prevent the shock of changing volumes when going to a commercial or changing to an especially loud channel

Click Next for the Size and Resolution factors 

The Size and Resolution Questions

  

The size and resolution questions:

This chart is incredibly useful, it helps you find at what size and distance would a given resolution be useful. From where I flop in bed, to get anything resembling full 720p resolving I would need at least a 37" HDTV. A 40" HDTV is somewhere around $100 more so it makes sense to go for 40", going slightly larger then you need is nearly always a good idea when it comes to TV sizes, having a slightly larger TV then the bare minimum helps ensure you are enveloped in the action on the screen. 

So why don't I care too much about whether my flat panel is 720p or 1080p? 
Two reasons:

  1. 1080p is becoming pretty common/affordable, so it's quickly becoming a moot point.
  2. And more importantly, good contrast and black levels matter more then 720p vs. 1080p. The eye is far more sensitive to light and dark (luminance) then a specific digital TV resolution. Case in point: a 720p resolution model of Pioneer's excellent Kuro plasma line won the top spot in a Home Theater Magazine shootout among HDTVs of various technologies, including other plasma vendors, most of which were 1080p native.

I have found, both in general discussions and in the results from many Face Offs, that the number-one thing most people want in a display is contrast ratio: legitimate contrast ratio, not this number-pumping crap that we see constantly nowadays.

So, was the resolution noticeable? Most of the reviewers commented that, if you're too close (less than 3X picture height), then you may start seeing pixels. From where most of them were sitting, around 4X, it wasn't noticeable. In fact, at that distance, everyone made a comment about how detailed this TV looked. How is that possible with half the pixels? Easy. Your eye is fooled into seeing detail when it is really seeing contrast. Think of what you would use to see detail, say, a wrinkle on a face. You see the wrinkle because it's in shadow compared with the rest of the face. Well, on the PDP-5080HD, that shadow was so much more realistic that it didn't need resolution to appear detailed. Seeing as it's highly doubtful you'd ever sit three times the picture height away from a 50-inch TV (less than 6 feet, in this case), 768p is more than enough.

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