Monday, July 27, 2009

A Tale of Two TVs...+2

I’ve owned a cheap, 20", super ultra generic Best Buy TV for the last 5 years. It has been wonderfully reliable and well used. I think my desire for something bigger first started when I played Gears of War at a friend’s house on a large screen. The display and experience was truly awesome. Since then I’ve also felt my little screen didn’t do justice to The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Old news to anyone in the know, but I was crushed to learn the Wii doesn’t output anything HD. It does do wide screen at lest, so a new TV wouldn’t be completely wasted on it (and good luck finding a 480p wide screen).

It wasn’t until I had researched 2 months, purchased 4 TVs, then returned 3 of them, that all my requirements had been flushed out.

  • 32" wide-screen LCD
  • Closed Captioning on mute
  • The closed captioning starts appearing shortly after pressing mute
  • Passes The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess display calibration screen
  • Minimal input-to-display lag
  • Easily returnable

The 4th TV finally met my needs (almost). Given how hard it is to find any worthwhile information on TVs (and all electronics in general) on the internet, thought I’d share some details.

Consumer Reports

I’ve been an off-and-on registered member of Consumer Reports. Unlike fickle forums, their information is objective and substantiated. Unfortunately their TVs coverage is pretty lacking (but given the number of TVs on the market, it’s unlikely they could really keep up). If your TV of interest isn’t reviewed on the site, then the only valuable information they offer is a general brand reliability rating. Their surveys give a glimpse of what percentage of TVs are defective for a particular brand. The numbers seem to support the idea that brands do maintain a consistent level of reliability.

Vizio 32" VO320E — $400 (normally $450)

As a newcomer to the big screen TV market, I was surprised that the otherwise unheard of Vizio brand is a major player. Consumer Reports rate their reliability as one of the best. I hear they also have a pretty hefty market share. This TV on sale at Walmart has an excellent cost-to-quality ratio.

Since it was my first TV, it wasn’t until after I purchased it that I realized I really like how my old CRT could show Closed Captioning when muted. This isn’t a feature most people even realize exists, and it is never mentioned on retail sites. You have to go to the manufacturer’s site, download the product’s manual and read all the details. In any case, I strongly recommend people do that for any TV they plan to buy.

The only other down side of this TV is the simplistic remote. There are no shortcuts to menu options on the remote. For example, if you want to change the “zoom” display of a channel, it takes 5-6 button presses to traverse the menu system and change the settings.

Insignia (Best Buy generic) 32" NS-L32Q-10A — $400

After additional research, I narrowed it down to this Insignia and the RCA below. When I learned from an employee that Insignia (a generic Best Buy brand) is at least partially made by LG, I went for this one. Consumer Reports says LG reliability isn’t one of the best, but at least it’s on the list (unlike RCA).

The picture quality of this TV looks quite nice, especially when compared next to the RCA, and it has my coveted Closed Captioning on mute.

Sadly it was lacking in several other ways. The signal to some of my cable channels is a bit weak, so the picture is a little fuzzy on my CRT. On the Insignia, this weak signal sometimes exhibits itself as no audio. I found the sound could be acquired by turning the TV off, then back on. Unfortunately the sound goes away again if you change to another channel and return. This didn’t always happen, but it was enough to be very troubling. In general, this TV doesn’t handle corrupted video signal very well.

Overall the TV is just very slow. It takes about 10 to 15 seconds to turn on, and channel changing often takes like 3 to 4 seconds.

While all this is pretty lame, it was still usable—that is until I tried to play video games on it. It has a seriously bad lag from receiving input to displaying the image.

I don’t think there’s any official name for this “lag” value, and it’s never reported by TV manufacturers. Not all hope is lost though. There does seem to be some brand consistency. Looking around Best Buy, I noticed most, if not all the playable video game demos were setup on Samsung LCDs. I suspect Sonys are generally pretty good with lag as well. You can also find a sort of “game mode” feature on various TVs that skips all the image processing and just blasts the video to the screen as quickly as possible.

RCA 32" L32HD41 — $350 (normally $400)

According to the specs, this TV has a higher contrast ratio than the Insignia, but it sure didn’t look like that when sitting side-by-side. The picture was very dark and bland, and never could get bright enough, or with enough contrast to pass the Zelda Twilight Princess calibration screen.

Everything else about the TV is fine. Its input-to-display lag was pretty good, and it’s the quickest to display CC after the mute button was pressed.

Sony - BRAVIA 32" KDL-32L5000 — $500 (normally $550)

After three <= $400 TVs, it was pretty clear I can’t be cheap if I want a TV to really meet my needs. It was either this Sony or a Toshiba of the same price. I found a mention of Playstation 3 in this TV’s manual (on the Sony site). I hoped this meant its lag was small enough for video games. Sure enough, its input-to-display lag is very usable.

The picture passes Zelda Twilight Princess screen calibration without problems. All-in-all it’s quite a nice TV. The only thing about it that bugs me is the 30 seconds it takes for Closed Captioning to start showing after mute is pressed. That delay is also reset if you press pretty much any button on the remote. Makes me wish there was more interest in TV firmware hacking out there.

Final notes

I have yet to find a Samsung that does CC on mute.

I’ve now dropped about $100 in new cables (all ordered online to avoid highway robbery) to make my home theater system complete. So this whole purchase has set met back over $600. I will also be paying higher energy costs for this new TV vs. my old CRT. That little guy will be missed.

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