Television Buyer’s Guide Part 2 : The Many Aspects of Picture Quality and Everything Else

So much wrong with this picture. The room is too dark, and the surrounding light is not a neutral color. See our discussion on these points below.

This is the second part of a two part guide to choosing a good television set, in which we delve into what makes a modern video picture good or not so good.  In the first part we look at some of the obvious issues when choosing a new television such as size, and consider also speakers, placement, and external amplifiers.

Resolution

These days, television monitors commonly can be found in four different resolutions :

720P –  This resolution only appears on small screened televisions, or ultra-budget models.  Do not buy a 720P set, no matter how small your screen.

1080P –  It is only in the last 5 – 10 years that this resolution has ceased to be the “gold standard” for sets.  Sure, 4K sets have been available since 2012, but in the early years of 4K’s existence, there were two problems.

The first problem was the cost of a 4K set – you’d be paying thousands of dollars more for the higher resolution.  The second problem was there was nothing available to see in 4K resolution – no live television, no streamed video, and no DVD/Blurays either.  So the chances are that if you bought a set five or more years ago, it was probably a 1080P set (with a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels).

But these earlier limitations have been largely resolved, making 4K your “sweet spot” for most new television set choices.

4K –  The earlier massive extra cost of 4K sets has dwindled down to almost nothing.  This is amazing when you think that a 4K screen, with a resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels, has four times as many pixels as a 1080P set.  4K sets have other features too which we’ll discuss below, and to get a set with four times the resolution and better picture quality for almost the same as a 1080P set is an amazing value.

These days most medium and pretty much all larger sized televisions are only available in 4K, because there’d be too trivial a saving to offer them also in 1080P.  Additionally, there is more and more programming available in 4K, giving you immediate benefits and gratification.  Even YouTube streams some material in 4K these days.  You’ll almost certainly choose to buy a 4K set.

8K –  8K televisions today are sort of at the same position in the market as 4K sets were in back in 2013/2014.  They are starting to become more common, but are still more expensive than 4K sets, and there’s almost nothing available that has been recorded in 8K – some demonstration videos on YouTube, and nothing much else I’m aware of.

There’s another problem too.  While pretty much all previously recorded-onto-film movies can be rescanned to create a 4K digital image, much of the film material out there is not good enough to be rescanned at 8K.  The finer scanning doesn’t pick up more detail, because the film grains are too big.

There’s yet another problem (well, perhaps better to say, lack of benefit).  Unless you are planning on getting ridiculously close to the set, or unless you are planning to spend a six figure sum (currently) on a huge screen, your eyes will be unable to make out any improvement in sharpness or picture quality with an 8K image compared to a 4K image.  Have a look again at the chart in the first part of this series and note the sizes/seating distances.  That chart doesn’t go all the way to 8K, but it is easy to guess where it would come next on the chart.  Unless you’re planning at sitting no more than about 5′ from an 85″ diagonal 8K set, your eyes won’t be able to make out the difference between an 8K and a 4K screen.

8K is not twice the resolution of 4K.  Because it doubles both dimensions, to 7680×4320, it is four times the resolution, just as how 4K was four times the resolution of 1080P.

There’s another issue implied in the four times greater resolution.  A data stream with 8K data is four times greater than a 4K data stream (in theory – in practice, compression algorithms might reduce that some).  But, even with great compression, an 8K data stream probably requires at least 50 Mbps and perhaps considerably more to be able to stream smoothly and directly to your television without problems.  That will use up your internet connection’s bandwidth very quickly (especially if two of you are streaming video simultaneously), and if you’re being charged each month for the total data you use, that will add up quickly, too.

We’re going to suggest you don’t spend more money on an 8K set unless there’s something very special in your need/purpose that would benefit from it.  With the surprisingly rapid pace of video technology development, if you wait a few years, not only will there be more 8K material to watch, but there might be other related new developments too.

Now for two more parameters that are probably even more impactful than resolution.  The first is usually revealed by a set manufacturer, the second, while of equal importance, is seldom shown.

HDR Options

This is perhaps the biggest issue of all when choosing a new television.  Much of the time, the 4K picture will seem similar to or only slightly better than a 1080P picture (depending on screen size and how close you are to it, plus some so-called “4K” material isn’t actually true 4K material, but merely upsampled 1080P material).

But the High Dynamic Range feature can transform the image, giving you much more detail in both the bright and dark parts of the picture.  Bright parts don’t get washed out and lose detail, and similarly, dark parts don’t become just dark featureless blobs.

Your set needs to have a high contrast rating, and then needs to be able to decode the extra dynamic range information in the picture signal, and display it well on its screen.  There are four HDR standards :

HDR10 – This is probably the most common of the standards.  Most sets that honestly claim to have high dynamic range will include HDR10 capabilities.  The “10” doesn’t mean it is version 10, it means it is providing 10 rather than 8 bits of picture data.  So, the next enhancement from HDR10 is not called HDR11, but instead is —

HDR10+ –  This is a visible improvement on HDR10.

