The Big TV, Part One


That’s the word we used when we first watched a 60-inch television set take over our family room.

No way would this TV set remain in the room. We had made a dreadful mistake. Living with this monster, even for a week, was simply unacceptable.

And then, we watched. Watching favorite movies, we noticed details in the background that we had never seen before. We’d darken the room and the experience felt superior to all but the best motion picture theaters. For the first time, we could clearly read every closed-caption, every sports score. In short, the experience was far better than we could have imagined.

Of course, the 60-inch TV set is not going anywhere. We’ve explored slightly smaller alternatives, but none offers the satisfying experience of the sheer size, scale and impact of the 60-inch screen.

Figuring out which screen type, which manufacturer, which features–all of that was useful research. Here’s the rundown.

Given the choice of plasma or LED technology, my eyes prefer plasma. I find the LED color palette to be too vivid, less lifelike, too difficult to adjust to my liking. Others may feel differently. During the inevitable research phase–which is not easy to do in the likes of Best Buy, but instead, far more successfully done in small, specialist shops because the sets are properly tuned and aren’t fighting big box store lighting–I found myself drawn to the plasma screens. Their reputation for greater power consumption, heat, reflectance and a darker room has proven to be a non-issue in our setup, which is, already, slightly darker than other rooms in the house. We have not noticed any change in our electric bill. If there is any substantial heat being generated, we simply haven’t noticed it.

Once the plasma decision was made, the choice of manufacturer became much easier. There’s a website that keeps up with the somewhat limited plasma industry, and apparently, there are just three companies in the consumer game: Samsung, LG, and Panasonic. The links in the previous sentence turn out to be quite useful. Each of these manufacturers offers their plasma wares in series form: the higher-end series include more features (3D, smart interfaces, etc.) and the lower-end series offer remarkably good image quality but less of the newest technology (improved black levels are a good example of what the higher priced devices offer that the lower priced models do not).


“Smart TV” brands Samsung’s interface and feature package. Other manufacturers offer a similar suite of enhanced features. Buying a large-screen TV also involves selecting the best feature package for your needs. This can be complicated, but CNET and other specialist websites can simply the process. Often, reliable journalistic websites offer better, more up-to-date advice than you will find in a large retail store. Smaller specialty stores offer a better combination of well-trained sales personnel and a more home-like viewing environment.

In truth, the image quality on all of these plasma television sets is so extraordinary that individual reviews or product tests can describe only incremental differences. The details available on a true HDTV set are extraordinary, and the color rendition, especially on the plasma models, given proper adjustment, are just terrific.

The sound quality is a different matter. This is the one place where the beautiful, giant TV sets fall short. The reason, usually, is speakers that point in the wrong direction (down toward the floor or cabinet, not toward the listener) and are also too smaller to provide the fidelity that should be commensurate with the picture experience. (For more about this, see my previous blog post about audio systems for big screens–some of the specific products may no longer be current, but it’s easy enough to research newer models.)

None of these sets are easy to set up. They are all large, and require great care. A professional installer is recommended, especially for a set as large as 50 or 60 inches (remember, the measurement is on the diagonal). They are very well-made, but you want to be very careful about twisting or torquing the screen (or dropping it!).

Available as an accessory, the Samsung television keyboard serves as both a remote control and an input device with full alphanumeric entry. It also includes a touch pad. When the Bluetooth connection works properly, this is a wonderful addition to a smart television viewing experience.

Available as an accessory, the Samsung television keyboard serves as both a remote control and an input device with full alphanumeric entry. It also includes a touch pad. When the Bluetooth connection works properly, this is a wonderful addition to a smart television viewing experience.

Back to set-up. Each of these sets is a sophisticated computer and a TV set, and each offers a remarkable range of software features. The interface relies upon a fairly traditional TV remote control, and, increasingly, upon a screen interface that is navigated, mostly, by up, down, left and right arrows, or entry of numbers. This is a woefully inadequate way to control a device with so many features.  A touch-pad is a far better idea, and, in fact, a full wireless keyboard is an even better idea–when the Bluetooth feature works well enough to enable flawless communication between the TV set and what amounts to a rather large remote control.

Set-up also requires a level of coordination with other devices, including a DVD player,  an audio system, your wireless network, and, in the most-likely-t0-be-troublesome department, the cable box that is not specifically designed for use with such a modern TV set.

