Television Buying Guide

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Televisions Buying Guide

Which one do I need?

Flat screen televisions are much cheaper than they used to be and have all but replaced the traditional television. They're also slimmer, slicker and compatible with both Digital TV, High Definition and, in increasing number, 3D Television. While the television industry is working hard to impose a standard way of viewing television, there are still a lot of options to consider when choosing the set-up for your living room entertainment. And with big events such as the World Cup looming, there is no better time to get clued up.

Plasma Screens

Plasma screens are older than LCD screens and are made from hundreds of tiny cells of gas that can change colour to make the images on the screen. They're generally heavier than LCD screens, and ten years ago were probably the only choice for screens larger than 32 inches. Due to these larger screen sizes they have traditionally been more expensive than LCD screens. However this hasn't been the only reason for the extra cost. Plasma screens are seen as desirable because they offer wider viewing angles than LCD screens (which generally must be viewed from a central viewing position). Meanwhile, LCD screens must be backlit continually to be seen - which means they can never be truly black in dark parts of movies. So Batman's costume will never look as black as it should be. Plasma screens can achieve a 'truer' black colour.

Advantages: Larger screens, truer colours, better viewing angles

LCD Screens

The screens that are typically used on smaller flat screens and computer monitors. Their pixels are tiny liquid crystal pouches that change colour. They are backlit by a sheet of light and electrical signals allow different levels of light to come through. They are significantly lighter than plasma screens and are therefore easier to mount, store and move. There is some debate over whether their picture quality can match those of a plasma screen - tests suggest that there is little practical difference and that the picture quality is far more dependent on the technology inside the box than the outside screen. Other consumer tests carried out by x have shown that there are power differences between sets - with LCD screens proving far more efficient over short periods of time.

Advantages: Cheaper, more efficient and lightweight.

3D Screens

The biggest driver to the development of TV screens is 3D Television. Most TV manufacturers are developing TV Screens capable of the 3D experience you’ve probably already seen in cinemas – and the big-hitters like Samsung, Panasonic, Sony, LG et al hope that 50% of all their TVs will come with 3D technology by 2012.

There’s a lot to be excited about: all the major broadcasters are launching 3D TV Channels (Sky’s 3D Service began broadcasting in April 2010), while many 3D TVs are capable of converting your favourite 2D broadcasts and recordings into 3D images (although these will not be quite as realistic as made-for-3D TV programmes). If you haven’t yet seen a HD football match on a 3D screen… well, we pity you.

How does 3D TV work?

We’re born with two eyes – meaning our vision is made up of two slightly different perspectives, and this difference is interpreted by the brain as depth. Traditional telly shows us one flat image and the difference is lost, but 3D Screens cleverly show two images, a different one for each eye, using either a filtering or a shuttering method.

3D Glasses

In cinemas, a filtering method is used – two images are projected simultaneously and those ‘attractive’ plastic glasses filter the correct image to each eye. 3D TVs use a slightly more advanced process. Rather than showing us two images at the same time, they change (or ‘refresh’) between what the right eye and the left eye should see. In this case, the 3D glasses use liquid-crystal shutters in the left and right lens that flicker in time with your 3D Set. Of course, all of this happens too quickly to notice – but the advantages are better colour and an improved image quality (none of the trace or ghost image you might be able to see at the cinema). The disadvantage is that the glasses are slightly more expensive – but still a fraction of the TV’s overall cost.

Lenticular Screens

In time we may not use 3D Glasses at all. Major companies such as Phillips have trialled 3D TVs which work with the naked eye. These are known as Lenticular screens: the screen is covered by a layer of digital micro-mirrors that reflect a different image into each eye. The Chinese manufacturer TCL has developed a 42-inch LCD 3D Lenticular TV called the TD-42F, but as of May 2010, it’s only commercially available in China!

LED Screens

LED screens are a kind of LCD screen that are backlit differently to either improve picture quality (this is called RGB Dynamic LED TV) or to make the television super slim (Edge-LED TV). They’re generally more expensive and seen as more desirable, not least because as modern sets they come with lots of extra features: web compatibility, full HD etc.

RGB Dynamic LED TV

Normal LCD screens are backlit by a single panel of light that’s always on. This means that dark scenes don’t look properly dark and subtle detail is hard to see. You might not be able to tell the difference between a very dark brown and black, for example. To solve this problem, RGB Dynamic LED TV screens are lit by hundreds of individual light (LEDs or Light Emitting Diodes) which can be turned-off in patches to make truly dark colours where needed on the screen.


