Is Bigger Better? In TVs, Maybe Not.

Optimial viewing ranges?I read on several websites that for a distance of about 3.6 m (12 ft) from the screen to the viewer, the optimum size of a television should be 85 inches (220 cm, measured on the diagonal). That’s also the distance between someone sitting on our couch and our current (much smaller) TV screen.

The mind boggles. A TV set that large (74 by 43 inches, or 190 by 109 cm, or 3,225 sq. in./ 20,710 sq. cm) would occlude our windows! (our house is of modest size, not one of those starter castles that seem to be built in town these days) Where would we even put something that large? Where could we even put a wall mount large and strong enough to hold it aloft without ripping down an upright?

I must admit to a certain inability to appreciate bigger-is-better concept when it comes to TV screens. I balk at sets that are too large to carry single-handedly. I balk, too, at TVs that are larger on the diagonal than I am tall.

Television screens have doubled in size in last 10 yearsOur TV is more than a decade old, and although working well, it doesn’t offer the best viewing by today’s standards. It is also, by the engorged standards on display in appliance and electronics stores, also quite modest in size. I thought we might enjoy the enhanced features and resolution available in newer sets, including the improved connectivity. So when I started looking for a new TV set, I was looking at size, screen area, apps, resolution, and other features. And, of course, price: value for the dollar matters when you’re on a pension.

You might be surprised at how quickly a salesperson abandons you when you suggest you lack interest in the giant, top-of-the-line, room-filling screens with price tags that top $2,000 and even $3,000, and would like to examine sets at a fraction of that price and size. Like under $700 taxes included. See that? That’s the back of a salesperson walking away… (thankfully we did get to speak to a charming young woman in Bestbuy who didn’t turn away when we started discussing our modest price…)

First, an apology: TV sizes are still measured in archaic imperial units, and although I mostly translate them to proper metric sizes, because they are marketed anachronistically, I will continue to use that system. Fortunately, as a Canadian, I understand both the old-fashioned imperial and the modern metric systems of measurement. But, really… inches? This is 2021.

TV screenOur TV for the past decade has been a well-made workhorse: a Sony Bravia, with a 39″ diagonal screen (43″ from thick bezel to bezel edge; 99 cm and 109 cms respectively). It still works (at 1080 resolution) but technology ages poorly (as do we all).

We sit about 12 feet (3.5-3.6 meters) away. The screen itself is 35 x 19.5 inches (89 x 49.5 cm) or about 682.5 sq. inches (about 4,405 sq cm, or less than half-a-square metre). By the standards of many websites, we should be sitting less than half the distance — 5.5 ft ( 1.68 m) — away from the set. Or even closer!

Sony — a popular manufacturer of many excellent TVs — says the optimum distance from a TV set “for watching a 4K TV is 1.5 times the TV’s vertical screen size.” For a 50″ 4K TV, the vertical height is 24″, so the optimum distance according to that formula is 36″ or 1 yard (not even a full metre!). But below that formula is a figure that suggests a distance of 39 inches (3.28 feet) for a 49″ TV. And for 55″, it is 63 inches (5.25 feet).

For high-def models, Sony suggests the viewer sit “three (3) times the TV’s vertical screen size.” (or six feet/72 inches from a 50″ TV). And for standard-def TVs, it should be “six (6) times the TV’s vertical screen size.” (12 ft/144 inches away from a 50″ TV).

Rtings.com recommends a distance of 6.8′ (2.06 m) for mixed-use viewing, or less (5′, or 1.53 m) for watching movies on a 50″ screen. However, it notes:

Since resolutions found today are almost exclusively 4k (Ultra HD), it takes a very big TV watched from very close to see imperfections related to the resolution. Because of this, you can sit closer to your TV than you would with lower resolutions and have a more immersive experience. Think of it like a movie theater: the more a TV fills your view, the more immersive it will feel.

That doesn’t mean you should be sitting a foot away from your TV. Having the largest screen possible isn’t always ideal. The human visual system has a total horizontal field of view of about 200 degrees, although a portion of that is peripheral vision. While it makes some sense to get as large a TV as you can for movies, not all content is made to fill the entire field of view. This becomes very apparent if you try to watch sports from up close while fixating on a single part of the screen, which quickly starts to feel nauseating.

Another site suggests for standard and high-def, the “optimal viewing distance for these formats is the length of the diagonal side of the television multiplied by 3.5 for SD and 3.9 for HD.” For full HD (1920 x 1080 resolution), multiply the diagonal by 2.5. And for 4K (3849 x 2160 resolutions), multiply it by “1.3 and even 1.5.”

For a 50″ TV, that gives us distances (respectively) of 14.5 feet for SD, 16.25 feet for HD, but 5.4 to 6.25 for 4K. Again, that doesn’t make much sense that we need to be further away to see the lower quality and lower resolution.

TV Guide suggests that for a 50” TV, a viewing distance of 6.3 ft – 10.4 ft for 1080 screens, and 4.2 ft – 6.3 ft for 4K and ultra HD.

