Smart TV. LED. OLED. 4K. HDR. The world of TVs is looking better every day, but also more confusing. Today, there's a ridiculously wide array of high-definition (HD) and 4K Ultra HD sets in stores, from bargain big screens to high-end displays that can cost as much as a car.
The paramount factors for most shoppers will be screen size and price. The widest array of choices, from 30 inches to up to 110 inches, is available in LED (light-emitting diode) LCD standard HD models. Prices tend to start at $200 for 32-inch sets (which are great for the bedroom), but for bigger rooms the sweet spot is a 50- or 55-incher for less than $500.
Meanwhile, OLED (organic light-emitting diode) TVs offer even richer pictures with deeper blacks — for far more money, of course. A 55-inch HD OLED set costs about $2,000. But with more brands offering OLED sets you can expect prices to come down.
Manufacturers continue to shift to the Ultra HD, or 4K, format, which offers four times the number of pixels of an HDTV. Prices for 4K sets have been declining but starting prices for a 50-inch model still are about $400, about 10 percent more than an HD set. But now companies are introducing a new slew of sets under labels such as Ultra HD Premium, Dolby Vision, and HDR. An extension of the Ultra HD format, these models offer better color and brightness--for still more money.
If you’re in a hurry, here are the most important things to consider before you buy a television. We explain each of these points in greater detail in the text below:
- Don’t buy a TV with less than 1080p resolution (i.e. avoid 720p sets).
- Don't buy a TV with less than a 120 Hz refresh rate.
- Consider a 4K Ultra HD TV if you want your TV to be acceptable five years from now.
- OLED TVs look much better than a typical LED LCD, but they are considerably more expensive.
- For state-of-the-art models, look for an HDR-compatible set, which offers more realistic colors.
- Ignore contrast ratio specs: manufacturers fudge the numbers. Trust your own eyes.
- Look for at least 4 HDMI ports; 4K shoppers should ask about HDCP compatibility.
- Curved TVs are a fashion statement. They don’t benefit image quality.
- Most TVs are “smart TVs” these days. Don’t be tricked into thinking this is a big deal.
- Plan to buy a soundbar. TV speakers are worse nowadays because the screens are thinner.
- Avoid extended warranties. Your credit card company may already provide purchase protection.
Screen Size: Finding the Sweet Spot
Whether you're looking for a basic or high-performance TV, the biggest factor in your decision will probably be screen size. Consider how many people in your family typically watch at once and where you're going to put your new set. Then pick the largest screen size that will fit comfortably into that space — and your budget. The sweet spot today, considering price, performance and the typical living room, is between 55 and 65 inches.
Screen size also depends on how close you sit to the TV. Basically, if you can see the individual pixels of the screen, you're too close. A good rule of thumb is that you should sit at a distance from the TV that is three times more than the height of the screen for HD and just 1.5 times the screen height for 4K Ultra HD. In other words, you can sit twice as close to a 4K UHD TV.
If you have the opportunity, go to a store (and maybe bring your family) and look at the TVs. Even though 4K content is still rare, you may want that higher-resolution technology if you plan to sit close to a very large screen.
Bottom Line: Choose a screen size and resolution appropriate for the distance you will sit from the screen.
Screen Resolution: 4K or HD?
Resolution describes the sharpness of the TV picture, usually in terms of horizontal lines of pixels. A bargain HD set may support only 720p, which means the set displays 720 lines scanned progressively (or in a single pass). Most HDTVs today — and the only ones you should consider — support the 1080p HD format, also called Full HD, which has 1,080 lines of resolution. Even in the smallest TV sizes, we recommend avoiding 720p models.
TV manufacturers are rapidly shifting over from HDTVs to Ultra HD sets (also called 4K). These 4K models have four times the number of pixels as current HDTV screens. We’re talking 2,160 horizontal lines, or 3840 x 2160 pixels. The biggest benefit of 4K TVs is that small objects on the screen have more detail, including sharper text. Overall, images appear richer and more lifelike than on an HDTV, but the benefits can be subtle.
Ultra HD video looks great, if you can find it — there are no 4K broadcast or cable channels, and there's only a handful of streaming options available so far (most notably, a few programs from Netflix, rentals from Amazon and specialty services such as UltraFlix; Dish Network and DirecTV are rolling out 4K download services). While Ultra HD sets can upscale existing HD content, the results can be mixed and do not look as sharp as original 4K programming.
