Great picture quality is the result of a convergence between great input and great output: your source material and your TV. A bad source (low resolution) will make a great TV feel like a waste; a bad TV won’t look good no matter how many 4K Blu-rays you feed it. However, when these two components are working in harmony, the results can be simply awesome. Let’s take a look at each and see just what we need to get that awesome picture quality we’ve always dreamed of.
We’re going to start with the TV; at the end of the day, your final picture is only going to be as good as your television is capable of displaying. That is, if you have an HD TV with a 1080p resolution, your final picture is going to be 1080p regardless of the quality of the input. A standard definition DVD at 480p is going to get scaled up to match the TV, and a 4K Blu-ray at 2160p is going to get scaled down. So what do you want to look for in a TV? And if you’re not in the market for a new TV, how can you get the most out of the one you have?
- 4K or “Ultra HD” resolution
- A refresh rate of at least 120Hz
- A minimum of 4 HDMI 2.0 ports
These are the main things to look for when buying a new TV; read on for the gritty details!
Despite all the buzzwords, there are really only two technologies being used in TV screens these days: LCD (liquid crystal display) and OLED (organic light emitting diode).
The majority of TVs today are LCD; more specifically, LED LCD (what a mouthful). LCD panels use a backlight to light the pixels, and in this case, that backlight is made up of LEDs. These are typically marketed as “LED TVs,” with no mention of the LCD display itself.
An OLED TV, on the other hand, has no backlight. It uses “organic LEDs” that are controlled at the individual pixel level. So instead of lighting up all, or a portion of, the screen, an OLED display will only light up the pixels needed to produce the image, and won’t light up any pixels at all to produce black pixels. This gives OLED screens amazing, nearly infinite, contrast levels. OLED displays have other advantages as well: the colors tend to be more vibrant and vivid, and they have better viewing angles (less distortion and discoloration when seen from an angle). If you want the best picture quality, you want OLED.
The thing with new technologies like OLED TVs is that they can be expensive. A decent OLED TV is going to cost you several thousand dollars, whereas you can get a decent LED LCD set for several hundred. Aside from the newness, LG is currently the only company producing OLED TVs; without any competition, there is less incentive to lower the price. This should be changing soon, though. That being the case, if you can’t justify the cost of an OLED TV but still want to maximize your picture quality, there are a few things to look for in a good LCD screen. TVs with “full-array” backlighting place the LEDs in a grid behind the screen; the standard setup is to put them along the edges. This grid is divided into zones that can be shut on and off independently, which allows for deeper blacks and better contrast.
Another LCD technology you can look out for is called “quantum dot” technology. This adds an extra layer of nanocrystals to the screen and allows for a brighter picture and a wider color spectrum. LCD screens also have the advantage of being brighter and easier to view even in sunny rooms, so it’s not all bad news if you can’t spring for an OLED set.
The next thing to look at is the resolution of the TV set. Most TVs these days are going to be 1080p, or “Full HD.” These have a resolution of 1920×1080, and they’ll put out a good picture at a great price. If you want the best though, you need to be looking at so-called 4K or “Ultra HD” TVs. These screens have an incredible 3840×2160 resolution; that’s four times the picture size of a 1080p set, and it can make a huge difference.
To really take advantage of these screens, you need content in 4K, which is also becoming more common; we’ll get into that in a bit. The bottom line, though, is that if you care about picture quality, you want a 4K TV.
Finally, take a look at the refresh rate on the TV and the input ports. You want to aim for at least 120Hz for refresh rate; this means the screen refreshes 120 times per second. The old standard was 60Hz, but this can lead to a choppy picture on a high-res screen; 120 or even 240Hz is going to be your best bet. “Effective refresh rate” is a phrase to be avoided: the actual refresh rate in these cases tends to be around half the stated “effective” rate. In terms of ports, you want HDMI, and plenty of them. These are going to give you the best input quality by far. If you’re getting a 4K TV, make sure the ports are HDMI 2.0 to support 4K sources; otherwise that fancy screen is going to be wasted.