Piffle. Who came up with these formulae? It all seems driven by marketing, meant to encourage people to buy bigger TVs.

Verywellhealth.com is more conservative, recommending:

The general rule of thumb is to be at least 5 times the distance from the screen as the screen is wide. For example, if your television is 32 inches wide, the optimal viewing distance is 160 inches or about 13 feet.

I get that TVs are power toys for many people: having a huge TV is an attempt to show status, like a bower bird building a nest with shiny objects. They’re like other consumer status icons: Nike running shoes, iPhones, loud Harleys, Audis and BMWs: meant to impress the same way a peacock’s tail does (for males, there’s an old saw: the gaudier/louder/bigger/more expensive the ornament, the smaller the penis). But I’m too old for that crap: I just want to watch a few movies or shows on a brighter screen at a higher resolution. 

I don’t want a piece of furniture that dominates the room, especially when it will be off and dark most of the time, a sullen black rectangle like a monolith from 2001 A Space Odyssey turned on its side. 

I am of the generation that was raised NOT to sit (or lay, as I did when watching Saturday morning cartoons) too close to the TV — a warning my and neighborhood mothers gave us regularly. TVs in my youth were tiny — the screens not much bigger than the door on a small microwave oven, although ensconced in a hefty wooden frame — in comparison to today’s appliances, they were tiny. And for most of my youth, not in colour.

My parents worried about TV radiation, back in the Cold War when nuclear war was a daily threat. Today’s TVs don’t emit radiation, of course, but it’s still hard to shed my parents’ fears. They worried about eye damage, too, from TV watching, but the worst we expect today might be eye strain.

We children duly sat two or often several more metres away from the tiny screen to watch our shows, movies, and cartoons (at least when our mother was watching). Our TV set screen’s vertical height would have been little more than a foot (12-14 inches) and a fairly coarse resolution by today’s standards, so as per the Sony formula, we should have sat about two metres away (our mothers were right!).

When we wanted a bigger screen, and sometimes a show in colour, we went to the movie theatre (always a favourite place to while away a Saturday or Sunday afternoon when scifi B films topped the cinematic offerings).

But I am confused: why would we have to sit closer when the detail becomes greater? Doesn’t more detail mean we can see more and better from afar? To me, the figures should be the inverse of those presented. Sit closer with lower res, further with higher res. At least, that’s how my eyes work.

I don’t want a screen so large or to sit so close that my eyes have to keep darting from side to side or my head turning left and right to see what’s happening on the edges. If I sat much closer than where we do now, that’s what would be happening. We sit far enough away to take it all in without having to struggle or shift. 

(I also think being that close would reduce the sound separation from the speakers and lessen that effect; you need a reasonable separation of speakers to achieve proper stereo.)

The space we have to mount a TV set today is limited as is our budget, so even if I was so inclined, those giant screens are simply not viable (not to mention I’m not confident our studs could hold one that heavy). Besides, we watch TV only for a short time each day, a couple of hours during and just after dinner. For 21 or 22 hours the device is simply off.

We don’t have cable, and we stick to two streaming services: Acorn primarily (for its British, Australian, New Zealand, and European shows), and Netflix (mostly for Star Trek franchises, but sometimes a movie or another show). We get news and weather from the radio or websites. I don’t want to invest a lot of money in something that we use moderately (and no, we don’t have a TV set in the bedroom: we read in bed every night as proper folk do).

After some hemming and hawing, and tugging on a tape measure, we decided the largest appliance for our space would be a 50″ (127 cm) TV. That would give us a screen size of about 44″ x 25″ (112 cm x 63.5 cm) or 1,102.5 sq in. (7,112 sq. cm): roughly 60 percent larger than what we have now. Appliance stores want to push much bigger screens: most of the units on display are 65 inches or larger. A fifty-inch set isn’t actually much larger from edge to edge than our existing TV because the older set has very wide bezels, while newer sets have none. 

For us, even a 50-inch set would be a monstrously large appliance, the largest TV we have ever owned. For me, it is gobsmacking. I lived with a little 9″ B&W portable TV for the better part of a decade, and didn’t even get a colour TV until the early 1980s, when I purchased a small bookshelf TV (mostly because it could be hooked up to my Atari 800, my main computer at the time). We’ve lived with our 39″ Sony — which seemed enormous at the time we bought it — for the past 11 years.

But along with a new set comes upscaled resolution, better lighting, lower power drain, better connectivity, better sound, and various “smart” features that, I hope, will give us another several years of use (and let me see my collection of Godzilla films in higher resolution than I can with my older set).

Which set to buy that suits our rather modest budget? There are some good sites for technical specs, but in general online reviews are untrustworthy. I spent hours and hours reading about brands, features, and technical specs. We eventually decided on a TCL Series 5 50″ ROKU TV. Having Roku as the O/S allows us to reduce our controllers (we had Roku as a standalone device), and will stream 4K videos (not sure if our older Roku controller can do that). And it should fit comfortably on the existing wall mount.

Whether our choice is the best, we don’t know yet. But we still won’t sit any closer than with the older 1080-screen Sony.

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