Now's the Time to Buy a New TV
The TV market has been changing a lot recently, both in terms of technology and price. New types of screens with organic light-emitting diode (OLED) panels and ultra high definition (UHD, or 4K) is replacing the 1080p standard we've become used to. If you want a new television, you now have more options now than ever. But which one should you buy? Here are the main points to consider when shopping for a new set, as well as the best TVs we've tested.
The Best 4K TVs
The TV resolution question used to be between the options of 720p (1,280 by 720 resolution, or just under one million pixels) and 1080p (1,920 by 1,080, or just over two million pixels). Then it moved on to 1080p versus Ultra HD, or 4K (3,840 by 2,160, with eight million pixels). Now it's no longer a question: 4K has become the standard for medium-sized and larger televisions from every major manufacturer.
The higher resolution no longer commands a huge premium, and you can now find a 65-inch 4K TV for under $1,000. Realistically, you'd be hard-pressed to find a TV from a major brand larger than 40 inches that isn't 4K. In fact, every TV on this list is 4K.
Most 4K TVs have connected features that let you stream 4K content, but if they don't you can add any 4K media streamer (like the new Apple TV 4K) using an HDMI 2.0 connection. 4K content is now freely available on many streaming services and on Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, even if it hasn't been adopted by broadcast or cable TV services yet. If you have a very fast internet connection, you can watch some excellent shows on Amazon and Netflix in 4K (and most new original programming on the services is being produced at that resolution). New films are also coming out digitally in 4K through various on-demand streaming services like Vudu.
High Dynamic Range (HDR)
While 4K is now established as a no-brainer, there's a new next-step video technology to consider when shopping for a TV. High dynamic range (HDR) content gives much more information to the display than a standard video signal. The resolution remains the same as UHD, but the range of color and amount of light each pixel can produce is significantly broader.
Thanks to new LCD and OLED panel technology, high-end televisions can display wider color gamuts and finer gradients of light and dark than before. Standard video was built around the limitations of older televisions, intentionally using a set range of color and light information in the signal. HDR breaks those limitations and uses expanded ranges with finer values between them. Basically, this means HDR displays can produce more colors and more shades of gray (or, rather, luminance values) than standard dynamic range displays.
HDR is still a developing technology, and it's easy to be confused by it. There are two major HDR standards out there with commercially available content: HDR 10 and Dolby Vision. HDR 10 is an open platform that uses 10-bit color values. The UHD Alliance certifies televisions that meet the HDR 10 standard, along with minimum brightness and contrast ratios, as UltraHD Premium. Dolby Vision is a closed standard used by Dolby, which supports 12-bit color and determines ranges in the signal it provides to a display on the fly, based on the display itself and the needs of the scene. Televisions that support Dolby Vision will note so on their packaging.
Some newer HDR standards and variants are starting to pop up, but they've yet to see the acceptance in TVs that HDR10 and Dolby Vision have. Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) is a standard developed by the BBC and Japanese broadcaster NHK, which is backward compatible with standard dynamic range TVs. Meanwhile, Samsung and Amazon Video are working on HDR10+, which is said to add variable metadata to brightness, changing the range of bright and dark that video can display from scene to scene. We'll see how they are adopted in the future.
HDR content is generally more rare than UHD content, but it's becoming increasingly available. Ultra HD Blu-ray uses HDR 10 and will support additional HDR standards, and Netflix and Vudu offer Dolby Vision films and shows digitally. Whether one standard is better than the other is difficult to determine at this point; HDR 10 uses more concrete values and is easier to technically evaluate, but Dolby Vision is designed to specifically fit the needs and limits of whatever television you use. No matter which you use, HDR-capable televisions can produce a better picture than TVs that don't support the wider color gamuts or increased range of luminance information.
LED or OLED?
Plasma TVs were the only flat-panel models available when they were first introduced more than a decade ago. They're now a dead category, and you won't see a major television manufacturer offering a new plasma television any time soon. That means your choices will mostly consist of LED-backlit LCD TVs (also simply called LED TVs), as well as much less common, much more expensive OLED displays.
