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TV Quest 2014: Shopping for a Bedroom Television

By Norman Chan

And why I bought mine from a brick and mortar store instead of online.

A month ago, I decided that I needed a TV for my bedroom. And then two weeks later, I bought that TV, a 40-inch Vizio E400i-B2. As far as "TV Quests" go, it was a relatively short process from shopping research to purchase. Not because I was in a rush to buy a TV, or because I didn't care about the quality of the set. What I found is that finding the right TV for your needs is actually easier than ever. With guides like those on TheWirecutter and a plateauing of unnecessary optional features for 1080p sets, it's not difficult to match up your shopping criteria with what's available on the market. The hurdle to TV shopping is coming to terms with what you need, and having an understanding of how those requirements are addressed by the various TV manufacturers. More often than not, that also means adjusting your expectations and preconceptions of those needs when you see the TV in person.

This is a walkthrough of how I came to choose the Vizio set, how using it has changed my perception of built-in apps, and why I bought my TV in store at a brick and mortar store instead of ordering one online.

Figuring Our Your Needs

I started the bedroom TV quest by making a list of everything that I thought I wanted and needed from this television. This list was informed by the context of how the TV would be used--as a secondary set complementing the large plasma I already had in my living room. When identifying TV requirements, size and price are the first essentials, and they are for the most part linked. Your size preference (both minimum and maximum should be considered) and price limit narrow down the options significantly. I was a little more flexible on price, and had centered on a range of 36-inches to 42-inches, based on the table size and distance from wall in my bedroom.

Next up was figuring out what kind of content this TV would be used for. I wanted something that would be good for streaming video from services like Netflix and HBO Go, that I would plug a Blu-Ray player into, and that would also serve as the monitor for a small HTPC I built for the bedroom. If this was just a set for streaming movies from Netflix and plugging a cable box into (something I wasn't even going to do), I would be fine with a 720p HDTV. Video from those sources don't stream at bitrates and resolutions that really benefit from 1080p, and you're hard pressed to tell the difference between a 720p and 1080p set at a distance of six feet and further. But since I was planning on also using this as a PC display, I kept 1080p in mind as an option.

Finally, I made a list of all the optional features that I figured I would and wouldn't need. Most TV lines have models with and without these features, segmented by price. Things I needed: lots of HDMI inputs because I wasn't going to get a receiver, 120Hz for true 24p playback. Things I didn't need: 3D of any kind, "smart" apps.

Web Research

With that list of requirements made, I started reading up on buyers guides. The logical place to start is The Wirecutter, which does a fantastic job of laying out what's available in the type of TV you're looking for. In my case, two guides fit the bill: the guide to the best $500 TV (as of last August), and the guide to the best "small tv" (as of this March). While The Wirecutter guides give a definitive pick for each category, the ideal way to use those guides is to look at the spectrum of recommendations offered, including the "step up" models and any alternate picks. The point is to get a grasp of how options are segmented within each category; how the addition of one feature or difference in size affects the price.

The best $500 TV guide informed me that I could get a great 51-inch Samsung Plasma for that price, while the best small TV guide told me that a fantastic 32-inch Vizio LCD would cost around $270. That gave me an idea of the price range I should expect for a TV in my size requirements. I figured that I would want something that was a step up in size from the Vizio or a step down from the Samsung. That pointed to two options: Vizio's 40-inch E-400i-B2 at $400 or Samsung's 43-inch PN43F4500 at $375. The Vizio is a 2014 model, while the Samsung is from last year. Knowing the differences between models year-over-year is also important. For example, I found out that the 2014 Vizios finally upgraded from edge-lit LED backlighting to full-array local dimming. That meant that zone-based active LED dimming could produce black levels that approached the level of plasma TVs.

