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What is 3D TV?

By Andrew Laughlin

3D TV offers a sense of depth that standard 2D TV can't match. Bear in mind, though, that you'll have to wear special glasses to watch it.

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If you enjoyed watching films such as Avatar or The Hobbit at the cinema in 3D, then you can get a similar experience at home with a Best Buy 3D television.

All the best TV brands, including Samsung, Panasonic, LG and Sony, offer 3D TVs. Although, bear in mind that, just as with the cinema, you'll need to wear special glasses to watch it, and the experience won’t be to everyone’s tastes.

How does 3D TV work?

3D TVs polarise the original 3D pictures into separate images. Seen with the naked eye, the picture appears to be blurred, but if you put on 3D glasses, the separate images are directed to either your right or left eye, creating the impression of depth.

It’s worth bearing in mind that there's really no such thing as an exclusively 3D TV. Rather there are TVs that come with 3D as a feature. You can use them to watch your usual 2D TV and films, but also 3D content providing you own a Best Buy Blu-ray player, or have access to 3D programs through your TV provider, such as Sky or Virgin Media.

3D TV: What you need to know

  • Screen size: You can get 3D on a wide range of TVs to suit all budgets, but to really enjoy the experience go for as big a screen as you can afford. 3D doesn’t always work well on a small TV, so we'd recommend 40-inches or larger.
  • Viewing distance: For the best 3D experience you should watch from the optimal distance. Measure two and a half times the height of your TV’s screen, and then ensure you’re sitting that distance away from the set. If you’re viewing the TV at an angle, such as 45 degrees, the 3D effect is likely to fade and other picture problems may materialise (see the ‘What's 3D picture quality like?’ section below).
  • Glasses: You'll need to wear glasses to watch 3D, so ensure they're as comfortable as possible. TVs don’t always come with free pairs of 3D glasses, or may not have enough pairs for your whole family, so check before buying. If you wear spectacles and find it uncomfortable to put the 3D glasses over the top, you can buy clip-on 3D glasses or lenses.

Active 3D vs passive 3D

There are two main 3D technologies - passive and active - and each has its own pros and cons. The big TV manufacturers have adopted both technologies, although LG has mostly focussed on passive 3D, while Panasonic, Samsung and Sony are more involved with active 3D.

Passive 3D: if you’ve been to the cinema to watch a 3D film, you’ll be familiar with passive 3D. Put on these sunglasses-style specs and each of your eyes see differently polarised light. Your brain then combines the two views to form the 3D picture. Passive glasses are cheap and you usually get plenty of pairs included with your TV, but the 3D picture is not as detailed as active 3D.

Active 3D: TVs with active 3D have a higher resolution 3D image. The glasses synchronise with the TV via an infra-red or Bluetooth signal and rapidly blink on and off, playing back images to the right eye and left eye. The glasses are heavier and often more bulky compared to passive specs, and they’re also more expensive if you need to replace them, typically costing between £15 and £30.

3D content: What can I watch?

Something that has held 3D TV back from becoming more popular is a lack of 3D content to watch, particularly free 3D programmes on television.

Sky used to offer a dedicated Sky 3D channel, broadcasting a range of 3D movies, sport and documentaries. However, that has now closed and the broadcaster instead offers 3D content on-demand to its satellite subscribers. Virgin Media and BT Vision do the same.

The BBC occasionally shows major events for free in 3D on its HD channel, such as Wimbledon or the Olympics, but it is now scaling back its 3D plans. Some TVs with 3D are able to convert 2D content to 3D, although we’ve found that the 3D effect is rarely convincing or enjoyable to watch.

You can buy or rent 3D Blu-ray films if you have a compatible Blu-ray player (both the discs and player will cost a bit more than non-3D versions). Read more with our best 3D Blu-ray players guide.

What's 3D picture quality like?

As with 2D, 3D picture quality can vary widely between brands and types of TV. A great 3D picture will give a good sense of overall depth, with smooth motion and no loss of resolution or detail.

Poor 3D TVs show drab and dull pictures, and sometimes suffer from a problem known as 'ghosting' or 'crosstalk', where you see an image that is blurry and doubled - a bit like you're not actually wearing the glasses. As a general rule, 3D Blu-ray films have better picture quality than 3D TV broadcasts due to being less compressed.

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