Buying a TV: The 8 Most Important Things to Know

Do you want yours curved or flat? Would you like a full-array LED LCD or 240 Hz? How about 4K?

If you don't even know what these questions mean, don't feel bad. Buying a TV these days involves more than just picking the largest screen size you can afford. Every year, more features are added — some will improve your TV enjoyment, while others will simply lighten your wallet. Fortunately, you don't have to memorize a book of technical specifications to pick the right TV. We've whittled our TV shopping tips down to eight straightforward pieces of advice.

1. 4K TV is years away.

Beware of TV manufacturers pushing Ultra HD (also called 4K) sets, with four times the number of pixels — and up to three times the price — as current HDTV screens. Ultra HD video looks great, if you can find it — there are no 4K broadcast, cable or satellite channels, and only a couple of streaming shows available so far (most notably, a few Netflix programs). While Ultra HD sets can upscale existing HD content, the results can be mixed and usually do not look as sharp as original 4K programming. True, 4K sets may become the standard in the future, but that future is several years away. Prices will come down in the meantime.

MORE: What is 4K TV?

2. Curved screens cost more, but deliver less.

Touted for their ability to draw viewers in, curved screens tend to stand out from flat panels in store displays. However, not only do curved screens have no technical advantage over the other sets, but they actually have some distinct disadvantages. For one, the slightly curved aspect distorts the image and reduces the available side viewing angles, thus limiting the best view to a few people sitting in a narrow, center sweet spot. LED models also are less likely to produce uniform brightness across the screen. (Most TVs are LED models; almost all other new models are the über-expensive OLEDs.) In addition, some testers, such as Consumer Reports, have reported viewer fatigue caused by the curvature. Most curved screens are Ultra HD TVs and are more expensive than the already-pricey flat versions. Even curved HDTVs cost nearly twice as much as comparable flat screens. 

3. Contrast ratios are meaningless.

Contrast is intended to quantify the range of the brightest to darkest picture elements that a screen can display. A high contrast ratio should indicate that a TV is better at reproducing subtle shades and revealing the nuances in shadows and other dark scenes. However, there is no accepted industry standard method for measuring contrast ratios, so comparisons among vendors are meaningless. The specification has been so thoroughly discredited that if a sales person uses it as a selling point, you should shop somewhere else. You can judge real-world contrast ratio for yourself by finding a movie with darks scenes and seeing how well it reveals detail in the shadows of, say, a Harry Potter movie. Experiment with the TV's brightness, sharpness and other picture settings before making a final judgment. Some TV makers, such as Sony and Vizio, are pushing a technology called full-array LED backlighting, which adjusts the LCD backlight of individual sections of the screen to help improve contrast. When done properly, the technology can noticeably improve the performance of LCD sets, but its effectiveness varies from set to set.

MORE: Best TVs

4. Refresh rates are fuzzy numbers.

The refresh rate is the number of times per second an image is flashed on the screen to simulate motion in video. The standard refresh rate is 60 times per second, or 60 Hz. However, in scenes with rapidly moving objects, a 60 Hz refresh rate can make things look blurry or jittery, particularly on LCD HDTVs. So, to create a more solid picture, manufacturers doubled the refresh rate to 120 Hz, and then again to 240 Hz. Since there aren't that many per-second images in the original video content, TVs handle the faster refresh rates in different ways. One method is to simply insert black images between the original pictures, tricking the viewer's eyes into seeing a less-blurry, more solid picture. Another technique is to generate and insert new images — showing a state of movement in between the two adjacent pictures — to display more realistic-looking motion. However, depending on how the video processing is done, it can make the video look flat, or as if it were from an old-time soap opera. So, don't rely solely on the numbers; look for yourself. And note: You can often select from different types of refresh-rate effects in the settings of these TVs, and even turn off the effects entirely.

5. A smart TV is a smart buy.

For a modest price premium (usually around $100) Internet-connected smart TVs offer more entertainment choices, including such streaming services as Netflix, Pandora and Hulu Plus. Having such services built into the set is more convenient than attaching a separate streaming media set-top box, such as Roku or Apple TV. Plus, it saves an HDMI port that you can instead use for a game console or Blu-ray player. Moreover, today's HDTVs are essentially flat-screen computers, so having a built-in Internet connection means that the set's software can be upgraded or patched when necessary, such as to add new services or solve a picture-quality issue. Nearly all smart TVs have Wi-Fi nowadays, but make sure the one you are looking at does.

MORE: Smart TVs: Everything You Need to Know

6. The more HDMI ports, the merrier.

It may sound like a silly consideration, but pay attention to the number of HDMI inputs the set has. Manufacturers looking to shave costs may offer fewer HDMI plugs on the back. These ports can get used up quickly: Add a sound bar, a Blu-ray player and a game console, and you've used three ports already. If you have decided to take the plunge and get an Ultra HD/4K set (in spite of our recommendations), make sure the set's ports support HDMI 2.0 to accommodate future Ultra HD/4K sources.

7. A sound bar raises the bar for audio.

Even the finest, most expensive HDTVs have an Achilles' heel: poor sound. It's a consequence of the svelte design of flat panels — there's not enough room for large speakers that produce full, rich sound. So, you have three choices: Use headphones (which can make you seem antisocial), buy a surround-sound system (which can be a hassle to set up and produce clutter), or get a sound bar. The last option is a popular choice because, for $300 or less, a sound bar can significantly improve the cinematic experience and yet be installed in minutes. Newer models are thin enough to fit under a TV stand without blocking the bottom of the picture. Most can also mount under a wall-hanging TV. Several companies are also introducing sound boxes or stands that can slide under a set.

MORE: Best Sound Bar Speakers


8. Extended warranties are useless.

One of the biggest revenue generators for big-box electronics stores is the extended warranty. Why? Because they are so rarely needed, especially for a flat-panel LCD set. Most of the components in an HDTV are remarkably resilient; even the LEDs used to light the picture are virtually shockproof. So, if you do get a lemon, it likely will be apparent immediately or at least within the first 30 days of ownership — a time period usually covered by a regular store return policy. Beyond that, most manufacturers offer a one-year warranty. Credit card companies may offer additional automatic coverage on purchases, so check with your provider.   

John R. Quain has been reviewing and testing video and audio equipment for more than 20 years. He is currently a contributor to The New York Times and an on-air technology contributor for the CBS News television network. Follow him @jqontech. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.

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  • Vinster K
    I'm a console gamer and one thing I always find lacking in a HDTV review is the lag time or the time it takes for an image to get from the TV's input to actually appear on the screen after going through all it's internal digital processing. For a gamer, there is nothing more important than this! Sure, some TVs have a 'game' mode, but those are often not well documented. It should be on this article's list of important things to look for as well.
  • Stoneskinsnake
    If you're looking for a HDTV that works well with games (Or more-often, Type of TV) Plasma is definately the way to go. Most HDTV's are stuggling to do what plasma has been doing or years since it's inception, and they've only gotten better over time. You can get a 55in Plasma for roughly 1.2k that works VERY well for gaming. I currently have a Samsung Plasma that I use for my PS3/PS4/PC all hooked up at once through the HDMI ports. No input lag what-so-ever and the color is beautiful. Most people have the stigma that Plasmas are too dark, however in a dark room (Semi ambient light) plasmas by far have the best picture when compared to a similar priced LED Tv.