First, a note: LCD and LED TVs have been generally considered separate, despite both using LCD panels. LCD panels themselves aren't lit, so they need to be illuminated. LED TVs simply backlight the LCDs with LEDs, while LCD TVs use CCFL (cold cathode fluorescent lamps) for backlighting. CCFL-backlit designs have fallen by the wayside, and nearly every LCD television out there right now is lit by LEDs.
There are further differences in the various designs. LED TVs can be either edge-lit or backlit. Edge-lit TVs light up their screens with arrays of LEDs along the edges of the panels, allowing the set to be thin and light. Backlit TVs use a large array of LEDs directly behind the panel, making the screen a little thicker, but allowing it to more evenly illuminate the panel and, for high-end screens, adjust individual LEDs to enhance black levels in scenes. Very good edge-lighting systems can produce excellent pictures, though, and TV manufacturers are making backlit LED arrays smaller and thinner, so the distinction means less than it used to. No matter the technology, an LED TV's thinness and brightness will be roughly proportional to its price range.
OLED (organic light-emitting diode) displays are a relatively new and very rare technology for TVs, and despite their name are drastically different from LED-backlit televisions. In fact, they're closer to plasma screens in how they work. Each diode generates both color and light, like in plasma screens, but they can be much smaller and thinner than even LED-lit panels, and can produce some of the best black levels possible. Currently, LG and Sony are the only television manufacturers that offer OLED models, and they remain extremely expensive, with 55-inch TVs starting at $2,000 and going up from there.
What Screen Size Should I Get?
A big TV that's too close can be just as uncomfortable to watch as a small one that's too far away, so don't assume that the biggest screen available is the best choice. There are a few different rules of thumb regarding TV screen size based on your distance from it. Generally, the distance of your couch to your TV should be between 1.2 and 1.6 times the diagonal measurement of your screen. So if your couch is six feet away from your screen, you can comfortably watch an TV between 42 and 60 inches. If your couch is five feet away, a 37- to 52-inch screen should work well.
Refresh Rate and Contrast Ratio
One of the biggest problems with narrowing your choices to a single TV is the sheer number of specs. To make your job a little easier, two of the biggies, refresh rate and contrast ratio, are safe to ignore.
Refresh (or response) rate, the speed at which your TV's panel refreshes its image, is expressed in hertz (60Hz, 120Hz, 240Hz, 480Hz, or 600Hz). The theory is that a faster refresh rate results in a smoother image. But in reality, there are several reasons this simply isn't true, and it's not worth paying more for a set with a faster response rate. In many cases, 60Hz will do just fine for films and 120Hz will be plenty for video games and sports (though you should probably turn off those higher refresh rate modes when watching most shows and movies, or else you'll get that jarring soap opera effect).
Contrast ratio, meanwhile, is the difference between the darkest black and the brightest white a panel can display. In theory, the highest contrast ratio possible is desirable since dark blacks and bright whites contribute to a high-quality picture. There isn't a standardized way for manufacturers to measure this spec, though, so Samsung's numbers aren't directly comparable with, say, Panasonic's or Sharp's numbers. And, as you might imagine, vendors are vying to come up with the highest ratios, so they can charge more. Ignore any claims of contrast ratios in the millions or infinity; with the exception of LG's OLEDs (which are the only TVs we've tested to actually produce an "infinite" contrast ratio with a perfect 0 black level), the best TVs tend to have just five-digit contrast ratios.
Apps and Services
Almost all TVs now offer web apps and built-in Wi-Fi. These features let you connect your television to the internet and access online services like Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, Sling TV,and YouTube. Many also integrate social network services like Facebook and Twitter, and many manufacturers offer entire downloadable app ecosystems with other programs and games you can use on your TV. Some manufacturers like Samsung and LG develop their own connected platforms for their smart TVs, while others like Insignia, Sony, and TCL use third-party systems like Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, and Roku TV to give their TVs apps and online services.
These apps are also available in most Blu-ray players, all major video game systems, and even on inexpensive media streaming devices, so they're not vital. But a friendly interface and the services you want to use available directly on your TV adds some convenience, and doesn't require you to buy any additional devices.