This method of backlighting allows for LED TVs to become extremely thin. The light is spread across the screen by a special panel which produces a superb uniform colour range across the screen.

High Definition (HD, Hi-Def)

High Definition TVs display noticeably more detailed and more colourful pictures at a level that approaches cinema quality. Almost all new large screen TVs come with an HD logo, however there are a variety of High Definition Television standards to be aware of:


The picture is made up of 720 horizontal lines, displayed on the screen progressively (the p at the end of 720p – it means that the horizontal lines appear one after the other, but to the human eye it looks like one solid picture).


The picture is made up of 1080 horizontal lines. The i stands for interlaced – the horizontal lines that make up the image aren’t displayed one after the other. The odd numbered lines are displayed first followed by the even numbers.


The same, but the lines that make up the image are displayed one after another. The 1080p option is the sharpest and most detailed, although the difference isn’t obvious to the untrained eye. The clarity of fine details on the screen – like pebbles, grass and skin pores - can reveal the difference.

HD Ready

A TV screen that will display images at a quality between 720p and 1080i. And while they may be compatible with 1080i or 1080p TV these images will be downscaled in order to fit a lower resolution screen. HD Ready is an older HD format and can be expected to be complete replaced with HD Ready 1080

HD Ready 1080 (also known as Full HD)

The screen will display the highest quality images without any need to downscale image quality.

HD Ready 1080 (also known as Full HD)

The TV is not an HD TV, but will be able to display HD images from your set top box or Blu-ray player at a lower resolution. Typically, an HD Compatible screen will feature HDMI inputs compatible with high definition set top boxes or content sources (such as Blu-ray or HD video recorder).


Blu-ray is now an established home movie format, and production of Blu-ray discs is set to eclipse and eventually replace DVD. Blu-ray discs reproduce movies in 1080 pixel High Definition (the highest existing standard of HD image), and like DVDs come with extra digitally encoded information – such as subtitles, audio commentary etc. Blu-ray players read optical discs with an incredibly fine blue laser (hence ‘Blu-ray’), that can decode a much higher amount of information than standard DVD lasers.

Blu-ray players are the best way to watch home movies, and to make the most of them, a good-sized Full HD screen is necessary, as well as an HDMI cable to connect the two.

Digital Television

Very soon, all TV in the country will be supplied digitally rather than the traditional analogue method. The analogue signal is due to be phased out by 2012, so it’s a good time to start thinking about your digital TV options.

There are a number of service providers all offering a range of packages: Sky, Freesat, BT and Virgin are some of the leading providers, and their content ranges from common channels (each provide the main BBC channels plus free to view channels like Channel 4, which relies on adverts for its money). Some providers have their own channels (such as Sky 1, only available on a Sky package) while others may offer a variety of syndicated channels (NBC or HBO, for example).

Why are we switching to Digital Television?

All television is broadcast via the airwaves which have a limited bandwidth. The switch to Digital Television will free up a lot of this bandwidth because the digital signal is much smaller than the analogue signal. This makes it possible to fit more TV channels, radio networks and other services into the same amount of space. There are three ways of receiving digital television: terrestrial, satellite and cable

Converting to Digital: What You’ll Need

Digital Aerials

If you don't have an outdoor aerial that can pick up digital, it's definitely worth experimenting with an indoor aerial. If you can get a decent picture from an analogue aerial, it's very likely that you'll get a good digital signal too. Experiment by positioning your aerial around the house and work out which rooms and positions work best.

Set Top Boxes

Also known as digital boxes, 'digiboxes' or Freesat boxes. This is the simplest way of connecting to a digital service, and are available cheaply from Asda Direct. There are different set top boxes available depending on your connection type (an aerial for terrestrial TV, a satellite dish for Sky or Freesat, or a cable connection). But the majority are Freeview boxes that will allow you to watch the Freeview channels. You do the set-up yourself, but for BSkyB, cable and broadband, the companies supply and install their own set top box as part of the service. You'll need a set of SCART leads to connect everything up.

