Buying a new TV can feel like a uniquely stressful experience for any number of reasons. Most people tend to hold on to a TV for far longer than, say, they’ll keep a phone, so it feels like there’s more pressure to make the right choice. There’s also a terrifying amount of jargon to sift through, with little real information about which features actually lead to a better viewing experience.
Unfortunately, there is no perfect formula for buying the right TV. As with phones, you can’t just look at a TV’s spec sheet and know how it’s going to perform. Even if you could, everyone’s TV needs are different.
You could try to find a review online — there are some great sites that specialize in TV reviews like Rtings and HDTVTest — but although they’re useful, it’s impossible for them to cover everything. And even checking out a TV in a showroom doesn’t give you the whole story about how a set will perform in your home.
So instead, what we’re going to do with this guide is introduce you to all of the key features in modern TVs. We’ll lay out which features could be important to you, and which ones you’re probably safe to ignore. Think of this guide as a glossary: it won’t hold all of the answers, but it should arm you with the knowledge to make a better decision for yourself.
What resolution do I need?
If you’re buying a TV in 2019, you should probably be buying a 4K set. These TVs have a resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels, which is enough to fit in four 1080p TVs’ worth of pixels. If you’re buying a smaller TV under 40 inches, then you might find that you’re only able to buy a 1080p model, but if it’s an option and your budget allows it, then you should definitely opt for 4K.
There are big ongoing arguments about whether your brain can actually perceive the full 4K resolution at the kinds of distances from which people watch TVs. But honestly, these conversations aren’t productive. 4K TVs don’t just have more pixels; they also tend to have wider dynamic ranges and color gamuts, which make for better viewing experiences, regardless of where you’re sitting or how big your TV is.
Maybe at some point in the future, we’ll transition to 8K (four times more than 4K), but that future is so far away that there’s not much point in trying to future-proof yourself by buying an 8K set now. Sure, maybe one day you’ll be able to watch 8K content on it. But by that time, there’ll probably be other things that are outdated about your TV, whether it’s the ports it uses, the apps it runs, or some other future features that haven’t even emerged yet.
What size is best?
There are various formulas that are recommended for choosing the best-sized TV for your house. Samsung, for example, recommends that you buy a TV that has a diagonal viewing distance of half of your viewing distance in inches. So if you sit 10 feet (120 inches) away from your TV, then you’d want a 60-inch TV.
But it’s more complicated than that, as anyone with a tiny or weirdly shaped living room can attest to. Sometimes you just need something that’s a little smaller, regardless of how far away you’re sitting from your TV.
The unfortunate reality is that many TV brands tend to prioritize their bigger sets for their most advanced technologies before allowing those features to trickle down to the smaller cheaper sets. OLED TVs (which we’ll get to in the next section) are a good example. At the moment, they’re currently unavailable in any size smaller than 55 inches — although there are indications that this could change in the future.
So if your budget and space allow, it’s often worthwhile to err on the larger side when buying a TV.
OLED or LCD or QLED?
One of the bigger decisions you have to make when buying a TV is what type of panel you want. These days, your choice is basically between OLED and LCD. (The latter is a category that also includes QLED.) Plasma TVs haven’t been around for at least half a decade, and MicroLED sets are unlikely to be widely available for years.
OLED is generally thought of as the more premium of the two technologies, not least because, in most cases, it’s a lot more expensive. Because it doesn’t have a backlight, each pixel is capable of outputting their own light or turning off entirely. That gives OLED displays really dark black levels, which provides a great sense of depth. In addition, viewing angles on OLED TVs are excellent.
What’s also nice about OLEDs is that basically every model on the market, regardless of manufacturer, uses the same panels produced by LG Display. This means that the picture quality is consistently good regardless of which manufacturer’s OLED TV you buy. The image quality isn’t identical, of course, but unless terms like “tone mapping” and “motion handling” mean anything to you, then you’re unlikely to care too much about the distinctions. The bar is generally very high for OLEDs.
But they’re not perfect. OLEDs can’t get as bright as LCDs, which means that they can suffer more from reflections in bright rooms. You’re also likely to hear about a problem called “burn-in,” which is when an image shown on an OLED TV over long periods can become permanently “etched” on the TV. However, Rtings’ latest report says that this won’t be a problem for most people, unless you’re someone who watches a lot of similar content over time, such as a channel that always has the same logo in the same place on the screen.