Getting the Right Connections
Your ideal TV should provide enough video connections not only for now, but for the foreseeable future as well. The most important input is HDMI, which supports all major forms of digital video sources including Blu-ray players, game consoles, set-top boxes, cameras, camcorders, phones, tablets, and PCs through a single cable. Most TVs have three or four HDMI ports, but some might only have two. It's the best way to send 1080p video from your devices to your screen with one cable, and will be the main way you connect your main sources of entertainment to your TV. If you want a 4K screen, make sure at least one of the HDMI ports is HDMI 2.0. It's the latest standard that supports 4K video at 60 frames per second; older HDMI ports can only handle 4K up to 30 frames per second, at best.
As for cables, unless you have a huge home theater system and plan to run cables between devices at distances longer than 25 feet (and that's being generous), brands and prices don't matter. We've compared the performance of high-end cables and inexpensive ones, and found that they all carry digital signals similarly. More expensive cables might have a better build quality, but you won't see any performance advantages from them. Don't shop for HDMI cables at retail stores, and ignore and clerks who warn you of "dirty electricity" or "viruses" that can come with cheap cables (both claims I've witnessed). Hop online and find the least expensive cable at the size you need and snap it up.
Once it's all hooked up, you might want to get it calibrated. We can guide you through some of the adjustments yourself, and some TVs have a built-in calibration wizard you can access in the menu. If you have a high-end TV and want the absolute best picture possible, you can spend a few hundred dollars to have your screen professionally calibrated, but for most viewers, it's an unnecessary expense.
Adding a Sound System
TVs have built-in speakers that function well enough in the sense that you can understand dialogue, but beyond that they're typically pretty underwhelming. With few exceptions, you can improve your movie and gaming experience greatly by getting an add-on speaker system, like a soundbar or a dedicated multi-channel home theater system.
If space is at a premium or your budget is limited, a soundbar is your best bet. Soundbars are long, thin, self-contained speakers that sit under or over your TV. Small and simple to set up, they're less expensive than multi-speaker systems. Soundbars generally don't separate the channels enough to accurately place sound effects, but they've become quite good at producing a large sound field around you. Here are some of our favorite sound bars.
Shopping for Sales
Most TV manufacturers unveil their new models for the coming year at CES in January. This doesn't necessarily mean the prices for the current models will drop quickly, though. New TVs don't usually hit shelves until spring, so you're looking at a solid three or four months where you know what new TVs are coming out. If you can find deep discounts for the previous year's models in January, and you know they're good performers based on our reviews, you should go for them.
Keep an eye out for sales around big sports events like the Super Bowl, or when football season is just starting. You might be able to find price cuts of a few hundred dollars or more. Like all sales, pay attention to which models are on sale; different tiers and series of TVs can have wildly different performance.
Huge price slashes on Black Friday often promote budget or midrange televisions with seemingly big discounts, but their pictures might not be nearly as good as higher-end models. Check the model numbers against the reviews for a good sense of whether the discount you see is worthwhile.
Are Cheap TVs Worth the Price?
Budget-priced TVs can be very appealing, especially if you haven't yet made the jump to 4K and are daunted by $1,000-plus price tags. Be careful when you see a great deal on a TV, though, even if it says 4K HDR. It could be a steal, or it could be a disappointment.
Performance among budget TVs varies wildly, and trends toward the mediocre. You'll find a few very good deals, like the TCL P-series that manages to combine excellent picture quality with a low price. You'll also find a sea of cheap TVs that don't measure up. The TCL 55P607, for example, is very inexpensive (the 55-inch model is just $500, $150 less than the 55S405), but its contrast ratio is a sixth that of the 55S405.
Don't count on big names to be reliably high-quality in their budget lines, either. While companies like LG and Samsung can make some incredible flagship TVs, their inexpensive models generally aren't any better than baseline models from more budget-centric brands like TCL and Hisense—and they're usually a bit more expensive. As always, our reviews (and the picture quality tests we perform) can help you find a screen that doesn't trade quality for price.
See our TV Product Guide for the latest reviews.