Digital TV Recorders

Are the same as Set Top Boxes but with the advantage of being able to record and store your favourite programmes, and pause or rewind a channel to the point at which you started watching. You'll never miss a plot twist or key sporting moment again! Depending on how you receive your TV – terrestrial aerial, cable or satellite – there are different Digital TV Recorders available, while Sky boxes come with their own Sky+ function (which does the same job). You can also record from your set top box using a good old VHS recorder, but you won't be able to do live pauses or benefit from the other functionality that DTVRs provide.

Integrated Digital Televisions

IDTVs combine a flat screen TV with a set top box – i.e, they have an inbuilt digital tuner and in many cases a satellite TV tuner which will display BBC/ITV's Freesat channels provided your TV is connected to a satellite dish. Any TV can be converted to receive digital however, with the use of a set top box.


In the early 90s SCART cables replaced the old mono plug for standard-definition, analogue TV and video. While still widely used today, SCART cables are gradually being replaced by HDMI cables, which can carry HD and multiple audio signals.


Scart leads aren’t equipped to carry High Definition signals. You’ll need an HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) cable to plug your HD TV into a Blu-ray player or High Definition Set Top Box. These come in a variety of materials – the better quality, the sharper your image is likelier to be.

More than one TV?

You’ve signed up to a TV service and the box sits in your living room – but what if you want to watch Sky, Cable or another paid for service in your bedroom, kitchen, or (if your lucky) your hot tub? You can connect your secondary TVs to your digibox using a Scart or aerial cable (or HDMI cable for HD). But if you don’t want to run extra cables through your house you should use a wireless video sender. These handy devices plug into your existing set top box and come with a decoder for you to plug into your second TV. Some even come with a remote control extender, so you can change the channel on your set top box from your bedroom.

Remote Control

With so many new technologies, you sometimes find that you have a separate remote for your DVD player, Blu-ray player, Set Top Box, TV and Home Theatre System. This can be cluttering and finding batteries for everything can be a chore - but there are a wide range of universal remotes which can control all your devices from a single device.

What Digital TV is available, how do I receive it?

There are three ways of receiving digital television: terrestrial, satellite and cable.

Terrestrial TV (DDTV)

Terrestrial TV simply uses your existing aerial to receive digital signals, which are turned into TV by your set top box (or your TV's internal receiver if you have an integrated television). It's often the cheapest way of watching digital TV. The digital terrestrial TV network in the UK is called Freeview and comes with over 40 free digital TV channels and over 20 digital radio stations (see as well as on demand content. Other channels and HD content are also available this way for additional subscription charges, which may require you to buy more hardware, such as a BT Vision Recorder or iDTV with a card slot or separate card adaptor. You may also need to upgrade your aerial and you will definitely need SCART leads to connect everything up. The big drawback with freeview is it's currently not available everywhere and you will need to check your postcode (there is a postcode checker here: to see if you can get it. Availability will improve after the digital switchover in 2012.

Required hardware: Set Top Box (or integrated TV or PDR), SCART cables and a modern aerial.

Providers: Freeview or Top Up TV

Advantages: Low, one off costs, extra channels without subscription

Disadvantages: Not always available, new aerial may be required, limited channels compared to subscription service.

Satellite TV (DSat, D-SAT)

There are two major satellite services: BSkyB (commonly known as just Sky) and a no-subscription service run by BBC and ITV called Freesat. Sky offer a variety of packages and have hundreds of channels available, including their own movie, entertainment and sports channels and pay-per-view programming. Like the BBC and ITV, Sky also offer free channels (confusingly called Freesat from Sky) – a set of channels that are free to anyone with a satellite connection. Freesat and Freesat from Sky will only cost you a one-off payment for a satellite dish, set top box and installation fee and will currently give you access to hundreds of channels.

Required hardware: Satellite dish, set top box (or integrated TV or PDR), SCART cables. To receive HD channels you will need a Freesat iDTV, HD set top box or Sky HD box.

Providers: BBC & ITV (Freesat) or BSkyB (Sky and Freesat from Sky)

Advantages: It's available everywhere

Disadvantages: Requires a satellite dish to be installed, and you may need permission to do this.

Cable TV

Cable TV is usually provided as part of a package of communications including web and phone lines. You will be charged a monthly subscription for the whole package, and the costs will depend on which channels are included in the package. The Freeview channels will be included in the basic package. The cable connection and set top box are installed for you, usually included in the subscription price.