Of course, our original intention was simply to watch TV on a larger, prettier screen. We, like so many other consumers, were so self-assured when we insisted that the extra features were completely unnecessary, not at all interesting. Naturally, we spend nearly all of our viewing time with those special features. For the most part, they are the television equivalent of the iPad’s apps, but in the smart television world of 2013, those apps are, in essence, video-on-demand channels that provide access to a stunning amount of movies, television programs, and much more. These apps are also available on the newest Blu-Ray DVD players, game systems, and on other devices. On TV sets, the critical factor is the computer processing power built into the TV set. As a matter of common practice, TV manufacturers do not provide sufficient processing power to allow the apps to operate quickly and efficiently, so performance is often adequate, but could be so much better with only a small incremental price adjustment. The newer videogame systems offer both the same apps and also the increased processing power. Of course, you can plug any of those systems into the big TV and bypass the built-in apps entirely. Apple TV, which costs $100, serves the same purpose; similar products from Roku are also low-cost solutions.

So what’s it like to watch such a big TV? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s show, er, blog article.

Your New TV: The Ideal Screen Dimensions

Watching television in 1958.

Buying a new television set is not easy. Some stores tweak the settings of their TV sets, some tweak the lighting, some show the sets with no adjustment whatsoever, and others optimize to make each set look great. Of course, all of this is utter nonsense because no store can reproduce the environment where you will be watching at home. The next time you visit Best Buy, do not make any judgment about brightness, color rendition, or other qualities of the image–whatever you see in the store, it won’t be what you see at home.

There is one thing you can do in the store, of course. You can stand in front of the screen and wonder whether the set will be too big, too small, or just right for your room. Actually, you probably shouldn’t stand in front of the screen. Instead, with the set at eye level (not mounted six feet above your head), you can make a reasonable judgment. Here’s how.

Before you leave home, grab a tape measure. You’ll want one person to sit down in the chair where they are most likely to watch TV. Measure from the tip of the person’s nose to the place you intend to place the screen. In most American living rooms, this dimension will be about 10 or 12 feet. In smaller rooms, it might be 7 or 8 feet. Just for the sake of example, let’s assume the measurement equals 11 feet. Jot down this calculation:

  • Feet = 11
  • Inches per foot = 12
  • Inches from nose to screen = 132
  • Divide by THREE = 44 inch screen maximum
  • Divide by FOUR = 33 inch screen minimum

Try that again, this time with a larger distance to the screen, say, 16 feet. That’s pretty far away, larger than most U.S. living rooms. Here’s how the numbers look:

  • Feet = 16
  • Inches per foot = 12
  • Inches from nose to screen = 192
  • Divide by THREE = 64 inch screen maximum
  • Divide by FOUR = 48 inch screen minimum

Sure, we’re Americans! We love our television screens!! We want them as large as possible!!! (You’ll find article after article insisting that bigger really is better. For some people, that’s true. For most people, nose-to-screen distance is not more than 9 feet–not 11 or 16 feet as in our illustrations above). Add 10 or 20 percent if you’re VERY serious about sports or movies. Add 50 percent if your entire life revolves around a home theater.

No doubt. Certainly, many retailers would certainly prefer that you buy a set that costs $2,000 or so instead of $1,000 or less. For most principal viewing conditions, a TV in the 46-55 inch range will be suitable. For a bedroom, the answer is probably under 40 inches.

Hey, one more thought. There’s a lot of confusion about LED vs. plasma screens, and if you’re not lucky enough to connect with a knowledgable floor sales person, you could make a poor (and heavy) decision in the wrong direction. LED sets are bright and ideal for rooms where there’s lots of ambient light. Good for spots, not so great for movies because their color rendition is, well, extended and somewhat unnatural. Plasma sets are not as bright, but they do a better job with skin tones and lifelike color rendition. But they run hot, use more power than LED sets, and tend to be heavier, too. If your room has any significant ambient light (coming from windows or fixtures), you may be spending a lot of time fighting reflections. For several years, plasma sets were not popular, but a renewed focus on this technology, especially from Panasonic and Samsung, has resulted in plasma screens now widely available, even from big box retailers.

Before you buy, study the reviews. Editorial reviewers have the benefit of seeing many sets under the same (simulated real world) viewing conditions, so their comments are often more meaningful than the advice of people on the sales floor. I think cnet does an especially good job with TV reviews.

One more thought. I’m sitting here writing on a 21-inch iMac, a computer whose screen I regularly use to watch videos. The screen is not much more than a foot from the tip of my nose, so there’s no way that my formulas make any sense for those of us (lots of us) who watch videos, and the occasional movie, in this way. That makes me wonder whether we’re again crossing the great digital divide to some new way of thinking about the relative sizes of humans and their screens. Maybe our next screens will seem small at 100 inches. Maybe one wall of every room will be a TV screen. Heck, maybe every wall of every room will be a screen. Lots to think about!


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