Televisions have got complicated. Once upon a time, televisions were fairly straightforward. You bought a massively cumbersome box, with a small, grainy screen, plugged it into the aerial socket, and spent the day watching a still image of the test-card girl playing noughts and crosses with her spooky clown doll.
Nowadays, ever-changing technology is improving the picture and functionality of TVs, but also increasing their complexity almost exponentially. So whether you’re looking to buy a new TV, understand the one you already have a little bit better, or just pretend to your friends that you know your LED from your LCD, this is what it all means.
The bezel is the bit around the outside of the screen. In the past, TVs used to be almost more bezel than screen but now, like the crossing into Monaco, they’re a satisfyingly small and unobtrusive border. Nevertheless, always check the full size of the unit before buying a TV, and remember, the whole size is bigger than just the screen measurement.
The TV screen size is measured diagonally, corner-to-corner, and does not include the bezel (see, you’re using your new term already!). When choosing what size to get, advice suggests you should sit around twice as far from your TV as the diagonal measurement – so if you’re sitting 11 feet from your TV, a 65-inch screen would be appropriate.
If you bought a new TV today, chances are it would be a liquid crystal display (LCD) one. LCD TVs use backlighting to shine light through liquid crystal cells in the TV's panel, letting varying amounts of colour through to create a picture.
Processing rate refers to how rapidly the picture changes on screen. The higher the processing rate, the smoother and better-quality the image. This is particularly noticeable if you’re watching something fast-paced, such as sport or action movies.
The TV picture consists of thousands of tiny, coloured dots called pixels. The screen resolution is simply how many dots your screen can display. Screen resolution consists of two numbers: the number of horizontal pixels and the number of (you guessed it) vertical pixels, so it may look like 1,920 x 1,080. The more pixels, the sharper the picture.
High definition means you get a much more detailed, sharper image on your screen. Full HD means the TV is able to receive 1,080 lines across the screen (the pixels we talked about above). Normally, Full HD televisions have an HD TV tuner installed, like Freeview HD, so you automatically get channels broadcast to you in high definition.
HD Ready means your TV is able to handle a high-definition signal. It displays 720 lines, so isn’t quite Full HD. With an HD Ready TV, there’s no HD Tuner built in, so you’d need to use a provider such as Sky or Virgin to provide your HD pictures.
Standard definition (SDTV)
A standard definition, or SDTV, can only show 576 horizontal lines. This is the industry minimum, and essentially means you have a slightly less developed picture, and no friends.
4K TV or UHD (Ultra High Definition)
If you’ve got Full HD, you probably thought you had as good a picture as it gets, with just over 2 million pixels on your screen. Sorry, not so! 4K, or Ultra High Definition (UHD) gives you more than 8 million(!) of those beautiful little dots. If you don’t want to take my word for it, you could always try counting them. (And by the way, 8K is here, but it's still early days…)
While there are now hundreds of High Definition channels broadcasting in the UK there are not many showing Ultra High Definition. Selected BBC programming, such as Blue Planet II, are available in UHD on the BBC iPlayer. Amazon Prime Video and Netflix offer a selection of 4K entertainment, and Blu-ray discs are another UHD option.
Practically the only thing I can remember from O-level physics is that LED stands for Light Emitting Diode. LED TVs use an LED backlighting panel to allow light through an LCD screen, improving the picture and making colours more vivid.
Organic light-emitting diode TVs have an organic, carbon-based film placed between two conductors. When an electrical current is passed through, it emits light. This process takes place in every single pixel in an OLED display. It shows a more vivid picture than normal LED, allows for a thinner screen, has good-quality imagery when viewed from any angle, and uses less power. OLED is, essentially, LED’s younger, more talented brother: Andy Murray to LED’s Jamie. It is also more expensive, natch.
You might reasonably be feeling that one more load of initials promising a better picture with brighter contrast and more vibrant colours will lead you to put a large brick through the nearest flat screen TV. So we won’t tell you that HDR (High Dynamic Range) supports wider colour spectrums, making for a brighter and better picture. But, um, it does.
Remember the Sinclair C5? It launched amid huge fanfare and claims that the future had arrived. You’ll have noticed we’re not all driving them around. Nor are we all watching curved TVs, because amid the suggestion that it was a more immersive watching experience, the reality intruded: unless sitting in the absolute optimum position, curved TVs foreshorten or distort the picture.
Like David Cameron, this ‘was the future once’. With fabulous pictures and vibrant colours, plasma was considered superior to LED TVs. But plasma TVs were more expensive, heavier, used more power, and were prone to ‘burn’ ghostly images on to the screen if left paused for too long. No longer mass produced, plasma TVs have been retired, and are spending their days on the lucrative after-dinner speaking circuit. Oh, sorry, that’s David Cameron.