Required hardware:A set-top box and a fibre-optic cable will be installed in your house by your provider.

Providers: BT, Virgin etc.

Advantages: : Hundreds of channels. Installation is carried out for you and it's handy to have your TV, phone line and internet connection all rolled into one package.

Disadvantages: Limited availability; 12-month subscription contract is usually required.

Jargon Buster

Analogue Historical mode of transmission, uses standard wave to transmit television services Audio Description Services that carry an additional audio stream describing what is happening on screen for those who have difficulty seeing.

Broadcasters The people who transmit TV programmes Common Interface (CI) Connection on a television or a set-top box which can be used to connect to any other device using the same open standard.

Communal System Where a signal is distributed through a building (e.g. a block of flats) using a wiring system, sharing the same signal source. Conditional Access (CA) Method of blocking access to programming, access only being allowed with the correct codes or card to ‘unlock’ the programming.

Coverage Areas that can receive digital television - you can check your DTT coverage using the postcode database

Decoder The tuner in a digital set D-CAB Digital Cable D-SAT Digital Satellite DSL (xDSL) Digital Subscriber Line: a method of delivering TV or broadband, or Video on Demand through telephone wires.

DTG Digital Television Group - has over 100 members. The DTG was formed in 1995 to set technical standards for the implementation of digital terrestrial television (DTT) in the UK and now encompasses all Digital TV platforms and convergence issues on a world-wide basis DTT Digital Terrestrial Television DTV Digital Television DVB Digital Video Broadcasting, a European standard for digital television technology

DVD Digital Versatile Disk - digital storage device commonly used for film/video

DVD-R (DVD-RW) Recordable DVD, another digital recording device - uses DVD format.

Encryption Method of encoding data/broadcasts so that they can only be viewed with the correct Conditional Access codes.

Enhanced TV See Interactive TV EPG Electronic Programme Guide - "Now and next" information that can be called up on digital television. Extended for a period of weeks on DSAT and DCAB, 7 day EPG due to be launched on Freeview

HDTV High Definition Television is a new technology that will enable viewers to get higher definition television pictures. HDTV has four times as many pixels (dots on the screen) as standard TV broadcasts, meaning a clearer picture and stunning detail on large-screen TVs. An HD-ready TV is not necessarily a digital TV.

IdTV Integrated Digital Television - a television with a built-in digital tuner.

IdVCR Integrated Digital VCR - a video recorder with a built-in digital tuner.

IRS Integrated Receiver System - A shared reception system, common to flats and hotels, that enables delivery of television and radio services around the same distribution system, from a single wall plug

Interactive Services that enable the viewer to interact with the television programme

ITC Independent Television Commission (Ofcom took over responsibility of the ITC in Jan 2004)

MATV Master Antennae TV - a communal aerial system that uses a master aerial to receive the signal before it is distributed.

Multiplex A bundle of channels delivered in Digital Terrestrial Television by a single signal channel.

PDR (Personal Digital Recorder) See PVR below.

PVR (Personal Video Recorder) A video recorder that records programmes on to hard drive. Allows much greater flexibility in recording and playback.

Platform Method of delivery or reception of digital television (e.g. the satellite platform)

PSB Public Service Broadcasters: these include BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Five, S4C and Teletext

RF Loop Connection which allows the aerial signal to connect to one device, and then be connected further by another connector - similar to an "aerial out" socket.

RF Modulator The "aerial out" connector on your TV is an RF modulator. This puts an output from a TV tuner on to the connection, as opposed to an RF loop which simply allows the signal from the aerial to carry through.

SCART A type of connection and cabling used to carry video signals, usually found on the back of TVs and videos.

Solus Card Digital Satellite cards that enable viewing of free to view channels.

Spectrum The electromagnetic spectrum: the set of radio frequencies used to transmit television, radio and other forms of electronic communication.

STB Set Top Box, occasionally referred to as an adaptor.

Switchover (Digital Switchover) The process of migrating television equipment from analogue reception to digital reception, in preparation for the switching off of the analogue signal.

Terrestrial "Earthly" - as opposed to satellite. Television services that can be received through a standard aerial.

VCR Video Cassette Recorder

VDSL Very-High bit-rate Digital Subscriber Line, allowing for faster downstream speeds than ADSL enabling video services to be delivered.

VOD Video on Demand