TV Buying Guide 2018: How To Choose and Buy A TVSmart 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.
Buying a new TV is never easy. Ideal TV size? 4K or Full HD? HDR? OLED or QLED? Contrast ratio? We’re here to help you decide with these tips.
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
- Don’t buy a TV with less than 4K resolution (i.e., avoid 1080p sets) if you want a future-proof set.
- Expect to pay about $500 for a solid 50- to 55-inch bargain 4K TV and at least $900 for a 65-inch model.
- Don't buy a TV with less than a 120 Hz refresh rate.
- Look for an HDR-compatible set, which offers more realistic colors and better contrast.
- OLED TVs look much better than a typical LED LCD, but they are considerably more expensive.
- Ignore contrast-ratio specs: manufacturers fudge the numbers. Trust your own eyes.
- Look for at least four 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 with easy access to Netflix and other online apps. 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.
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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.
Here's a more in-depth guide to calculating the proper TV screen size based on the dimensions of your room, as well as the resolution of the 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. We’d start at 55 inches.
Screen Resolution: 4K or HD?
Resolution describes the sharpness of the TV picture, usually in terms of horizontal lines of pixels. They’re very rare at this point and should be avoided,
but a bargain HD set may support only 720p, which means the set displays 720 lines scanned progressively (or in a single pass). Other HDTVs support the 1080p
HD format, also called full HD, which has 1,080 lines of resolution. But at this stage, we’d skip 1080p sets, too.
Ultra HD video looks great, and it's getting easier to find. Several streaming services, like Netflix, Amazon Video and even YouTube have started offering 4K
content, and ultra HD Blu-ray discs are becoming more common. Live TV hasn't fully embraced 4K yet, but DirectTV, Dish Network and Comcast Xfinity have all
started offering 4K movies. Although Ultra HD sets can upscale existing HD content, the results can be mixed and do not look as sharp as original 4K
With those provisos, ultra-HD TV models are supplanting conventional HDTVs. Vizio, for example, has only one HDTV line left.
Bottom Line: Full HD 1080p is still the most common screen resolution today, but 4K is increasingly becoming the standard, and it's a better choice if you
want to future-proof your investment.
HDR: Get It If You Want the Most Colors
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.
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).
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.
TV Types: 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 regarding 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 size nanocrystal dots that light up when the LED
backlight hits them. The result is a wider color spectrum and increased brightness.
Be aware that some brands offer confusing labels. Samsung's newest sets are dubbed “QLED.” These are quantum-dot LCD TVs — not to be mistaken for OLED. And while quantum dot displays still can't match OLED in terms of sharpness and true black levels, the gap is narrowing as manufacturers work to improve the technology.
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 isn't the only company actively pursuing OLED technology in large screen sizes, with new OLED models arriving from Panasonic, Philips and Sony 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 – the two major manufacturers to offer curved screen TVs – have all but abandoned the concept, offering only one or two curved models in 2018.
Bottom line: Curved TVs are primarily an extra-cost fashion statement, without delivering any appreciable benefit in image quality. Most companies are
phasing them out.
MORE: Buy Latest TV from top brands Samsung, LG, Philips etc..
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 latest models can even search for content across
streaming services and live programming on cable and satellite.
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, TCL and other inexpensive brands. Google provides its Android TV platform to companies such as Sony and
Westinghouse, and Amazon has jumped into the mix with TVs from Toshiba and Insignia (Best Buy’s brand). 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. But nowadays, it's hard to get a TV that isn't smart, even if you're going for a small bargain model. Find out more about the functions and features in our guide to smart TVs.
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 salesperson
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. Check out our top
soundbar picks. 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.
Some TVs and soundbars also support Dolby Atmos, a newer audio standard from Dolby that includes overhead sound for a fuller listening experience. While you can get the Atmos effect using in-ceiling speakers, many soundbars have Atmos audio processing and upward firing speakers built-in to create more realistic sounding audio that doesn't require the multiple speaker placement that you'd have with 5.1 or 7.1 Surround Sound.
And don’t stress about additional cable clutter. Nearly all current TVs feature at least one HDMI port with Audio Return Channel (ARC) capability. This
standard HDMI feature provides lets you use HDMI as both an input and an audio output, letting you not only send audio to the TV from your external media
devices, but also out to your soundbar. That ARC connection means that you get great sound for all your devices, with no special receiver needed.
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.
Pay the Right Price: Bargains are Out There
While you’ll always get the latest features and best capabilities by paying full price, a lot of shoppers are holding off because they think current TVs are
too expensive. The reality is that TVs have not only never been better, they’ve also never been this affordable. While premium models can easily run upwards
of $2,000, there are plenty of great TVs – complete with all of the 4K resolution, HDR support and smart features we recommend – for much less. You can still
get a solid bargain on a 50- to 55-inch TV for under $500, and 65-inch models can be found for under $1,000.
Even better, there’s almost always a great sale coming up, and if you’re willing to make some small concessions, you can save thousands of dollars when you
buy your next TV. We not only share how to find the best bargain, we find the best deals out there to help you save.
Bottom Line: You can get a top-rated TV for less if you’re willing to look for a bargain.