Appreciating what you have
Of course, not everyone wants to run out and buy a new TV; if that’s you, don’t worry. There is plenty you can do to maximize the potential of your existing set. First, and possibly most important, is the positioning of the television itself. According to TechRadar, viewing angle is critical for maximum quality; you want your TV to be at eye level, and you want your seating to be more or less directly in front of the screen. Especially with LCD TVs, looking at the screen from an off-center position can ruin the image. Put your seating front and center. If you’re mounting the set on a wall, consider the height: if you’re placing it above eye level, angle it downwards so it is still facing you straight on when you’re sitting down watching. OLED screens don’t suffer as much from off-axis viewing, but placement is still important.
You can also play with the settings on your TV, but in general the presets are going to be your best bet. They are usually tuned pretty well to get the most out of the screen. For picture mode, stick with Standard or Normal settings. Dynamic modes are usually intended to be used in stores for display purposes, so they are going to lack accuracy. Cinema modes are okay, but tend to be geared toward low-light environments, so keep that in mind. If the TV has an ambient light sensor, consider turning it off for a more consistent image quality. These sensors adjust the display for the lighting conditions in the room, but they can also lead to inconsistent, frequently shifting images. Lastly, many TVs have settings for motion-handling effects to smooth out the picture; don’t set these too high. Stick with a medium setting for sports and action programs, and a lower setting for movies and more cinematic TV shows. These settings will give the best compromise between smooth motion and a natural-looking image.
Straight from the source
Let’s talk about input. If you want a good picture, you need a good video source. Consider this: DVDs have a resolution of 480p. A standard HD TV has a resolution of 1080p; forget about playing that DVD on a 4K set! What happens when you feed a lower-resolution image into a higher-resolution TV? A process called “upscaling.” Basically, the TV blows the image up to fit the resolution of the screen. This can lead to a fuzzy, distorted picture. If you have an HD TV, you want Blu-ray quality video at a minimum; Blu-rays have a resolution of up to 1080p, or even 4K in some newer cases, so they will take full advantage of the amazing screen you paid so much for.
In terms of choosing a TV provider, you basically have two options: cable or satellite. Satellite does still tend to have (slightly) better quality. In theory, cable can provide equivalent quality to satellite, but cable signals tend to be more compressed, which will limit the quality. This is mostly due to the costs of building out cable infrastructure compared to simply putting another satellite in the sky; surprisingly, the satellite is a lot cheaper, so satellite providers tend to have more bandwidth to work with and don’t have to compress their signal the way cable companies do to make it “fit.” There isn’t always a tremendous difference, though, and cable is less susceptible to weather interference, so your choice may just come down to cost and what is offered in your area.
HD or bust
Regardless of whether you choose cable or satellite, make sure your set-top box is HD; some cable companies still offer non-HD boxes as cheaper options. Also, and this may seem obvious, but make sure the channels you’re watching are actually in HD. Typically, even with an HD box, you still have the option of watching the low-res channels, and not everyone realizes this (like my mom). Some providers are smart, and will show a pop-up on the screen offering to take you to the HD version of a channel with a simple button press; Verizon Fios does this, for example. Some, like XFINITY, also allow you to filter the channel list to only show HD content, which is handy.
Streaming video options are also becoming quite popular. Many TVs have streaming functionality built right in, or you can grab a Roku, Apple TV, or one of the many other streaming sticks or boxes and get set up in no time. If you’re interested in streaming and you want maximum quality, consider content providers that offer 4K video. Netflix has some, as does Amazon Prime. Look into which providers have the most 4K content that suits your taste, and keep in mind that 4K is steadily increasing in popularity and availability as the prices of the TV sets fall. Even if you are having a hard time finding 4K content that interests you right now, 4K is the future; if you want the best picture quality, not only today but a few years down the road, you’re going to want a 4K TV.
A sight for sore eyes
Our hope is that this guide has given you the knowledge you need to get truly awesome picture quality out of your own setup. A great TV showing great source material is truly something to behold; throw in some nice surround sound and you’ll never have to overpay for a theater showing again.