Top 5 'gotchas' for unwary TV buyers

By Pat Pilcher

There's some bold claims being made about TVs in your local store, says tech writer Pat Pilcher.
Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

While most sales people are decent honest and hard-working folk who've taken the time to learn about the products they're selling, there are a very small number who'll simply fake it till they make it. Trouble is that when it comes to a buying big ticket item such as that new flat screen telly you've been lusting after, sales pork pies can result in you paying over the odds for an utter dog of a product.

Further complicating matters is the sheer amount of misinformation around about TVs which not only acts to further confuse already bewildered buyers, but also provides less than scrupulous sales people with plenty of ammo to fire at unknowing buyers.

This was bought home to me the other day when on my lunch break I popped into a well-known appliance retail chain and overheard a sales person talking up the benefits of million-to-one contrast ratios on an LCD TV they were trying to sell some bewildered buyers.

The BS was bold, and I have to admit that I was morbidly fascinated, (In much the same way that someone would be watching a train wreck unfold in slow motion) Because of this I decided to hang around and see which piece of snake oil TV was going to be touted next.


1: Contrast Ratios

For the purposes of accuracy, contrast ratio is the measurement of the difference between the whitest white a screen can display and the deepest darkest black able to be shown. The higher the ratio, the more contrast and this in theory should help with depth and definition, so a higher contrast ratio is usually better.

Trouble is even though some manufacturer's specs talk up several million to one ratios, the contrast ratio number is at best only ever going to be a broad guideline of what a TV screen can actually display. Manufacturing variances make it next to impossible to give an exact contrast ratio spec to any given TV screen yet sadly both sales people and buyers take this number as fact.

With Contrast ratios remember this; plasmas TVs may have better contrast ratios than LCD TVs but recent improvements to LCD display technologies such as LED backlighting (which can be selectively brightened or dimmed to improve contrast ratio specs) are rapidly narrowing the gap.

Further complicating matters, most TVs on display in the store are set by default to what is usually called "Vivid" mode which maxes out contrast levels and ups colour saturation to make the picture stand out from a competitors TV located nearby. If you're considering a particular TV, ask the sales person for its remote and have a play at tweaking its colour, contrast and brightness settings to get a feel for what the TV is capable of. Don't forget to take how usable the remote and the TVs onscreen picture setting menus into account too.


2: Extended warranties

Having baffled the poor buyers with TV spec mumbo-jumbo, it appeared that the deal was about to be closed and the sales person moved their hapless customers towards the checkout saying "oh and you'll need an extended warranty, we get faulty flatscreen TVs coming back in for repair all the time"

Up-selling gullible customers into an extended warranty could be optimistically called showing sales initiative, but more realistically should be called a total crock. Of course sales people see TVs coming in for repair - they work at a TV store. The real issue is what proportion of the total number of TVs sold are returned for repair. Needless to say, this is most likely to be a very tiny number indeed.

Aside from the fact that most big brand flatscreen tellys are pretty reliable, New Zealand also has really good consumer protection law in the form of the consumers guarantee act.

Should your TV fail to perform as advertised after you've purchased it, there is a good chance that you could be entitled to a replacement, repair or even a refund (see here for more info on the consumers guarantee act. This is of course several bazillion times less expensive than an extended warranty that you're probably never going to use, even though you'd end up paying a fortune for it.


3: LED TVs

This is another bug bear of mine. Fortunately this myth is only perpetuated by badly informed sales people, as well as misinformed buyers. There is no such thing as an LED TV - they simply don't exist.

In reality, what happens is that Most buyers simply get confused with the backlight technology used by most LCD TVs. Earlier LCD TVs used a fluorescent tube backlight which made getting consistent and even backlighting across the entirety of the TVs screen a real challenge. Getting around this saw many manufacturers migrating to LEDS for backlighting.

Not only was it possible to get even backlighting across the entire screen and more accurate colour reproduction, but LEDs also turned out to be more energy efficient and were able to be selectively dimmed or brightened to improve picture contrast levels.


4: HDMI

Even though many wouldn't fall for it, the great HDMI cable scam remains a persistent con, catching out the unwary. With both audio and video delivered over an HDMI connection as a digital signal, there is absolutely no discernible difference in picture or sound quality between an el-cheapo 1metre $40 HDMI cable and its $299 counterpart. Yet bizarrely buyers seem all too prepared to part with huge amounts of money for supposedly superior HDMI cables.

About the only time a more expensive HDMI cable would ever deliver the AV goods is when it is longer than say 8-12 metres, when they may work. Longer HDMI cable runs will most often need an HDMI switcher/booster rather than gold plated oxygen free schiesteristic HDMI cable pixie dust to work.


5: Audio

Having taken the poor customers money for the TV and an extended warranty, the sales person concluded the deal by talking up the audio on the TV. As tempted as I was to intervene, I didn't. Which is a real shame as the sad fact of the matter is that most flatscreen TVs don't have anything approaching remotely decent audio output capabilities. For most TV brands, their wafer thin design means that only tiny speaker drivers are used as manufacturers are reluctant to add big bass speaker drivers and the bulk that this would entail. Unfortunately Small speaker drivers generate tinny thin audio which probably doesn't mesh very well that cinematic experience the buyer is probably seeking.

Unless you are already the proud owner of a kick ass home theatre setup, factor in audio into your TV buying budget, it'll make a huge difference. Ideally you should aim for a good home theatre amp plus front, rear, centre and sub-woofer speakers plus cables. This said, Even a budget home theatre kit or sound bar will usually deliver superior audio to what most flatscreen TVs are capable of. With Freeview and sky broadcasting surround sound audio, even an el-cheapo 5.1 surround sound home theatre kit will help bring movies and TVs shows to life.

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