Tips for TV buyers: How to decide on a screen size

Consumer Reports News: November 24, 2009 03:55 PM

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Many buyers don’t know how big an LCD or plasma TV they should get, especially if they've been watching a small screen for years.

In general, bigger is better—up to a point, of course. A big screen enables you to fully appreciate the fine, sharp detail of HD content, which can make viewing more compelling and create more of a theater experience. Here are some guidelines to help you settle on the right TV screen size:

If this is your first flat-panel TV, don’t base your decision on the size of your old picture-tube set. Back in the day, most of us were happy with 27-inch or 32-inch sets—and some lucky ducks had 36-inchers—but you don’t have to settle for that anymore. There are now much larger screens available, and high-definition picture quality is good enough to be viewed in a much larger size.

We believe that most consumers would be happiest with at least a 40- to 42-inch LCD or plasma TV for a main TV viewed regularly, and many would prefer a 46- to 50-inch set. Those sizes might sound large compared to what you had before, but consider a few points. First, the slim size of flat-panel TVs means they’re not as overwhelming in a room as a bulky picture-tube set.

Also, you can't compare the screen size of a squarish (4:3) TV to a widescreen (16:9) LCD or plasma set. If you currently watch a 27-inch tube TV, for instance, you might think that a 32-inch widescreen will give you an appreciably bigger picture. It won’t, because the height of the two screens is comparable, though the 32-incher is wider. As a result, objects on those two screens will be perceived as roughly the same size. In this scenario, you’d have to move up to at least a 37-inch, if not larger, set to notice an appreciable increase in size.

Room size matters to a certain extent—we wouldn’t recommend placing a 60-inch TV in a tiny room, for example—but viewing distance is actually more critical. You should be far enough from a screen that the programming looks natural. If you’re too close, you might notice the individual pixels making up the image, graininess, or video noise, what you might consider “snow” or specks.

On the other hand, you don’t want to be so far away from the screen that you can’t perceive and appreciate the crisp detail of HD programming and enjoy the experience of watching a big screen. A general rule of thumb is to sit at least 5 or 6 feet from a 40- to 47-inch set displaying good-quality HD content and at least 6 or 8 feet from a 50-inch or larger TV. Note that those are the minimum distances. You can sit a few feet farther away if you prefer the way that looks. Experiment to see what suits you best. You can also get scientific about this and use one of the many online calculator tools available, if you prefer.

Of course, your budget will come into play. All things being equal, the bigger the screen, the higher the price. (A smaller but more feature-rich set might cost more than a larger but more basic model, for example, and a premium brand is often pricier than a store make.) Prices have dropped sharply over the past year, though, so you might be happily surprised to see how much screen your money will now buy, especially during holiday sales.

Here are two real-life situations that you might find interesting. A few years ago, I replaced my 20-inch tube TV with a 42-inch plasma TV. At first, it seemed huge to me. But now I feel like I’d better appreciate the great picture quality if I were watching a 50-inch set. My room is 9x13 feet, and I’m sitting about 8 feet from the screen. So my personal experience fits in with the general guidelines above. Case number 2: A friend wall-mounted a 42-inch plasma set in a very large great room, opposite a sectional about 10 feet from the wall. The TV looked like a peanut in the big open space, and it was really too small for the viewers to enjoy. He replaced it with a 55-inch plasma set and wall-mounted the 42-incher in the spacious master bedroom.

Check out our full TV buying advice and use our LCD and plasma TV Ratings (available to subscribers) to help you find the best TV, no matter what size works for you. —Eileen McCooey

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