The vast majority of TVs on the market today are LCDs. Quality varies a lot more among LCD TVs, and there are also different types that are worth understanding. When it comes to LCD TVs, manufacturers tend to use either IPS or VA panels. IPS panels have better viewing angles, and VA panels have better contrast. (TN panels are common in PC monitors, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen them used in a TV.)
You’ll sometimes see LCD TVs referred to as LED TVs, but at this point, the two terms are fairly interchangeable. An LED TV just means that it uses an array of LED lights as a backlight to illuminate its LCD layer, and on some models, these will selectively dim parts of the image to achieve better contrast between light and dark areas. (This is particularly important for HDR content, which I’ll get to in a bit.) Direct LED backlit (aka full-array local-dimming) TVs are better than edge backlit TVs here, and the more “dimming zones” they have, the better. Sony’s Z9D TV, for example, has over 600 individual dimming zones, but it’s much more common to see TVs with a hundred or less. Generally, anything above 50 dimming zones is good.
Finally, there are QLED TVs, which tend to be priced comparably with OLED TVs. These are fundamentally still LCD TVs, and they still use a backlight, but they rely on quantum dots to produce their pixels, which manufacturer Samsung claims means that its TVs are brighter and show more vibrant colors. They can’t achieve the same black levels as OLED TVs (they still use a backlight, after all), but QLED TVs excel in bright living rooms because of the increased amount of light they’re able to put out. In the same way that LG manufactures OLED panels, Samsung sells these panels to other TV manufacturers to use.
I’m not going to claim that either OLED or QLED is the better premium technology; they both have different strengths depending on how bright your room is. LCD TVs can still look stunning, but they vary a lot more depending on panel type and what kind of backlight they use.
What about the operating system?
These days, almost every TV is a smart TV. But there are a lot of differences between the operating systems of each TV as well as which apps are available for them. Sony TVs run Android, Samsung uses Tizen, LG uses webOS, TCL and Hisense use Roku TV, and there’s also Amazon’s Fire TV operating system, which is built into some Toshiba and Insignia TVs.
So there are a lot of choices out there. One thing to know is that none of these operating systems are a complete car crash that should be avoided at any cost. One approach is to work out which streaming services you rely on the most, and make sure they’re available for the operating system of your choice. And if your choice isn’t available, it’s not the end of the world if you have to buy an external streaming box. It’s a little messier to have to juggle two remotes, but it’s hardly a deal-breaker.
Bear in mind that newer streaming services like Disney+ will tend to come to streaming boxes before they come built into TVs. So you might end up having to use an accessory, even if you have the most feature-complete TV operating system.
Which TV features do you really need?
The four big defining factors of modern TVs are resolution, size, panel types, and operating systems. However, there are numerous other terms you’ll come across as you browse TV listings. This next section will attempt to explain the most important of these as well as outlining when you might want to pay attention to a feature and when it can be safely ignored.
HDR, or High Dynamic Range, is a feature that came of age around the same time as 4K TVs. Essentially, HDR TVs are able to display a wider range of brightnesses compared to Standard Dynamic Range (SDR) TVs, going from darker blacks to brighter whites. When done well, this gives an image more vibrancy and punch, and depending on the content, it can have more of a benefit to how an image looks than 4K.
For the best HDR experience, you’ll need an HDR TV playing HDR content. Similar to how 4K TVs can upscale 1080p content, some HDR TVs can upscale SDR, with varying degrees of success. You can find HDR content on most major streaming services, including Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
There are several different HDR formats to look out for. The baseline is HDR10, which is the minimum you should opt for. HLG (Hybrid Log-Gamma) is also important if you want to future-proof your TV, as this is the format that HDR content will eventually be broadcast in over the air.
Dolby Vision and HDR10+ are more advanced HDR standards. They add support for something called “dynamic metadata,” which benefits any films or TV shows that contain both very bright scenes and very dark scenes. Dolby Vision is the much more common of the two, and the competition between them has been characterized as a mini format war.
