How Big Does that Flat Screen Need to Be?

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Bubba says: get a big one.

As with so many things in life, bigger is better.

There was a time when there was actually a limit on what size of TV might work in a given room. This had to do with the size of the TV screen and the distance to the viewer. If the TV was too large, you could begin to see the electronic scan lines in the picture. So if you brought home a 40” television set to put at the foot of the bed, the picture would actually appear a little fuzzier than it would in the corner of a large living room. With very few exceptions, (and a little common sense), concerns over sharpness and clarity are a thing of the past.

How far do you need to sit from the screen?

In the most general of terms, recommended viewing distance for a high definition flat panel display is about 1.5 times the horizontal picture measurement of the set. So if you have a 50” plasma screen, you need to sit a little over 6 feet away from the thing to optimize your viewing experience. How far is too far? That’s more of a personal taste issue. At some point, you begin to lose the advantage of having a large screen to begin with! Some folks have done detailed charts to figure out the optimum viewing distance for size of screen with various picture qualities.

Which brings us back to picture quality. If you’re watching a blu-ray disc or a digital signal that delivers a full high definition image at 1080p, then you are getting about as good a resolution as is available today. (1080p is tech shorthand for 1080 lines of vertical resolution, 1920 pixels wide, at a frame rate of 30 progressive frames a second.) You will receive the maximum benefit that a matching HDTV can deliver. You’re getting almost 8 times the information on an HD signal than you were on old standard defintion TV.

However, if you are watching a standard broadcast cable picture, or an old VHS tape on that same screen, you are in effect really enlarging a relatively small image. Those “older” images were usually based on a 640×480 pixel image, and the 30 frames a second were created by interlacing 60 half frames. If you’ve ever seen a photograph of an older TV image, or a super close up of a standard television screen, you can easily see those big scan lines. So when you blow that up to nearly three times its original size, you are pulling the picture apart, much like making a giant photographic enlargement from a tiny negative. The first generation of home theaters often had standard definition pictures shown through cheap projectors – the results were often disappointing.

Remember that over the air local broadcasters are now required to transmit a full digital signal, most of them are doing the majority of their programming in hi-def. You can receive this signal over the air without a set top box or converter (in most flat screen TV’s sold today.) This is actually the sharpest broadcast signal that you can receive, and it’s free! Again, this applies to your locally received broadcast signals only. Cable and satellite dish signals are compressed using various software and hardware schemes to deliver to your set.

What this means is that even with a supposed ‘hi-def’ video image, you may be getting a very compressed image. If you set up your big ass new LCD screen and put on the game only to see a bunch of blotchy patches of colors and strange moving digital blocks of image during high action sequences, you may be looking at a highly (and badly) compressed image. Therefore, getting too big a set or sitting way too close turns out to be a bad idea. Most cable and satellite systems that are trying to deliver HD to your set are getting better and better at these technologies that allow you to receive these signals. The problem is for them to be able to push so much of these high bandwidth signals all down the pipe at the same time.

So think about what you’ll be watching before you get a set the size of your entire wall. If you still have analog cable in your area, (cable operators were not required to go digital) or have a VHS library that you are unwilling to part with, then you might choose a modestly sized TV. If you are all about high resolution sources for your TV inputs, then bigger is usually better, within reason.

How high should I mount it?

This one is fairly easy. Eye level. You want the center of the picture to be around eye level. I would err a little on the side of mounting it higher in order to avoid kids and pets and distractions in front of the set. But mount it too high and you will be feeling some serious neck strain. Now this doesn’t mean that in the pool hall/bar and grill play room that you’re building, that you shouldn’t have one mounted high up in the corner… sure, that makes sense in order to avoid people blocking the picture in that kind of casual atmosphere. But for seated, relaxed home theater viewing, close to eye level is best. Remember that some LCD screens will need to be angled downward to match viewing angles if they are mounted high. This is due to their narrower view in terms of picture brightness.

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