With those TVs in mind, I searched for both of them on the AVSForums. And like TheWirecutter, I think there's a smart way of approaching the depths of AV forums. If you want to and have the time, you could go through hundreds of pages of comments from people scrutinizing every detail of every television model. No one would begrudge you for that. But I didn't think that was an effective use of research time--it's too easy to get mired and lost in the nitpicking. I didn't search for direct comparisons between the models either--that's a recipe for entering blood feuds between zealous owners of each. Instead, I skimmed the threads for each of the sets' model lines--the 2014 Vizio thread and the Samsung PNxxF4500 owners thread--and scanned specifically for dealbreakers. I looked specifically for revelations from existing owners about unexpected defects or disappointments. The cognitive bias of ownership makes it much easier to praise a product you own than criticize it, so complaints are more valuable than compliments. Look for red flags, not reinforcement.

Shopping in Store

Based on the web research, I concluded that the truly important differentiating factors between those TVs was size and resolution. The Samsung plasma was larger but 720p, while the Vizio LCD was a full 1080p, but slightly more expensive. To see if that difference mattered, I decided that I really needed to see the displays in person. So I went to a Best Buy.

We've ranted at length on the podcast about poor brick and mortar experiences, and it's still debatable whether you get a better shopping experience online than in-store. Online stores typically have better inventory, lower prices, and good return policies. But I'm actually really glad I went to the Best Buy to look at my TV, and I'm glad I didn't just use it as a showroom--I bought the set there. What I realized, that just like with web research, there's a smart way to go into a store and evaluate a TV model. And when you know what to look for, shopping in person offers a lot of tangible benefits that you can't get online.

First, you have to know what you can't identify when going into a brick and mortar store. I knew that looking at a wall of TVs, I wouldn't be able to properly survey the brightness, colors, or sharpness of each display--image quality in store is not representative of how the screen will look when properly calibrated for your home environment. And even though image quality should be the number one priority when it comes to choosing between models, that's something that you're going to have to accept can only be really judged once you've bought the TV and set it up in its permanent place. Plus at this point, you've eliminated all the models with dealbreakers through web research. You don't go to a brick and mortar store to evaluate image quality.

In person, the things you want to check are the intangibles; the traits that aren't described or are poorly communicated in specs. For me, that meant seeing the difference between 720p video being piped to a 720p screen vs. a 1080p screen, as seen from about seven feet. I wanted to see if the pixel density at that difference mattered. And to be honest, I could tell a bit of a difference. I checked for glare. Manufacturers tout different anti-glare coatings, and that's something that should be seen in person. I checked for viewing angles. Looked closely at Bezel thickness. Thought about whether I cared about a matte vs. shiny bezel. And most importantly, fiddled with the settings on each of the TVs to see how responsive the UI for each was. That last check was pretty important--I was surprised to see how slow the apps loaded on the Vizio set.

What I Learned

I eventually settled on the Vizio for its 1080p support, since I would be plugging a PC into the set. The apps, which I didn't originally think I would want, actually have turned out to be a nice bonus. The one-button access to Netflix and Amazon Instant streaming (now working on this set) from the remote is convenient, and saves me the need to buy a separate AppleTV or Roku box. As my secondary TV, I wanted to keep the add-ons boxes (and cable clutter) to a minimum.

I did end up plugging the Chromecast into the new TV, which has vastly improved since I first used it last year. It supports HBO Go and Plex streaming, with the latter being how I tap into my home server's library of media (using the $5 Plex Android app).

So far, the TV has been really good. The active dimming isn't really noticeable, and I turned off the "Backlight Control" option since the changing light levels proved distracting. LED light blooming doesn't seem to be an issue, either. But the truth is, I would've likely been really happy with the Samsung set as well. Unless you're putting TVs side by side or a huge stickler for the "perfect" image quality, what you're going to get with the newest models from reputable manufacturers (defects and dealbreakers aside) is going to be good enough for your needs. Figure out what those needs are, conduct a bit of smart research, and it's difficult to be swayed in the wrong direction. Worrying too much about getting the absolute "best" and you're just setting yourself up for the headache of second-guessing and self-doubt.

When's the last time you bought a TV, and how did you go about making your pick? I want to hear about your shopping strategies in the comments.