I’d put Dolby Vision support in the “nice to have” category. It’s an improvement, but it’s more marginal compared to the step up to HDR in the first place. Considering the lack of HDR10+ content around at the moment, I don’t think it’s something that should be at the top of your priorities list.
If you’re looking for Dolby Vision content, then there’s plenty to be found on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Vudu, and Apple TV+. HDR10+ content is mainly located on Amazon for now. Both formats can also be found on Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, but Dolby Vision is far more common there.
The bad news is that the quality of a TV’s HDR can be annoyingly hard to quantify. There are plenty of awful TVs that will technically do HDR and are happy to boast about it. The best HDR TVs are able to go really bright and can produce really dark black levels, but it’s rare that manufacturers will provide this kind of information in their publicly available specs. Look out for the maximum brightness of a TV listed in “nits,” where 1,000 nits is considered a good baseline for HDR on an LCD display, while OLEDs tend to max out at just over 500 Don’t worry, though, the HDR is just as good (if not better) because of the darker black levels.
In sum: HDR10 good, Dolby Vision better, and not all HDR TVs are made equal.
For the past decade, HDMI has been the only connector you really need on the back of your TV. But as screen resolutions increase and new features get developed, numerous new versions of HDMI have been developed.
If you’re buying a 4K TV, then most sets these days will come with HDMI version 2.0 ports. This is the HDMI version that most accessories currently use. It can do 4K content at 60 frames per second, and it’s fine for most people.
If you want to future-proof your set, or if you plan to do a lot of gaming on your TV, then it might be worth keeping an eye out for one with HDMI 2.1 ports. This standard has a bunch of new features, including support for Variable Refresh Rates (VRR), a technology that reduces screen tearing when you’re playing games. That’s not so important nowadays since the only consumer device that makes use of it is the Xbox One X. But with a new generation of consoles on their way next year, that could change very soon.
In sum: HDMI 2.1 is great if you want to future-proof, but for now, HDMI 2.0 is all most people need.
Sound is an aspect of TVs that’s not discussed very much, and it’s probably because most modern TVs are terrible at it. Unless you’re buying a TV with a built-in soundbar or front-facing speaker, then it’s likely to be hidden and producing sound by firing it downward from the rear of the set.
Soundbars and soundbases are a great upgrade for your TV’s sound, and most modern models tend to connect over HDMI using what’s called an Audio Return Channel (HDMI-ARC).
So if you care about sound, then either get a TV with a built-in front-facing speaker or soundbar, or make sure it has an HDMI-ARC port so you can use an external speaker. HDMI-ARC support for Dolby Atmos passthrough is a nice to have, but it’s only relevant if your speaker system supports the audio standard.
Should I buy a curved TV?
Lol, no. Oh, and while we’re at it, don’t bother hunting around for a 3D TV. Most manufacturers stopped producing both of these years ago.
How much should I expect to pay?
This is going to be the most contentious part of this guide, and there’s no easy answer. If you’re getting a high-end TV, then the $1,000 mark is a good place to start. This is the price that 55-inch OLED TVs have been known to drop to in a good sale, and you can also get a very good LCD at this price.
If you start to go cheaper, then the compromises set in. We wouldn’t say there’s a hard minimum for how much you should pay for a TV, but pay close attention to its specs once you get down to $500 or less.
On the other hand, if you’re looking to save some money, then buying a slightly older model TV can be a great option. 4K HDR TVs have been the norm for a few years now, and unless you absolutely need newly released features like HDMI 2.1, then you’re not sacrificing too much if you buy last year’s TV. Just be aware that you might not get as many years of support from your apps. Hulu’s updated app recently dropped support for at least one 2016 LG OLED, for example. In that case, it’s smart to budget for a set-top box, such as a Roku, Fire TV, or Apple TV, in addition to your new TV.
I’d love to be able to tell you that there’s a magic combination of specs that you can look out for to guarantee you’re buying a good TV. But unfortunately, there’s just a lot about TV quality that can’t be quantified on a spec sheet. LCD TVs range from the atrocious to the sublime, and HDR performance is so nebulous that you really have to see it for yourself.
But armed with enough first-hand reviews and an understanding of the features you should be looking for, you should be more than equipped to find something that will last you the better part of a decade.
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