January 21, 2004

HTE1: How Not To Buy A TV

I thought initially about writing something about how to choose a new TV, but instead I decided on focusing on the biggest mistake people make: judging the quality of a TV by what you see on the show room floor. Normally when I tell people this, they're shocked. What's the deal?

First, some background. The primary fact to keep in mind is that when manufacturers ship TVs, they don't set them up for optimal viewing, they set them up to stand out on the show room floor. Think about it for a second. If all TVs looked the same when you glanced down the glowing wall of sets, why would you have an incentive to buy one over another? Normally the TVs have their contrast cranked way up and their color shifted to either red or blue. It doesn't make for a great picture, but it differentiates one set from another.

That simple fact aside, the TV generally goes through another set of adjustments by the salespeople when they put it on the rack. If they bother to do anything at all to it, they pull up the menu and randomly start adjusting settings until it looks "right". What's "right" you may ask? Who the heck knows. Most people have been "trained" over the last 40 years of color TV to adjust their set until people look normal. What color are people? How many people do you know with exactly the same skin tones?

Once they have the color "right", they also will crank the sharpness all the way up. Who wants a dull TV, right? Isn't higher better? No, absolutely not. The sharpness control specifies the amount of high frequency signals added to the picture so that lines stand out more. In older sets it was more applicable, but today it just causes problems. The main problem is that it's molesting the picture rather than displaying it as it is intended. Too high of a setting and you get "ringing" or "ghosting" as lines are now doubled to "stand out better". In reality, you want this setting as low as possible.

To make matters worse, at most electronics stores the remotes have been hidden, either to prevent theft or to prevent you from messing things up. However, this also prevents you from fixing things.

Finally, you're at the mercy of the signal being pumped into the TV. How long is the cable run between two different sets? Is one using the (low-quality) coax input and the other the (higher quality) component input? Most stores show in-store demo loops, very rarely real programming. Are you familiar with the material they're showing? Can you say how it's supposed to look? What's "good" if you've never seen this before in your life?

All of these factors conspire against you, the shopper, and make it impossible to judge the quality of a set just from looking at it in the show room. I know you're tempted to say "but this looks just as good as the other set and is $1000 less!" It's human nature to believe what you see, but what do you have to compare it to? What's your reference point? A wall of other misconfigured sets? Twenty wrongs don't make a right.

So what do you do? Research. Don't impulse buy. Let people who know what they're talking about rate the TVs. Also when you do go to buy, take along a DVD (or several!) that you've watched before and are familiar with. If the salesperson won't let you view your own material, leave and go to another store.

Posted by pinkerton at January 21, 2004 5:30 PM