By now you would have researched diligently on the various TV technologies; drawn up a budget together with the Minister of Finance in your family; heck, you've even thrown away your Mom's old sofa to make way for the new TV. It's high time to make a trip down to the store and bring that TV home. But wait! Please spare us another five minutes as we highlight a few storefront tips.
If you’ve been to an electronics megastore’s TV section, you’d have seen rows and rows of TVs playing back the same video or demo clip, and looping it to no end. To better gauge a TV’s performance in the store, we recommend bringing your own test material. It can be your favorite movie on DVD, or better yet, Blu-ray disc. The store should have a Blu-ray player nearby, so we’d say go ahead and borrow it, and give the movie a spin. Remember to connect the Blu-ray player to the TV using the highest-quality connection available, namely HDMI.
Of course, feel free to bring any content to test in the store, and ideally, any device you foresee connecting to the TV too, be it flash drives, HD camcorders, digital media players, laptops, or even gaming consoles. In essence, if you’re going to evaluate a display, it’s better to do it with material you’re familiar with. Just don’t use animated material: they look good on almost all digital displays.
Before you go about making notes on the real-world performance of the TV, be sure to spend a few minutes understanding the current environment you’re in – or more specifically, the lighting condition at the show floor. Chances are, the show floor is so brightly lit you feel as if you’re in the middle of a football field.
Truth is, it’s easier to mask a TV’s mediocre performance (especially black levels) in such an environment. Don’t be surprised that many of the TVs in the stores have their brightness and contrast levels cranked up. In such an instance, whichever TV shows the brightest and clearest image would be perceived as the “best”. Assuming you’ve read the preceding pages, you should know that this isn’t true. For all you know, that dull-looking display at the corner is the better performing one.
So what does all these mean to you? Well, you could try persuading the sales rep to dim the lights for you, and revert the TV’s settings back to its factory defaults. If that fails, at least be mindful that it might look quite different once you bring it home. If this is unacceptable, your only options are to read up on reviews like our own to shortlist TVs in advance, or move on to another shop that has viewing rooms or its equivalent where lighting can be better controlled.
Most TVs these days come with presets that would dial in appropriate settings for audio and video depending on the lighting conditions and the type of content being watched. You’d find preset names such as Movie, Game, PC, Dynamic, and 3D. Cycle through these presets while playing back a video to better understand how each would affect the image. Find out if each preset mode is user adjustable.
If you consider yourself to be an advanced user and would like to maximize your display’s performance by tweaking it (either through trial and error or by using a proper calibration tool), it’s good to check if the set provides for any color management system with color and tint controls, and how minute can these adjustments go. Such controls are useful not just for LCD but plasma sets too, as the latter’s color balance can also change with age.
Remember earlier we talked about the recent crop of LCD TVs having high refresh rates such as 120/240 Hz, and that these help to smooth fast-motion video sequences? Don’t just believe the hype, it’s wise to let your eyes be the judge. If you’ve film-based content on hand, now it’s time to test the TV’s 24p feature. See if you can spot excessive or artificial frame interpolation. If so, does turning off the TV's motion enhancements help? Remember, results from such picture features can vary from source to source. Conversely,a panel with high refresh rates and fast response time can often solve the issue of motion lag. Luckily, this can be easily tested using gaming or sports footages. Do you notice any trailing shadows, or do details get blurry?
On another note, some people find these fast refresh rates make the movies look unnaturally smooth. Or perhaps you can't tell the difference between a 120Hz and 240Hz model, you're better off not listening to the 'superior' specs talk rattled by the salesperson and buy what you feel is worth your wallet.
While you’re at it, check the color reproduction for flesh tones and green foliage. If you’re not happy with a particular skin tone, ask for the remote and see if you can remedy it by altering the color temperature. When you’ve the skin tones adjusted to your liking, check the other colors to see if you’ve screwed those up instead.
A word of caution: never adjust colors based on material that’s gone through artistic color treatments. For example, many scenes in The Matrix have a green tint which were done on purpose. Likewise, you probably recall the blue tint of Minority Report. Getting a "right" flesh tone based on these would certainly give you a weird outcome when you switch to another movie.