Friday, August 14, 2015

HDTVs : Features and Specifications - What Does It All Mean? - Rise of the Smart TVs

This is the age of Smart TVs.  You'll see this moniker thrown all over the place with lots of enthusiasm.  Take your tablet PC and duct tape it to your HDTV.  BAM! You now have a smart TV! Ok, its not that simple, because the manufacturers had to make it a little harder than that, right?  Each one made their own operating system with a bunch of apps, just like your tablet.  The confusing part is that not every TV can access all the same apps.  So beware when looking at a new "Smart TV".  Be sure to find a list of apps that it has access to and look at the apps you like to use all the time.  You might decide its not that smart.  The popular ones are Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, HBO Go, Facebook, etc.  Read the fine print!  Some smart TVs have the ability to screencast, or mirror what is on your Android's phone screen (sorry iPhone - you need Airplay) with a feature called Miracast or WiDi, a very easy to use and fun feature.

Not all Smart TVs are worth the extra coin.  Some manufacturer operating systems are pretty restrictive, and you may be asking yourself - Is this really worth another $250?  If you're questioning your need of a smart TV, don't worry!  Its easy (and affordable) to take a dumb TV and upgrade it.  All you'll need is an extra HDMI port (most TVs come with 2-4) and a Smart Stick.  Four popular ones are Google's Chromecast, Amazon's Fire TV Stick, AppleTV and Roku's Streaming Stick.  Each one taps into your WiFi network and gives you access to the internet and apps on your TV.  There are pros and cons to each, Google, Amazon's, and Apple's offerings allow you to benefit from other services (think Google Drive, Amazon Prime Instant Video, and iTunes) you might already be using, so look closely at their features and what you're currently using.  All are in the $35-$60 price range.

You might already have the "smart" part of the TV in your home.  The new Xbox One has many features beyond just playing games.  You can use it as a DVR, watch movies, follow fantasy football updates in real time, Skype friends and family, and access most of the popular apps out there.  Sony's Playstation 4 has many of the same features.  If you can get the kids off the games, you can enjoy a movie!

Current HDTVs are more like your computer screen than an old tube TV.  Hooking one up to a PC is a snap.  Just like the consoles mentioned above, PCs can play tons of games, as well as access a huge library of other software.  Two popular programs for organizing and accessing your entertainment are Plex and Kodi (formerly XBMC).  Both are free to download and fairly easy to setup and use.  These programs are great if you already have a library of TV shows, movies, and music because they add posters, descriptions, and trailers to your content.  Another great feature is being able to access your media through your smartphone via their respective apps.

So is your TV smarter than a 4th grader?  Probably not, but your 4th grader will have no problem using it!  Depending on what type of user you are, a Smart TV may not be worth the extra money.  You may already have a console or PC at home to do the same thing, or if you're on the fence - remember that you can easily make any HDTV with an HDMI port "smart" for $35 (Google Chromecast).

Monday, August 10, 2015

HDTVs : Features and Specifications - What Does It All Mean? - 3D for Fido

3D TV!  Hurray!  Finally, right!  The future is here!  Erm, kind, of.   Ok, maybe that's a little harsh, but you still have to wear funky glasses for most 3D TV sets.  It has come a long way from the blue and red specs of the 60's but the masses haven't adopted 3D like the manufacturers had hoped.  You'll find plenty of TVs offering 3D functionality most likely via a set of provided glasses.  If you're interested in glasses for the whole family extras can run up to $40 a pair.  Before you gear up for the little ones and Fido, think about how committed you are to this fancy headache inducing feature.  There are very few cable providers (if any) that broadcast 3D content, so be prepared to have a Blu-ray player to purchase 3D programming.  Netflix offers a paltry 18 titles in 3D, so while this eye-popping tech has been baked into a lot of TV sets, its not the driving force for new HDTVs.

What about those sets that don't use glasses?  They're on their way, with some having release dates in 2015 with price tags north of $5000.  If you're really into 3D - do yourself a favor and wait a year or two.  You'll be rewarded with fully baked technology that takes your breath away - with no headache.

Friday, August 7, 2015

HDTVs : Features and Specifications - What Does It All Mean? - Screen Resolution

High Definition - we're so used to it now because its everywhere, but merely a decade ago it wasn't available for everyone.  Scientists have been working on "high-def" since the 30's, as such the definition has changed as technology has progressed.

Screen resolution is the number of pixels in a display.  If you get very close to your TV you can actually see the pixels - they are very small - just a few millimeters per side.  A common HD display, 1080p, is made up of 1920 pixels wide and 1080 pixels tall, twice the resolution of SD (standard definition - think DVD quality).  The "p" stands for progressive scanning, which is one method of displaying the signal on a screen.  720p (1280x720) is also considered HD, and a few years ago it was considered cutting edge.  The most common HDTV screen resolution right now is 1080p, with the cutting edge crown going to Ultra-High-Definition, also called UHD, 4K (3840x2160), or 8K (7680x4320).