Dolby Vision – This is very much better than HDR10, and slightly better than HDR10+.  And whereas HDR10(+) uses 10 bits of color information for each of the red, green and blue pixels, DV (Dolby Vision) can use up to 12 (but usually doesn’t at present because most sets can only manage 10).

HLG – This is very rarely encountered in the material you might watch, and is probably the least impressive of the four formats.  You can probably ignore it.

You’ll find that many/most sets will support HDR10, and some will support either HDR10+ or Dolby Vision.  Only a few support all three formats (and possibly HLG too, but that can be safely ignored).

While DV (Dolby Vision) provides the best picture, it is the most expensive for television set manufacturers and content providers to use, because Dolby charges a licensing fee.  But, even though it is more expensive, we’re noticing that probably slightly more material is released in DV format than in HDR10+ format.  Both Amazon Prime and Netflix stream some 4K HDR programs, and sometimes in DV and sometimes in HDR10+ (and sometimes just in regular HDR10 or not at all).

There’s one more benefit of DV.  Dolby only allows sets that meet certain minimum technical standards to use its DV technology, so you know that the set you’re buying is half-way decent simply by virtue of it supporting DV.  That doesn’t mean DV sets are always better than non-DV sets, but it means the worst a DV capable set might be is never as bad as the worst a non-DV set could be.

You can watch a 4K video with different HDR encoding than that supported by the set you have, you just see it in standard rather than high range.  Because the market hasn’t clearly chosen one format over the other, and because HDR adds so much to the picture quality, if you want to be sure to maximize your chance of getting the best HDR picture, you should probably look for a set that features all three standards.

Color Palette

In the earlier analog days of NTSC television, video cameras didn’t record very good color information, and so there was little need for the screens to be any better than the television programming being broadcast to them.

But now, the quality of color that can be captured and then played back, via a stream, a broadcast, or a Blu-ray, is vastly improved and (certainly with professional type video cameras and digitized film) has the potential to exceed the ability of the screen to display it all.

As part of your quest for the best possible picture, you obviously want a monitor that will show as many different colors as possible.  There are a number of different standards for color display ability – or, to use a more technical word, the “gamut” of a monitor and the video being displayed on it.

This chart (taken from this useful article) attempts to depict the full range of colors the human eye can see.  It does so imperfectly, because the gamut of the monitor you are viewing it on is much smaller than the full color range.

Within the overall shape of colors, you’ll see a series of triangles which show the limits of various color representation standards.  The smallest one is the sRGB standard, which is the most common standard in use (because it is the least demanding and easiest to comply with).

The two relevant larger (ie better) triangles are the DCI-P3 and the Rec.2020 (sometimes referred to as the BT2020) standards.  Not shown is the Rec.709 standard which you might also see mention of in television specifications – this can be thought of as simply being the same as the sRGB standard.

Televisions might describe themselves in terms such as “can display 93% of the DCI-P3 standard” – in such cases, the higher the percentage, the better, and the better the standard, the better.  It would be rare to find a television that can display 100% of the Rec.2020 standard, but that is the direction that all monitors are slowly moving towards.  Good sets these days will offer 95% or more of the DCI-P3 standard, and 80% or more of the REC 2020 standard.

The difference is more obvious and impactful than you might think from the rather “flat” colors in the chart above.  You can try playing this demonstration video from YouTube that is encoded in bt2020/smpte2084.  If your monitor is capable, it will show that it has smpte2084 (PQ) and bt2020 color (and 3840×2160 ideally 60 frames per second resolution), and the color quality and picture definition is astonishing.

You can right-click the video to turn on the “Stats for Nerds” display that will tell you this.

The quality of color the television can produce is influenced by whether it uses regular LED or more expensive OLED technology.  Generally, OLED is preferable, but can be appreciably more expensive and usually a good LED set will be sufficient if you’re buying on some type of budget constraint.  There is also QLED technology which is sort of halfway between LED and OLED and might be a good compromise – better than LED but not as good as OLED.

Contrast and Brightness

Two more parameters than will affect how well your picture appears are the monitor’s contrast ratio and screen brightness.  In both cases it is semi-simple – the bigger the number, the better.

But with contrast, be careful.  There are different types of contrast – dynamic and static or native.  To put things in perspective, your eye can generally detect a contrast ratio of about 1,000 to 1 without any adjusting, but it can shift the part of the brightness/darkness it sees by adjusting its iris opening, giving a total range of more like 1,000,000 to 1.  Some televisions can do the same, but to see a television boasting 1,000,000 to 1 contrast is meaningless without knowing how much of that it can show at one time, and also whether it has to “change” (usually by varying the backlighting) the entire screen or can just change part of the screen.  This is a helpful discussion on contrast, if you want to know more, and this has some real world test results of screens.