The UK's digital terrestrial TV service, Freeview is delivered to your home through an aerial. You get 70 TV channels and 30 radio stations on Freeview, which claims 95% of the nation's favourite programmes are available on it. All new TVs have Freeview built in, but users with older sets can buy set-top boxes, which may also give them PVR (personal video recorder) and VOD (video on demand). Freesat is Freeview’s satellite version with even more channels.
A personal video recorder allows you to record programmes on several channels at once, as well as pause live TV. Most PVRs allow users to save hundreds, even thousands, of hours of television. It’s just like an old VHS. Only it can record several channels. And doesn’t need cassettes. And can record whole series at the push of a button. It’s nothing like VHS.
VOD services allow users to watch TV they may have missed. Free suppliers of VOD include iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, and My5. Video on-Demand is available on smart TVs, or through the tuner boxes of suppliers, including Freeview Play, Virgin Media and Sky.
Subscription Video on-Demand
SVOD allows users to access a huge library of old and new and exclusive content for a monthly fee. The big two suppliers are Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video. Both are producing large amounts of exclusive content, and their spending power is astronomical. Newer contenders include Disney+ and BritBox, and there's also a host of smaller, more niche suppliers, many of which are available as Amazon add-ons.
If Freeview doesn’t quite cut the mustard (only 70 channels, you say?), you can buy a TV package from one of the big three providers – Sky, Virgin and BT (they can also provide your Wi-Fi and phone line). Their bundles contain hundreds of channels, and include premium sports and movie channels. They also provide VOD and PVR, which is A-OK!
Just a few years ago, 3D TV was the coming trend. Pretty soon we’d all be practically inhabiting the content we watched, thanks to astonishing three-dimensional wizardry. Except the effects weren’t that great, the glasses were expensive, and very little 3D-compatible material was broadcast. In short, RIP 3D TV.
A smart TV allows you to access online content via the internet. This means that you can access VOD (eg BBC iPlayer) and SVOD (eg Netflix) services at the touch of a button. Most also allow you to browse the internet and access social media accounts. (NB You must already have the internet available in your home.)
Just like smartphones, smart TV comes with a load of apps available for download. As well as your iPlayer/All4 and Netflix/Amazon TV staples, there are games, keep fit apps, music apps and many more. But beware, not all apps are available on all TVs, so check out what you have access to when buying a smart TV. If you don't have a smart TV apps can be downloaded onto devices such as Roku and Amazon Fire.
Flat screen TVs are brilliant! Who doesn’t love a flat screen TV? Mr Sound, that’s who. The TVs are now too thin to support speakers able to deliver powerful, rich sound. If you want your audio to match the beauty of your visuals, you could do worse than invest in a soundbar, a long, low, flat speaker that sits on top of or underneath your TV, and provides a proper bang for your buck.
Many TVs claim to offer ‘virtual’ surround sound. They don’t. For the best possible audio experience, surround sound or ‘home cinema’ systems typically include a subwoofer and multiple mini satellite speakers. The subwoofer provides powerful low frequency bass while mini speakers are placed around the room to provide the sound effects.
Electronic programme guide (EPG)
Found on most new televisions, as well as on set-top boxes, this on-screen channel guide lets you examine what’s on TV in the forthcoming week, allowing you to select programmes, set reminders and record programmes if you have a PVR.
Most new TVs now have a USB port, allowing you to plug in a USB stick (a little portable device on to which you can save stuff from your computer). This means you can view photos, listen to music, or watch films on your TV that you have downloaded from your computer.
High-Definition Multimedia Interface technology is the global standard for connecting high-definition equipment. HDMI cables attach your TV to all manner of equipment, from DVD and Blu-ray players to games consoles, and from digital TV to Apple TV. As such, anyone buying a new TV should ensure it has at least four HDMI ports.
If my mother is anything to go by, one of the great confusions of the modern age is getting these two buttons mixed up. ‘Guide’ takes you to the Electronic Programme Guide, with TV listings for the next week. ‘Menu’ takes you to the menu page for setting up the TV, which can lead to you disappearing down a complex technical rabbit hole and emerging, dazed and confused, three days later, with a telly insisting on showing subtitles. In Japanese.
Picture in Picture
Picture in Picture or PIP displays a small image of another channel or DVD in the corner of the screen while you watch the main image. This allows you to keep an eye on a sporting event, check when another programme is starting or an ad-break is finishing, or enjoy the thrill of failing to properly concentrate on two programmes at once.
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