Buying a new TV can be traumatic and baffling - unless you're armed with our guide to the countless pitfalls and confusions that await you...
Buying a flatscreen television is a major investment and one that you can't afford to take lightly. Just popping into the closest store and grabbing the first plasma or LCD you see won't get you the best deal, the screen that suits your needs, or the gear you require to make the most of your new purchase.
People tend to pick the size of their flat TV based on the amount of space they have for it, this isn't necessarily wise. Flat TVs take up much less space than you might think, so your new TV may end up a foot or two further away from your viewing position, making the picture appear smaller.
Also, with hi-def, you can have a bigger screen and the same viewing distance without worrying about seeing blemishes inherent to the source. HDTV's lack of noise means that the ideal distance to sit from the screen is three to four times the height of the TV.
How to calculate the right size HD TV:
The trick here is to ensure that your TV is big enough to fill your line of vision, but small enough to be sharp and clear. Remember, if you intend to only watch standard-definition sources, the bigger the screen gets, the worse the image will look.
The ideal screen size can be calculated by multiplying the distance that you intend to sit away from it by 0.535 and then rounding this up to the nearest size.
So, if you sit 80in away from your TV, the ideal size is 42-inch (80 x 0.535= 42.8).
What features should I look out for?
Features are too numerous to go into here, but here are some things you should consider.
Photo viewing: If you have a digital camera, a TV that has a slot for memory cards or a USB socket for a card reader will let you view your photos onscreen.
Here are some of the things we look for when we review a screen, so you should, too...
Contrast: Bright whites shouldn't have any signs of green, pink or blue in them, while blacks should look solid and not washed out, grey, green or blue.
Colours: Look at how bright and solid they are; how noiseless their edges are; how 'dotty' richly saturated areas are and how natural skin looks, especially in dim scenes.
Fine detail: How much texture does the screen give? Does a tree look like a green lump, or can you see the individual leaves
Edges: Check for ghosting, bright halos and jaggedness, especially around curves.
Motion: Check moving objects and quick camera pans for smearing or blurring, trailing, jerkiness and fizzing dotty noise.
Image artefacts: Look for blockiness, colour bands, grain, smearing, dot crawl: anything that looks like it's added by the TV picture processing or a weak TV tuner. Tinker with a TV's picture settings before making a final decision. Factory settings are rarely good for everyday viewing.
What about sound?
To provide the best audio to complement the pictures, your TV should be hooked up to a surround sound system, but this isn't always an option. So, here's what we listen for when testing a TV's speakers:
Bass: Deep, rounded rumbles that don't cause the set to rattle or speakers to distort, cramp or overwhelm the rest of the sound; but that expand when needed.
Vocals: Voices should sound open, rich and clear, not boxed in, nasal or thin.
Trebles: Treble effects should sound clean, rounded and smooth in loud scenes and shouldn't dominate the soundstage.
Soundstage width/depth: A good TV should throw the sound away from the TV, to the sides, forward and back, to give an extra dimension to what's on screen, without losing any coherence.
Questions to ask before you buy
Taking the time to consider these questions will make choosing the best TV easier...
HD or 4K?
4K TVs are stunning and even though there is currently little native 4K content to enjoy, the good ones are able to upscale HD to 4K very well. That being said, unless you're buying a very large TV - we're talking 65-inches plus - full HD should be adequate.
What size do I need?
This is dictated by the dimensions of the room where the TV is going and the amount of cash you're prepared to spend. As a general rule of thumb, work out how far from the set you'll be sitting (in inches), multiply that distance by 0.535 and then round up the result to the nearest screen size. Bear in mind that a decent smaller telly is often a more sensible investment than a larger, less accomplished one. And if you're going to buy a 4K TV, you can sit much closer because of the higher resolution.
How many HDMI sockets do I need?
For a living room TV you should be looking for a minimum of 3 HDMI inputs. If you want to attach a set-top box as well as games consoles etc, those HDMI ports will fill up fast.
Can I connect my older, analogue kit?
Most new sets carry no more than two composite connections, while S-video is fast approaching obsolescence. Check that your new TV can hook up to older digiboxes, VCRs or DVD decks that you might want to plug into it.
What picture type do I prefer, LCD or plasma?
LCDs and plasmas produce different sorts of pictures. Broadly speaking, the former's are usually sharper, brighter and more densely saturated, while the latter's tend to be richer, more natural and produce better black levels. Decent dealers should be able to arrange a side-by-side demo for you.
Do I want to hang my TV on the wall?
First off, you'll need to consult a construction expert to check that the wall in question is strong enough to support a flatscreen. Then find out if the set you want is designed to be wall-mounted and, if so, ask if the relevant bracket is included in the basic package or as an optional extra.
Will I be connecting it to a home cinema?
If the answer is no, you might want to think more carefully about your set's audio performance. Look for a screen that can go as loud as you'll need without distortion or cabinet rattle. Consider how dialogue sounds and how much low-end rumble the bass is capable of.
Conversely, it's pointless paying out more cash for exceptional built-in speakers if you already have a decent home cinema system.