As kickoff approaches on a new football season, we open up the playbook for finding a great sports TV.
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If you're shopping for a new TV in anticipation of kickoff (or just want to get more out of your current set), there are a handful of specs and features that give certain models a competitive edge. Here's the playbook on what makes a TV great for deep passes and big hits—complete with a few of our top draft picks.
If performance is paramount, plasmas have a few distinct advantages over LCD and LED TVs. They handle moving objects better than LCDs do, so they won't struggle to keep up with receivers sprinting deep routes. They tend to have very wide viewing angles, so anybody near the TV can see the action. And at big screen sizes—especially 50 inches and up—they're much cheaper.
None of that matters if you can't see your TV. LCD (and especially LED) sets get much brighter than plasma, making it easy to see the action if you're in a room with lots of natural light—afternoon games, anyone? They're also thinner and more energy-efficient, and might better-complement your minimalist interior theme, if you're into that sort of thing.
That said, these relative strengths and weaknesses are less pronounced than they used to be, and shouldn't be dramatic enough to make or break a sports fan's buying decision.
And if your salary cap can swing it, there's another brand-new option to consider: OLED TVs are finally here. They're strictly better than plasma or LCD. But you'd need to earn at least the NFL league minimum to justify buying one: LG's 55-inch curved model costs $14,999, and Samsung's version will be $8,999 when it's released.
Like a 6-foot, 4-inch quarterback or a 300-pound lineman, there is an ideal size for a TV. Measure the distance in inches between your seat and your screen, divide by 2.5, and voila, your target screen size. It's big enough to fill most of your field of view, small enough so that you won't spot individual pixels. Since the dawn of high definition, every tech journalist or blogger has written that formula at least once.
Thing is, nobody cares. If sales data tell us anything, it's that people like really big screens—the hugest they can afford, without having to take the front door off its hinges or the window out of its frame. If you're going to buy a mini-jumbotron in person, at least check to see whether it'll fit in your car for the ride home. True story: We sold a used 65-incher to a guy after we finished testing it, then watched as he and his buddy struggled to fit it into a Toyota Tercel.
Would you rather have your TV handle action like Adrian Peterson gliding through the defensive line, or like Mark Sanchez stutter-stepping into his teammate's backside? Motion performance refers to how a TV can render moving objects. The worst models leave blurry streaks behind anything in motion. The best ones keep the details crisp. It's a super-complicated topic, but you can get a rough idea of what to expect by looking at the refresh rate, measured in hertz.
Picture purists will probably disagree with us on this one, but when it comes to sports, a faster refresh rate is a good thing. We'd never buy a TV solely because of its advertised refresh rate, and none of this really applies to plasmas. But if your LED TV already has a motion-smoothing setting, feel free to crank it up on Sunday afternoons. Just be sure to turn it off before you watch anything else, especially movies—it creates an otherworldly, slightly disconcerting look, where everything seems to be moving just a hair faster than it should be.
Imagine if Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees could only see the part of the football field between the hash marks. That's sort of what it's like to have a TV with a crummy viewing angle. The picture looks great if you're sitting on a couch, staring straight at the screen, but it's hard to make out anything if you're off to the side.
Viewing angles can vary wildly from set to set, and there's nothing on a spec sheet that can help you figure out what it'll look like beforehand (though plasmas generally have wider viewing angles). But if game day is usually held at your house, it's worth spending the time looking for something that'll let your guests see the screen from anywhere. Spend some time reading reviews, and scope out a few TVs in a showroom.
When it comes to sports, there aren't any compelling reasons to care about smart TV, 3D, or 4K. They're kind of like the arena football league—a mildly entertaining sideshow if you're really into the game.
The best way to watch a game is live, and when it comes to the NFL and the big college conferences, traditional TV channels still dominate. Streaming video just isn't a factor all that often, and even if it were, a smart TV isn't the only way to view that streaming content. Something like a real-time fantasy-football overlay would be a nice add-on app—but we can't think of a good example of one on any major TV brand right now. So basically, smart TV won't affect the way you enjoy sports on your TV.
3D sports broadcasts were supposed to make 3D TV worthwhile. But even after a few years on the air, the format never caught on, barely registering in Nielsen Co.'s ratings. ESPN announced that it plans to kill its 3D channel by the end of 2013. You can still catch some college games in this gimmicky, dying format before the season is over, if you really want to. But if sports are your priority, don't let 3D factor into your purchasing decision.
As for 4K, it has the potential to be pretty cool. You can buy it now, and for pretty cheap, too. But it won't change the way you watch sports—at least not for several years. Nobody can broadcast a 4K signal yet, so even if ESPN could deploy an entire crew to shoot a game in ultra high-def, there'd be no way to get the signal to your TV. Then there's the argument that you need a huge 4K TV to even spot a difference compared to "regular" HD, but that's a whole other can of worms.
The Samsung F8500 plasma series (MSRP $3,149, 60-inch) earned some of our best ratings this year, thanks in part to beautiful motion, impressive brightness (at least by plasma standards), and a super-wide viewing angle. It's an all-pro, and as such, you'll have to check your salary cap room.
The Panasonic S60 plasma series (MSRP $1,299, 60-inch) is a solid role-player. Performance is great by any measure—and especially for such a huge screen at such a low price. The only hitch is moderate brightness, so you might have a bit of trouble seeing it clearly in a super-bright room.
If your budget is more "league minimum" than "franchise owner," check out the Vizio E-A2 LED series (MSRP $899, 55-inch). As an LED TV, so it can get blindingly bright. Motion smoothing is a bit aggressive, but that's fine for watching sports. The only real letdown is the narrow viewing angle. But for the price, this is the LED we'd pick for sports.