TV buying guide: Picture quality explained
LED or OLED, 4K UHD or full HD? These questions and more answered in our guide to picture quality - plus other things to look out for to ensure the best picture...
16 Apr 2014
When buying a new TV there are many things to consider - but perhaps none so much as picture quality.
The fast-approaching summer of sport - from football and tennis to motor racing and cycling - means you may well be eyeing up a new TV.
Stats show picture quality is the first priority for people shopping for a new TV, so we spoke to experts at Stuff and What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision for the lowdown on it.
Here we'll explain why picture quality is important, as well as introducing the major new TV technologies and highlighting things to look out for when buying a TV for watching sport.
Picture quality - the different display technologies
Tom Parsons, reviews editor at Stuff, said when buying a new TV "screen quality certainly matters a great deal". Much of this is defined by display technology and resolution. Here are the main ones.
LED TVs are probably the most common set to be found in our living rooms - they are basically LCD TVs with a blacklit screen. They use a collection of LED lights behind the screen to make areas brighter or darker. This improves contrast rates - making the picture brighter.
Plasma was traditionally seen as superior to LED, however in the past couple of years "LED-backlit LCD TVs have narrowed the gap" according to Tom at Stuff.
Experts praise plasma TVs for their blacker blacks and smoother motion. They were originally the TV of choice for tech buffs, but that mantle is being taken up by 4K Ultra HD and OLED. Plasmas only come in screens larger than 42 inches, but experts recommend your living room TV should be no smaller than this.
They work by using electricity to stimulate cells filled with gases. Although experts such as David Katzmaier at Cnet have long sung the praises of plasma screens, the technology is now being wound-down by many big TV manufacturers.
Alongside 4K Ultra HD, OLED is the next big TV technology. Manufacturers say it creates deeper blacks and whiter whites, and experts agree. OLED is underpinned by pixels that turn themselves on and off without the need for a backlight.
Tom Parsons at Stuff said: "That means you can have one pixel producing pure bright white light, while the one adjacent is completely black, and that creates contrast unlike anything a standard telly can handle."
He said OLED "so far seems capable of surpassing both LCD/LED and plasma for black depth and overall contrast".
Curved TVs have so far been made using 4K and OLED display technologies, but 4K seems the most likely source of bringing them to our living rooms. Samsung recently launched a new curved 4K UHD TV.
The curved screen technology is designed to give a more cinematic experience in the home. Hollywood cinematographer John Mathieson said the curved screen "pulls you into the picture".
Picture quality - say you want a resolution
Once you have your display, you then need to understand the resolution - another key element for creating a quality TV picture.
HD TVs are pretty much the norm in the modern British living room. Official figures from TV Licensing show 41% of homes in the UK have a HDTV. For the best experience choose full HD over HD ready.
Andy Clough, editor in chief at What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision, explains: "Full HD (1920 x 1080) will give you more detail in the picture than standard definition."
Full HD has five times' the picture information of standard definition so you can expect a picture that's clearer, sharper and more defined.
Remember to make sure you're watching TV through the dedicated HD channels from Sky, Channel 4, ITV, the BBC and more.
4K Ultra HD
When it comes to 2014 TV trends, this is the big one. While Andy Clough acknowledged the improved picture of full HD he said this is "even more so" with 4K.
He explained: "At 8 million pixels (3840 x 2160 resolution) 4K Ultra HD delivers four times the resolution of Full HD".
We also asked Tom Parsons at Stuff what he thought of the technology.
He said: "Four times the pixels means four times the sharpness - you might think your current TV is plenty sharp enough, but see 4K for yourself and you'll instantly change your mind.
"Images come to life and movies pop from the screen, making everything more immersive and more involving."
There's a lack of 4K content at the moment, however Netflix has begun streaming content in 4K and more services are likely to follow soon. Although still far from cheap, the sets are getting more affordable too.
Buying a TV for watching sport? Key things to consider
We asked the experts at What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision and Stuff for some pointers for those wanting to get the best TV for a summer of sport.
The ability to produce a deep shade of black like OLED and to a lesser extent plasma and LED TVs creates high contrast. What Hi-Fi? editor in chief Andy Clough explained that high contrast:
- Makes it easier to see the detail in darker scenes, so it will differentiate more clearly between different objects when switching between dark and light scenes
- That it aids definition so you can see the individual blades of grass on the pitch and adds more subtle detail such as the faces of the players and the names/numbers on the back of their shirts
The accurate reproduction of colour is the sign of a good TV picture. Andy Clough said a good level of colour accuracy will:
- Help the grass on the pitch/court/course look more natural, as well as skin tones of the players and the colour of their shirts
Tom at Stuff explained:
- For me, colour accuracy is probably the most important quality in a TV. I want to know that what I'm watching is as close to reality and what the director intended as possible
If you're watching in a bright room you'll want to reduce reflection. Andy said choosing a matte screen will:
- Help reduce reflections when watching TV in the daytime, making it easier to see what's on the screen without having to draw the curtains
Sports fans should pay attention to refresh rates. Andy explained that refresh rates are:
- Important for handling fast-moving action properly, such as a ball being kicked around the pitch, by reducing blur (so the ball remains in focus)
- And good for creating smoother motion when people are running around the pitch
Final thoughts - you need more than specs to choose a TV
Tom at Stuff explained that specs alone can only go so far when choosing a new TV. He said there are a number of other things you must do to judge its picture quality.
He explained: "You want to be looking at it first-hand to see how accurate its colours are, how sharp its pictures are, and how well its motion processor handles fast action, but that can't be judged on specs alone.
"You can definitely use specs as a guideline, but actual performance depends on a great deal besides, which is why expert reviews and first-hand experience are even more important."
Check out reviews at Stuff and What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision, and our range of TVs.