With those provisos, Ultra HD TV models are supplanting conventional HDTVs. Vizio, for example, has only one HDTV line left in its new 2016 model lineup. And prices are coming down: Vizio's 65-inch M-Series 4K Ultra HD set is just $1,500 (See Review).
Bottom Line: Full HD 1080p is still the most common screen resolution today, but 4K is a good idea if you want to future-proof your investment.
HDR: Color Goes Wide
HDR is a new feature of 4K Ultra HD sets and it stands for high dynamic range, a reference to its ability to deliver more colors, more contrast levels, and increased brightness. HDR is essentially an upgrade of the 4K or Ultra HD format (it is not applicable to 1080p HD sets). For this new feature TV makers are christening new monikers for the sets to distinguish them from standard 4K Ultra HD TVs.
Ultra HD Premium is the name being adopted by UHD Alliance, an industry trade group. Dozens of companies are supporting this basic minimum specification for HDR compatibility, so you will see "Ultra HD Premium" on a growing number of sets this year.
Dolby Vision is a more demanding version of HDR, created and licensed by the folks that brought us Dolby noise reduction and surround sound. In theory, a Dolby Vision set has to meet a stricter set of criteria to display HDR content, but until we've tested a number of sets this year how that translates to visible performance differences remains to be seen.
2016 looks destined to be a year of HDR confusion. Some TVs will be Ultra HD Premium-compatible (like Samsung), others will be Dolby Vision-compatible (like Vizio) and some will be compatible with both standards (like LG). To further confuse shoppers, Sony will go it alone (at least for now), choosing to eschew both the Ultra HD Premium label and Dolby Vision licensing; instead, the company is labeling its sets "HDR" Ultra HD TVs.
Worse, there's very little HDR programming available. A few dozen movies are promised in the new 4K Blu-ray disc format, but primarily the handful of HDR shows over the next 12 months will only be available via streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix. (For more about HDR see What is HDR and Why Does It Matter?)
Bottom Line: Don't choose a set just for its HDR support because the standard has not yet been settled. (However, if money is no object, buy a set that is Dolby Vision compatible.)
Refresh Rate: Faster Is Better
The refresh rate, expressed in Hertz (Hz), describes how many times per second a picture is refreshed on the screen. 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 in some cases up to 240 Hz).
Since there aren't that many per-second images in 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 a movie or sitcom look flat, or as if it were a poorly lit, old-time soap opera.
A word of caution: beware of terms like "effective refresh rate," which means the actual frame rate is half of the stated rate (e.g., a "120 Hz effective refresh rate" is actually a 60 Hz refresh rate).
Bottom line: Don't buy a TV with less than a 120 Hz refresh rate.
HDMI and Connections: Go for More
It may seem like an afterthought, but pay attention to the number of HDMI inputs a 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 Roku or Chromecast and a game console, and you've used three ports already.
If you have decided to take the plunge and get a 4K Ultra HD, make sure the set's ports support HDMI 2.0 to accommodate future Ultra HD sources. Many TVs on the market have only one port that supports the 4K copy protection scheme known as HDCP 2.2 (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection).
Bottom Line: Look for at least 4 HDMI ports; 4K shoppers should ask about HDCP compatibility.
TV Types and Jargon Explained: LCD, LED LCD, OLED
Aside from projection sets, there are basically only two types of TVs on the market: LCD and OLED. Unless you have a lot of disposable income, you'll probably be buying an LCD TV.
LED and LCD Sets
The lion's share of televisions today are LED LCD. These HD and Ultra HD sets use light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to illuminate the LCD screen and can be extremely thin. Many of these TVs can dynamically light up specific portions of the screen and dim other parts to better represent a mix of light and dark areas in a scene — a feature known as active dimming or local dimming. No-frills LED LCD sets can be had for as little as $200 for a 32-inch screen, while a top-of-the-line 90-inch model can go for $8,000.
Most LCD sets use LEDs on the edge of the screen. The better of these models support active dimming, but it takes some digital sorcery to do this by merely manipulating lights along the edge.
Full-array LED sets have light-emitting diodes directly behind the screen, in a grid of "zones" that can be lit up or darkened individually. Such an arrangement makes the backlight more precise and allows a more-detailed picture in terms of contrast. Full-array backlighting was once reserved for top-tier models, but with more Ultra HD sets appearing at lower prices, this feature is becoming more common on modestly priced sets.
Another LCD technology called quantum dots is becoming more common, spurred on by the requirements of HDR to produce a wider array of colors and more brightness. An LCD that uses quantum dots basically has another layer or added “rail” of different sized nanocrystal dots that light up when the LED back light hits them. The result is a wider color spectrum and increased brightness.