Good contrast ranges can be in the order of 3,000 to 1.

Talking about varying the backlighting, a related issue is whether the television has (from least to most desirable) an edge-lit screen, a direct-lit screen, or local dimming zones, and if so, how many (the more, the better).

Brightness is also important, indeed, brightness and color are somewhat interrelated – you can’t have as much contrast if you can’t generate a very bright white.

Television brightness is often measured in “nits” or candela/square meter.  The two units are the same – 1 nit = 1 cd/sq m.

More brightness, ie a higher number of nits, is always desirable.  Look for 400 or more nits.  Less than that and you’re not really able to get a true HDR experience.  Some sets will go as high as 1,000 or more nits.

Room Lighting

A related point which we notice many people misunderstand is how bright to have their room when watching something on their television.  This is unrelated to choosing a television, but is definitely related to getting the best use out of it.

Back when television screens were very dim, and – before that – when projecting dimly lit movies onto poorly reflecting screens, it was common to dim the room lights, maybe even to make them fully dark, the same as in a picture theater.

A typical movie in a theater has a brightness somewhere below 50 nits.  Compare that to the 400 – 1000 nits of a television screen.  As a rule of thumb, you want to balance screen brightness with room brightness.

So these days, with big bright screens, it is a big mistake to turn off the lights.  Doing so actually interferes with your ability to comfortably see and enjoy the image.  There is much more perceived “flicker” in a dimly lit room, and that’s much more tiring on your eyes.  Do not turn the lights out.  Sure, you can turn the lights slightly down, and don’t have lights shining directly on the screen or else they’ll wash out the color, but in general, keep the room lighting more or less normal.

Another thing about lighting.  Try to use neutral white light around the television display and in the room in general.  Similarly, whatever background is behind and around the screen should be white/grey/black in color too.  Any other colors will trick your eyes into seeing colors differently in the video you’re watching.

More Considerations

These days, just about all televisions can connect to the internet, usually via Wi-Fi and sometimes via ethernet cable, too.  Probably you’ll find a Wi-Fi connection most convenient, and if so, make sure it will support both the 2.4GHz and 5GHZ frequency bands.  You want one that supports the 802.11ac standard, and ideally one that supports 802.11ax (aka Wi-Fi 6).

For streaming purposes, check that it gets a good Wi-Fi signal and a good Wi-Fi speed (the two are somewhat related) – if you’re not getting a good signal and speed, you’ll find that 4K HDR content (which requires the greatest bandwidth) will not display smoothly, and will either occasionally freeze or “stutter”.  If you look at the stats for nerds that I show above, you’ll see the monitor I was using has dropped 232 of its 2801 frames, which is very bad, even though it has a 212,221 Kbps connection speed (which is very fast).  (In this case, the poor performance is not because of the slow internet performance, it is because I was doing many other things on the screen at the same time.)

Make sure the television has plenty of HDMI inputs, and supports eARC HDMI so you can run a cable from the set to your amplifier to give the amplifier (and on to your speakers) the audio it needs.  If you’re using a sound bar (but, please, don’t!) you might find an optical audio output helpful, too.

Another thing to watch for is a faster refresh rate.  For sure, your set should be capable of a 60 Hz refresh rate, and ideally, it might support 120 Hz.  There are also 240 Hz refresh rate sets, but we’re not sure if you’d notice any difference with a 240 Hz refresh rate.

The chances are that these days the television you’re considering will have a built-in streaming capability to connect to the internet and stream from most popular streaming services such as Amazon, Netflix, YouTube and Hulu.  There are benefits to using the built in services – if you run into problems, you only have one place to call to ask for help solving your problem.  I’ve had problems in the past where the streaming device supplier blames the television set, and the television set supplier blames the streaming device, and that’s a nightmare you really want to avoid.  Even if you end up using an external streaming device, it is helpful, when troubleshooting, to be able to see if whatever problem you’re having is duplicated on the internal streaming device as well as the external one.

Make sure, if you’re relying on your device’s internal streaming, that it is fully featured and supports whatever you want/need in the way of streaming channels and features on those channels.

There are two more things to keep in mind – service/support and warranty.  You might find yourself needing some help to walk you through setting up all the options for your new television – does the manufacturer provide phone support, and what hours of the day is the phone support provided.  If possible, see if you can make a test call to see how helpful the support staff are likely to be, and how long the waits on hold are.

Warranty is another point, as is how servicing is done under warranty.  You really don’t want to have to pack up and send away your television if it needs servicing, do you!  You want someone to come to your home and do what needs to be done in your living room.

And then there is price, but that is self-evident and needs no commentary from me (other than the introductory comments at the beginning of the first article about generally focusing on the mid/upper part of the market, in terms of features and price).

Other Issues

If you’ve not already done so, please also visit the first part of this two part article where we discuss screen size issues, screen placement, and choosing external speakers and an amplifier too.

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