Movies shot on 35mm film have a much higher resolution than an HDTV.  We've had high resolution content for years, but getting it to TVs has taken a long time due to broadcasting bandwith constraints.  HD signals used to only be transmitted via satellite because of the large amount of bandwith needed. The switch from analog to digital broadcasting, which compresses HD signals down to SD signal bandwidth, has allowed for free over the air (OTA) transmissions of the major networks.

The "p" in 1080p stands for Progressive Scan - the method of displaying a signal on a screen from top to bottom, line after line.  The alternative to this is Interlacing, commonly denoted with an "i" as in 1080i.  When video is interlaced, only half the lines that make up the image on a display are shown at one time.  This is done to cut down on the amount of bandwidth used.  Progressive scanning video display produces a better viewing experience than interlacing.

The OTA signals that you can pick up with an antennae are a mixture of 720p and 1080i resolution, which any HDTV can display.  DVDs signals are 720x480 (480i), which is why they usually look pixelated on an HDTV.  Blu-ray discs can display a signal of 1980x1080 (1080p), exactly what an HDTV is designed to show.  Internet programming is quickly becoming the go-to source for high resolution content as more HDTVs can easily be connected to the web.  For example, YouTube offers a mixture of resolutions, usually constrained by the source material, ranging from 360p all the way to 2160p.  Ultra-High-Definition (4K) TVs need a special satellite feed, a specific 4K Blu-ray disc, or 4K digital video stream (YouTube) to fully utilize their display resolutions.

Right now most HDTVs are 1080p which is great because there are many ways to get high quality content for that screen resolution.  720p is not as ubiquitous as it once was, although for many it is a sufficient level of image quality.  Ultra-High-Definition TVs are the marquee HDTV product right now, but finding content to watch on them can be challenging and expensive.

HDTVs : Features and Specifications - What Does It All Mean? - Display Types

So you're interested in purchasing a new HDTV.  Get ready for an awesome movie night!  But wait, what's 1080p, 4K, 240hZ sub-motion, 4ms refresh rate, LED, LCD, plasma? - wait, isn't that in blood??!!  I know, it gets confusing pretty quickly.  Unless you're looking to get the latest and greatest, chances are most of these "features" you won't even notice.  In this article we'll dive into the specs sheet and explain what everything is so you can decide whether or not you really need it.  Hopefully this information will demystify the marketing games so you can be happy with your purchase.

Lets start with display type.  The two most common types you'll see are LCD, and Plasma.  LCD stands for Liquid Crystal Display - technology that has actually been around for awhile (think your clock radio or digital watch).  LCD screens themselves don't emit light, they just change colors.  There are lights behind the liquid crystals that shine through them, creating a glowing, colorful screen.  A regular LCD TV uses Cold Cathode Flourescent Lamps, or CCFLS for light.  An LED LCD TV uses LED lights for the backlighting.  The main advantage of LED vs CCFL is reduced power consumption and thinner overall construction.

Plasma screens are made up of positively charged gases in side a bulb that electricity passes through, lighting up and creating colors.  Plasma screens generally have better picture quality than LCD screens.  They are also heavier, larger, and use more electricity.  Plasma TVs are less popular than LCDs.

The newest kid on the block are OLEDs or Organic Light-Emitting Diodes.  OLEDs are thinner, lighter, can be flexible, and have higher resolutions and larger display sizes than an LCD display.  OLEDs work like LEDs except instead of being bulbs, they are made up of films - which allows flexibility and size reduction.  OLEDs can create richer blacks and have better picture quality than LCDs.  This is the latest technology and consequently it is the most expensive.

So which one should you get?  Right now you'll see a lot of LED LCDs on the market.  They are the most popular and come in a wide range of prices and features.  Plasmas are a bit harder to find, and while their picture may be a touch better than an LCD, their weight and power consumption may be less attractive.  The fancy curved screens use OLEDs, so if you're looking for the bleeding edge check those out.  Since OLEDs are new, they are the most expensive.  In a few years their price will come down as manufacturing costs reduce.  Currently you'll find the best value in LED LCDs.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

HDTVs : How Big is Too Big?

With nearly every size imaginable being produced by HDTV manufacturers, it can hard to decide just what size TV to get.  40, 42, 45, 48, 49 inches?  The first thing to realize is that screens are measured diagonally, and don't usually include the bezel (that piece of plastic on the outside of the screen).  Bezel sizes can range from 2 inches down to barely anything at all.  Look for the overall dimensions of the TV to make sure that it will fit in any cabinets you have in mind.  Since newer HDTVs are so much thinner than their older tube cousins, wall mounting is an attractive option.  Try to keep the middle of the TV in line with your eyes to get the best viewing experience.  As for the size of the screen, below is a guide based on viewing distance.  Too close to an HDTV and you might be distracted by the actual pixels that make up the screen.  If you sit too far away though, you're probably not experiencing all that HDTV awesomeness!

Screen Viewing distance range
32"         4.0-6.7 feet
37"         4.6-7.7 feet
40"         5.0-8.3 feet
46"         5.7-9.5 feet
50"         6.3-10.4 feet
55"         6.9-11.5 feet
60"         7.5-12.5 feet
65"         8.1-13.5 feet
70"         8.75-14.6 feet
75"         9.4-15.6 feet
80"         10.0-16.7 feet
84"         10.5-17.5 feet