So I wanted to buy a television a few days ago… with the World Cup in full swing, I figured it was time to upgrade. The whole experience of buying a television, though, turned out to be quite informative (partly because I went with an engineer friend who designs displays for a living) and I figured I’d share some of the experience…

Old TelevisionNeeded an upgrade.

The thing about televisions is that, while they appear simple, they are a relatively technical large – ticket item, and so you would expect that manufacturers and retailers would educate customers and be up front about their products and try hard to steer consumers towards the best purchase for their needs.

I am kidding, of course. You would expect them to lie and manipulate and twist the truth to breaking point in the hope of selling a few more units, and that’s exactly what they do.

Consider an average consumer: he walks into a Best Buy (or another retailer, but Best Buy is an easy target for me), and starts to browse televisions. Most consumers have strong opinions about the size of the television they want, but typically they know almost nothing else about the set itself.

The first trick that retailers use is to increase the brightness and the contrast on the television sets they are trying to move. A bright television will usually look a lot more attractive than a set that is of lower brightness, so it’s an easy way to manipulate customers. Cheaper televisions typically have trouble displaying real blacks, so cranking up the brightness (and putting the television sets in very bright areas of the store) allows the store to basically overcome that limitation and have them look as good as higher-priced sets.

One way to get beyond this hurdle, of course, would be to check the specs of each set. As it turns out, unfortunately, the specs of most consumer televisions are largely meaningless. For example, consumer magazines and others have encouraged consumers to look at contrast ratio as a good benchmark of how well a set performs. Theoretically, contrast ratio is the difference between brightest white and blackest black that a set can display. So if you a dark image (any scene from Sin City, for example), having a high contrast ratio allows you to pick out details in a scene.

Manipulation on Screen GraphicsNotice the roller-coaster in the foreground?Maybe you need a higher contrast-ratio monitor! (Ed. note: don’t email me, pls. There is no roller-coaster. Repeat, no roller-coaster).

Now, a real contrast ratio would be less than 2,000. An Eizo high-end computer monitor, for example, which is fairly expensive, has a contrast ratio of 900 or so to 1. Yet, when you’ll walk into Best Buy, you’ll routinely see televisions that cost a fraction of that monitor with contrast ratios of 140,000 to 1. How is that possible?

Turns out that this bit of manipulation comes from manufacturers. When they realized that improving real contrast ratios was hard, manufacturers came up with the concept of ‘dynamic’ contrast ratio. Dynamic contrast ratio is basically a trick: when a television signal is very weak, the set dynamically reduces the light output of the screen. It does this to save power, mostly. But this gave manufacturers an idea: they invented the concept of “dynamic contrast ratio”, which is basically the difference between the screen in that power-save mode and pure white. This allowed them to quote essentially any number they wanted for ‘dynamic contrast ratio’, since the ratio of a screen that is off to one that displays white is theoretically infinite. This is how we got dynamic contrast ratios of 10,000, 100,000, and 2M:1.

Of course, these figures are completely meaningless. The true contrast ratio of these sets, which is related to the ability to see details in a dark scene, is still in the 500-2,000 range. Dynamic contrast ratio is a completely pointless measurement, comparing a screen that is basically off to a white one – it was specifically designed to attract customers to sets that couldn’t compete on the real measurement, and it is now actually counter-productive: companies that actually do make better contrast ratio sets cannot advertise them, since consumers are bombarded by meaningless million-to-one Dynamic contrast ratios.

Another spec that is often quoted is color gamut, also known as color depth, or just numbers of color. Many sets now available quote colors of 1B plus. This is another type of arms race (just like dynamic contrast ratio): bigger has to be better, right? So manufacturers routinely announce sets with ever more colors. A moment’s thought reveals that this is odd – they’re not making new colors, after all, so what does it mean to keep adding new colors? It turns out that almost all consumer content (television, games, movies, etc…) is produced in 16.8 M colors. Since a display obviously cannot ‘invent’ colors, anything above 16M colors is basically useless at best, and actually counter-productive at worst.

Manipulation on ColorsOnly 16.8 Million of these.

There are a lot more ways in which manufacturers play fast and loose with specifications and technical metrics, but let’s move on. So you’ve ignored the bright sets, you haven’t been taken in by the fake specs, and you’re now looking at the sets. You may notice that some sets have a clearer picture than others. Some retailers (Circuit City used to be notorious for this) would connect some of the sets via HDMI plug (a digital connection between the source and the set), and some others via component plugs (an analog, much older type of connection). Of course, the component plug would generate a signal that was far less crisp and clean than the digital signal, and consumers would flock to the sets connected via HDMI.

We saw a variation of this trick when we went shopping. Most of the sets were showing a beautiful, high-definition travel blu-ray DVD, full of flowing vistas and landscapes: a perfect showcase for a high-definition set. It was impressive, but also somewhat manipulative. Why? The major difference between a high-end television set and a mainstream one is actually not the display. Most displays are actually fairly similar, made by a couple of manufacturers in Asia, and then branded for different players. What makes a television truly superior is the ‘brains’, not the display. When you plug a signal into a television, it needs to figure out the best way to display it, and that turns out to be the purview of the electronic brain of the television. And, unlike displays, there is a big difference between the brains of different televisions. The best systems actually have exterior ‘brains’ that cost more than most flat-panel displays. Now, a Blu-ray DVD doesn’t require a lot of processing – it’s a high-definition source going to a high-definition television, so it doesn’t tax the brains a lot. This is why stores like to use that source – it makes all the televisions look good, from the dumb ones to the more intelligent ones.

brains of computer

It’s the brains, stupid!

In real life, of course, most consumers watch a variety of inputs – DVDs, cable television, etc… and trying to process those types of inputs does tax the brains of a television quite a bit. A high-end television will take these inputs and translate them into a great picture. A dumber set will try to do the same, but the picture will generally be less intelligently translated, resulting in artifacts, degradation, etc…  Since most stores stock cheap-to-mid-range sets (less demand for very expensive models), they all pick a Blu-Ray source to showcase the televisions in the best possible light, and leaving customers with the impression that they will see a similar picture when they plug it in their homes (which they won’t, unless they use the same Blu-Ray).

I could go on, but this should be enough for now to make the point that I wanted to when I started this post. The issue with technical purchases like televisions is that, unless a consumer spends a LOT of time researching the purchase, it’s very difficult to negotiate the maze of manufacturer and retailer manipulations. This is a pervasive and recursive curse – because consumers are manipulated in a certain way (say, to care about the meaningless dynamic contrast ratio number), manufacturers who truly want to improve their products can’t simply create a better product and let the market reward them – they need to educate the consumer, fight the misconceptions, work with the retailers, etc… Realistically, most opt to just go with the flow and do what everyone else is doing, adding a “TrueColor” or “InfiteRange” marketing monicker to their latest systems.

In the meantime, if you’re in the market for a television, spend a few minutes researching it online, and check review sites and technical perspectives. Or make friends with a lighting engineer. Your choice.