Pros: Wide array of prices, sizes and features; Some affordable Ultra HD 4K models; Bright screens visible even in a sunny room; Image quality steadily improving with full-array backlighting and quantum dot technology.
Cons: Exhibits imperfections when displaying rapid motion, as in sports; Loses some shadow detail because pixels can't go completely black (even with full-array backlighting); Images fade when viewing from the side (off-axis).
OLED TVs go one better than full-array LED-LCDs with a few dozen lighting zones. In place of a backlight, OLEDs use a layer of organic LEDs, controlled at the pixel level, to achieve absolute black and stunning levels of contrast. (Footage of fireworks against a black sky is a favorite demonstration of OLED technology.)
LG is now the main company actively pursuing OLED technology in large screen sizes, but OLED models under the Panasonic and Philips brand names will also appear this year. Most new models have Ultra HD 4K resolution, but a few, cheaper HD OLED models are still around. Prices range from about $2,000 for a 55-inch HDTV to $5,000 or more for a 65-inch Ultra HD 4K model.
Pros: Best TV picture, bar none; Colors truly pop, deeper blacks and better contrast and shadow detail than LCD TVs achieve; Retains image quality when viewed from the side.
Cons: Stratospheric prices; lower peak brightness than some LCD sets, uncertainty about how screens will fare over time, including whether they will retain "ghost" images (also known as burn-in) from displaying a static picture for too long.
Curved Screens: Not Needed
Another innovation intended to attract shoppers' attention is curved screens — mostly used for OLED TVs and 4K LCDs. The idea, say manufacturers, is to make the TV-watching experience more immersive.
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.
In addition, some testers, such as Consumer Reports, have reported viewer fatigue caused by the curvature. Conversely, other early owners have reported that after living with a curved screen, they don't notice the difference or detect any distortion.
Curved models are more expensive: A 4K, 65-inch curved LCD model, for example, costs about $200 more than a comparable flat model. Samsung and LG are two supporters of curved screens, but other companies have eschewed them.
Bottom line: Curved TVs are primarily an extra-cost fashion statement, without delivering any appreciable benefit in image quality.
Smart TVs: Most Already Are
An increasing number of sets come with built-in Wi-Fi for connecting Internet-based services like Netflix for streaming videos or to run apps for watching special interest programs, downloading on-demand movies, playing games or even posting to Facebook.
The interfaces are generally getting better. Vizio, LG and now Samsung use a handy bar of icons at the bottom of the screen. Roku offers its famously intuitive interface in budget TVs from Hisense, Insignia (Best Buy's brand) and TCL. Google provides its Android TV platform to companies such as Sony. While most smart TVs include the major services, such as Pandora, Hulu and Netflix, check to make sure the TV you buy has the options you want.
In the past, you could have bought a less expensive "dumb" TV and made it smart with a streaming device like the $50 Roku Streaming Stick (see review). But nowadays, it's hard to get a TV that isn't smart, even if you're going for a small bargain model.
Bottom line: Smart capability is becoming a standard feature in TVs, so it's less and less of a factor in your buying decision.
Contrast Ratio: Unreliable Numbers
The contrast ratio describes the range of brightness levels a set can display. Better contrast ratios display more subtle shadows and hues, and thus better detail. However, the way manufacturers measure such ratios varies widely. Indeed, the specification has been so thoroughly discredited that if a sales person uses it as a selling point, you should shop somewhere else.
We use the same method for examining contrast ratios in all the TVs we test, so we can say roughly how well they compare to each other. Nevertheless, it's still best to see for yourself how a TV displays shadow detail by finding a movie with dark 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. (Hint: select “movie” or “cinema” mode on the TV.)
Bottom line: You can ignore manufacturers' contrast ratio specs, since they are not comparable across brands.
Audio: Get a Soundbar
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 produces clutter), or get a soundbar.
Soundbars are popular because, for $300 or less, they 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 also offer sound boxes or stands that can slide under a set.
Bottom Line: Movies and sports benefit from the addition of a soundbar.
Extended Warranties: Save Your Money
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's likely to 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.
Bottom Line: Save your money and contact your credit card company to see if it has a price protection policy.
More TV Coverage from Tom's Guide
- Your Guide to Cable TV Cord-Cutting
- Best Streaming Players: Chromecast, Roku, Apple TV & More
- Best Soundbars