Screen Size Matters
Bigger Is Better
Generally speaking, bigger is always better when it comes to TVs. This isn’t just TV industry hype—a giant screen pulls you into whatever you’re watching, whether it’s a movie, a TV show, or a championship game, and it drives up your emotional engagement and excitement factor. You get lost in the picture and the story you’re watching, the way you do at the movie theater. And that’s what TV viewing is all about, right?
Manufacturers offer TVs ranging in size from 22 inches all the way to 110 inches. These days, the middle range, between 50 and 70 inches (TV screen sizes refer to the distance across the screen diagonally), is the sweet spot where you get the biggest picture for your money. These are the sets that fit most readily into the average home, so TV makers get their economies of scale—and you get a great deal on a big screen flat-panel TV. Here are some things to consider as you’re selecting the right size for your room and application.
Location, Location, Location
Before you can determine your screen size, you’ve got to know where in your room your TV is being placed. Often, that’s a given: the old set comes out, the new set goes in, the seating stays exactly where it’s always been. But, if you have options, there are some things to consider about placement.
First, the viewing distance from the HDTV to your primary seating is a key consideration in determining your screen size. There’s a general rule-of-thumb formula for this that we’ll share below. But if you have options for your seating or TV placement, you’ll find that screens in the popular 50- to 65-inch range are actually best viewed from fairly close, perhaps 7 to 10 feet away. Again, there’s no hard and fast rule about this, but the farther away you get, the smaller the image will be and the more picture detail you’ll miss. Once you’ve got a location in mind for your HDTV and primary seating, the next step is to assess the seating angle and lighting. Today’s liquid-crystal display panels used in LED TVs, by their nature, always look their best when viewed head-on, and will tend to lose some picture quality when watched from an off-angle position.
If possible, also avoid positioning your new TV where nearby table or floor lamps will cause distracting reflections on the screen that will be visible from the main seats. Likewise, try not to put your set directly beneath ceiling can lights that will beam down and wash out the image. You should also consider where your TV will be placed in relation to windows as the incoming sunlight may increase screen glare.
One last thing to think about is whether your new TV will be hung on the wall, or placed on or inside a piece of furniture. How you plan to support or house the TV may place some limitations on the screen size you select. One more aesthetic factor to consider is whether you hope to purchase a traditional flat-panel TV or one of the new curved-screen models appearing on the market.
Ideal Screen Size Formula
First, you’ll maximize your ability to see all the detail in high definition images while minimizing the potential of detecting the individual pixels that make up the picture. Second, and more critically, you’ll be optimizing the viewing angle, which has a lot to do with how immersive your viewing experience becomes.
A typical 1080p television, the most common resolution offered, has about 2 million tiny pixels for any give screen size. Each of these lights up separately to create the mosaic that becomes your television image. (You can learn more about screen resolution here). Since the number of pixels remains constant regardless of screen size, a small screen will have pixels that are smaller and closer together, while a larger screen will have pixels that are bigger and have the potential to be more visible as you approach the screen.
How close is too close? Assuming your vision is average, for a “Full HD” set with 1080p resolution, your maximum screen size can be calculated as the viewing distance (in feet) multiplied by 7.7. For example, for a viewing distance of 8 feet, 8 x 7.7 = 61.6 inches, which would translate today to a 60-inch or 65-inch screen. Go too much bigger at that distance, and you’ll risk starting to see the pixels.
For the new generation of 4K Ultra HDTVs, however, which have 4 times the resolution of 1080p televisions, the pixel count for any screen size goes up to about 8 million. That means the pixels are a lot smaller and tighter and you can get much closer to the screen without fear of pixilation. For 4K Ultra HD, multiply the viewing distance by 12 for your maximum recommended screen size. For the same seating distance of 8 feet, you could theoretically have a screen as large as 96 inches diagonal. Although you could go this big without fear of pixilation, many people would find a screen that size overwhelming at that distance, as it’s well beyond the optimal “viewing angle” (see below).
Viewing angle is a simple but critical concept in selecting a screen size. This is the angle created from your nose out to the left and right edges of your TV screen. Movie theater specifications dictate an ideal viewing angle of about 30-36 degrees. That allows the screen to comfortably fill most of your peripheral vision to optimize your engagement with the image.
Do a Trial Run
Till now, we’ve talked mostly about an ideal image size for your viewing distance, one that the experts say will deliver the most detail and greatest impact without introducing pixel artifacts. While it’s good to understand those concepts and target for that, in reality, every room and situation is different. Then, there’s personal taste. Getting the right TV isn’t about fulfilling the needs of some unknown expert—it’s about getting the right TV for you and your family.
All rooms have their own interior design, and room fixtures like windows or nearby furniture or wall hangings all have an overall effect on how well your new TV is going to blend in with the space. So will your own sense of style and aesthetics, and those of your family members. So when you think you’ve got it all figured out, do yourself a favor and try a dry run. First, go online and collect the length and width dimensions of a current TV in your targeted screen size, maybe the brand and model you’re already leaning toward. Most sets today have very narrow bezels—that’s the frame around the TV screen—and they’re all likely to be very close in their outer dimensions for a given screen size. Then, grab a roll of blue painter’s masking tape, and make an outline of the set’s outer dimensions on your wall, right at the spot where you expect the set will be positioned, whether it’s going to be wall-mounted or placed on a stand in front of that wall.
Okay, now step back to your seating distance and have a look. You’ll quickly know if your new set will feel like it’s crowding that bookcase on the left, or looks like it’s getting dwarfed inside that big open space between the windows. Adjust up or down accordingly, and when you unbox your new HDTV, it’ll look just as you, and your family, expect to see it. No surprises, right?