We frequently have readers asking, "What's the best LED TV?" Although we don't get a chance to review them all, we do see a lot and there are certain features and technologies that can make for a more enjoyable LED TV viewing experience.
2012 is shaping up to be a great year for LED and LCD TV. Smart TV (audio/video streaming and apps) is now making its way into entry-level and midrange sets, 3D TV is also becoming more affordable (for those who care), and companies like Samsung are adding unique new features such as voice and gesture control which give you a whole new way of interacting with your TV. Here's an overview of what to look for in an LED TV in 2012 and what features and technologies make the best LED TV.
How Smart is Your TV?
The term "Smart TV" has become fairly universal to describe the ability for a TV to connect to the internet to access audio, video and apps. The most popular of these include Netflix video streaming, Pandora Internet Radio and Amazon Video on Demand, but there are many more providers such as VUDU, CinemaNow and HULU Plus. And although you are probably doing Facebook and Twitter from a smaller device like a tablet or smart phone, several TV makers include these in their suite of Smart TV internet apps as well.
The important things to look for if you are interested in Smart TV include built-in wireless (WiFi) connectivity (some TVs are wired-only, requiring a network cable) and the specific apps or streaming providers that you want. Samsung, for example, does not currently include Amazon VOD, but it does include Netflix. Other TVs such as those made by Panasonic, include both. Check the specific model features for details. Also, if you happen to get a TV that lacks WiFi, there are other options such as a wireless bridge or powerline networking adapter that can allow you to connect to the internet without a traditional network cable.
LED Backlighting vs. Edge-lighting
When it comes right down to it, an LED TV is really just an LCD TV with an LED backlight, in place of the standard CCFL (cold cathode fluorescent lamp) backlight. Using LED lighting is generally more efficient and brighter than using a CCFL backlight. But there are a few ways to implement an LED backlight: the lights can be arranged in a full array of lighting elements behind the LCD panel (full array backlighting); they can be arranged along the edges of the set (edge-lighting), or they can be along just one or two sides of the TV (another form of edge lighting sometimes called "side lighting").
Edge-lit and side-lit LED TVs use a light guide or diffuser panel in the back of the set in order to try to provide a uniform source of backlighting for the TV's LCD panel. Sets with a full array of backlights can generally get better lighting uniformity (an even amount of lighting on screen), as it's easier in these systems to spread the backlight evenly along the whole panel. To evaluate an LCD or LED/LCD TV's lighting uniformity, watch a movie with a lot of dark scenes such as Blade Runner or The Dark Knight. Be sure that you are watching the movie in a darkened room and freeze frame on some of the dark scenes. Be careful though as some sneaky TV manufacturers will turn off the set's backlight entirely if they detect a full black input signal.
Think Globally, Dim Locally
With LED backlit TVs a feature called "local dimming" can be applied which allows you to get bright images on screen at the same time as very dark images by selecting turning off or dimming specific areas of the backlight depending on what's on screen. This can improve overall contrast and black levels. Some edge-lit TVs use a form of local dimming as well, though it is not normally quite as effective as a true backlit, local-dimming system. Sets that do not use any local dimming generally will have trouble reproducing true, deep blacks.
A feature that you will see on many LED and LCD TVs (and even some plasmas) is called "motion smoothing" or "motion interpolation." This feature stems primarily from the fact that LCD (and LED) TVs have some challenges reproducing moving images, though this has gotten better over time. When these early sets would attempt to reproduce moving images, you'd get annoying motion trails and blurred images. So by upping the refresh rate of the screen from 60 Hz to 120 Hz, 240 Hz or beyond, LED and LCD TVs are better able to display motion.
To do this, the set-makers can insert a black frame in between each real frame, or they could try to estimate what the moving image should look like by displaying an intermediate image in between each real frame. When they do that image estimation (or image interpolation), some people find the effect on movies to be strange as it removes the traditional "movie look" of a film's 24 frame/second motion. This has been called by some the "soap opera" effect, because it makes movies look more like a soap opera which is typically shot on video cameras as opposed to film. Fortunately most TVs allow you to disable this feature in the picture setting menus. So you can select whichever motion option you prefer, depending on the content. Beware of any set which does not allow you to turn off motion interpolation as it's something you may find annoying.
Enter the Third Dimension
Although 3D hasn't yet become that great "must-have" feature that sends people into stores in droves to buy a new TV, it can be a very cool feature for the occasional 3D movie night or 3D sports viewing. Yes, you still need glasses (and will for quite some time) to watch 3D, but all 3D TVs can be viewed in standard 2D mode as well so just stick the glasses on a shelf and pull them out for special occasions.
3D LED TVs are available in passive and active versions. The passive 3D TVs use the same glasses you find in most 3D theaters. They're light and inexpensive. But passive 3D TVs lose half their detail in 3D mode due to their design. Active 3D TVs maintain full high definition resolution in 3D mode, but the glasses can be more expensive and require occasional recharging or battery replacement. If 3D is important to you, try to visit a local store to see good 3D content - Blu-ray 3D movies like "Avatar" or "How to Train Your Dragon" are a couple of examples. View the movies from multiple angles and decide which makes more sense to you.
Cast a Sidelong Glance
One area where some LED and LCD TVs struggle is in off-axis viewing. If you are viewing an LED from straight on, the colors will appear bright and accurate but if you move off to the side, the colors may dim or even shift. If off-axis viewing is important for your viewing, then be sure to look at the set in a local store before buying and walk to the sides to see how the picture holds up.
Be the Controller, Danny
Some sets, including Samsung's top-end sets for 2012, include options for both voice and gesture command. This allows the viewer to change channels, select inputs or navigate the menus using spoken words or hand gestures. Frankly I find this a little gimmicky. But at the same time, it's also pretty high-tech and makes a great demo to impress your friends. If it's something you want to explore, be sure to pick up a set that has the feature.
Find out More!
Our own Rachel Cericola has written up a comprehensive guide to the current LED TV models from top brands including Samsung, LG, Panasonic, Sony, Toshiba and VIZIO. Here you'll find a guide to the various models and features throughout each company's line.
Check out her 2012 LED TV buyers guide here: