Everything you need to check before buying a new TV
Upgrading your screen? Here's the scoop
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Whether you're upgrading your TV at home, choosing the best screen size for an apartment, or buying one as a gift, selecting the TV that best suits your needs can sometimes be a little challenging.
With new technological developments driving the market every year, it can feel like keeping track of which TVs do what—and why—is a full-time job. Fortunately, it is actually someone's full-time job (mine) to cut through the confusing elements and make it easier for you to find what you want.
Whether you're shopping for a TV online or at retail, this simple checklist of tips and information is a good place to start:
7. Display Type
While some categories (resolution, motion, HDR, and display type) may take reading over once or twice to let the information sink in, they will prepare you to fully understand the technology you are buying, and to get the most bang for your buck.
The first thing to figure out when preparing to buy a TV is: Where is the TV is going to live? If you already have a TV on a TV stand in your living or viewing room, obviously you probably know right where the new TV is going to go.
However, if you've just moved in—or are buying a TV for your bedroom or apartment—this is the first thing to nail down. That doesn't mean breaking out a tool and measuring the space, but rather, evaluating how well the space will work to house a TV. Things you should consider are:
Window location: If the room has windows, do they have shades? Do they have drapes or blinds? Can you close them? More ideally, can you place the TV where light from windows does not compete with the screen? Even though modern TVs can get very bright, the image on any TV will look better without light from windows interfering.
Lamp location: Similarly, when deciding where the TV is going to go (or simply reaffirming that your initial placement was on point), try to place floor/table lamps or other ambient light sources so that you can still use them as you like, but they won't be reflecting in the screen if they're on. Obviously you don't need to build your dorm, guest, or living room around the TV, but if it's easy to fix, fix it.
You location: This is maybe the most important step! "You" location—as in, where will you be watching from? If it's a bedroom TV, will you be watching it while laying down or reclining? If it's a dorm room TV, are you going to be watching from the top bunk? Knowing your sightlines and angles is not only the best way to decide where in a room to place a TV, it's also a great way to determine how big of a TV you need.
While you can always move things around once you actually have the TV, doing a bit of planning and room checking beforehand can save a lot of headaches later on, especially if the TV is very big/cumbersome or you're planning to mount it on the wall.
Your TV size is primarily affected by two things: your budget, and how much space you have. Generally, TVs fall into few common "core" size buckets (expressed as diagonal screen measurements):
Obviously, there are sizes smaller than 32 inches and bigger than 65 inches (and everything in between), but these are some of the most common options.
While we've written extensively about how to choose the right size TV, the general rule is, "The biggest that you can afford." Considering almost every TV has either full-HD or 4K resolution these days (more on that below), you usually don't need to worry about getting far enough away for it to look good.
If the room and stand/mounting space are bigger than the TV size—TV sizes represent diagonal screen size and you should measure that way—you're good to go. If you only have 50 inches of space, you should probably get a slightly smaller TV, just to be safe.
Finally, a bit about TV stands. If you're not planning to wall-mount your TV (if you are, check this article out, it's actually not that hard), you should be aware that many TVs now include stands which are simply two "feet" set very wide apart. Make sure your TV stand or tabletop is as wide or wider than the width of the TV, or it may not fit.
Despite being third on the list, your budget should probably be the first thing you lock in, as it can somewhat dictate everything else about the selection process.
It's worth noting that isn't always the case that a bigger TV will be more expensive than a smaller one, or even that a more expensive TV will have a better image or better features than a less expensive TV. This is why knowing what you're willing to spend is key.
Price is generally bracketed out into a few main considerations:
- Picture quality
- Smart features
For example, you might have three 50-inch TVs, and one of them is much less expensive than the other two. This could be for a few reasons: Maybe it's a lower-quality panel or picture (not 4K or HDR), maybe it doesn't have the same attention paid to design or features like built-in apps. Fortunately, pricing rationale is usually pretty easy to figure out once you know what the terminology means (which you will by the end of this article).
Also, here's a handy list of common TV tech buzzwords.
Resolution refers to the amount of pixels—or picture elements—that make up a TV's screen. No matter the size or type of TV, its screen is made up of tiny, almost microscopic square pixels, which are in turn made up of sub-pixels. Right now, there are really only two screen resolutions you'll see in the wild:
1080p (or "full HD") has a resolution of 1,920 pixels across and 1,080 pixels down, while 4K (or "UHD") has 3,840 pixels across and 2,160 pixels down. Without taking other picture quality features into account, resolution only really affects how close you can sit while you watch.
Believe it or not, 4K TVs aren't really new anymore. There are as many or more 4K TVs available as 1080p TVs, and the technology is so ubiquitous that you don't really have to worry about "paying extra" for it.
That said, it's also not really worth paying for 4K resolution if the TV is smaller than 50 inches.
A TV might be able to product the most beautiful static images in the world, but if those images fall apart once they're in motion, it won't matter much at all. How TVs handle motion primarily comes down to their native refresh rate. There are really only two refresh rates that consumers need to know about in 2018:
- 60 Hz
- 120 Hz
When TVs operate, they constantly refresh their screens to display new incoming information. The "Hz" here refers to the amount of times they refresh per second. So, 60 Hz TVs refresh 60 times a second, and 120 Hz TVs refresh 120 times a second.
Like with resolution, which refresh rate you need is really dependent on what type of content you're experiencing:
- 60 Hz is fine for streaming content (Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, etc.), cable/satellite, most console video games, DVDs, and VHS tapes
- 120 Hz is a better choice for Blu-rays (because they play at 24fps), fast-paced sports content, and very twitchy/fast-paced video games
For most people, a 60 Hz TV is fine. However, if the TV you want is only available in 120 Hz, it certainly isn't going to hurt anything to have twice the refresh speed.
The last thing to note is that advertised refresh rates are often confusing or even misleading. Many companies take the native or "base" refresh rate (60 or 120) and multiply it depending on MEMC (motion enhancement/motion compensation) options like frame interpolation, backlight scanning, black-frame insertion, "film" modes, etc.
Honestly, the best place I've found for tracking down a TV's native refresh rate is Amazon. Manufacturer websites sometimes have the native rate displayed, but often they will use MEMC to multiply the native rate, so you'll see numbers like 240, 480, and so on. Another great source are professional reviews—more on that below.
HDR, or High Dynamic Range, is a complicated and hugely important addition to the TV ecosystem. I've written extensively about it, and if you're really not sure what HDR is, it's worth it to read up on all the nitty gritty technical details.
When a TV is billed as an "HDR" TV, what that really means is that it is capable of playing HDR content from sources like Netflix, Amazon Video, Blu-rays, or compliant game consoles. While HDR content is created to be brighter and more colorful that non-HDR content, it also can only be as bright/colorful as the TV is capable.
For example, if a TV's standard brightness didn't change when switching from non-HDR to HDR content, it wouldn't look all that different. So it's important to spend enough on an HDR TV that watching the content will actually matter.
Unfortunately, there's no way to tell at a glance whether an HDR-compliant TV is "good at" HDR, but again, professional reviews are usually a safe bet.
7. Display Type
While TVs have gone through oodles of R&D since their boxy CRT days, there are only two types happening right now:
- OLED TV
- LED/LCD TV
So-called LED/LCD TVs use a backlight comprised of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that shine through a liquid crystal display (LCD). They are known as transmissive displays. OLED TVs are made up of organic light-emitting diodes, and these "emissive" displays use pixels that emit their own light.
While both types of TVs seek to perform the same function (render high contrast and colorful images that hold up in motion), they go about it via different technologies.
* LED/LCD TVs implement various ingenuous technologies to bring their picture quality in line with OLED TVs, and are available in a much wider range of sizes and price points
OLED TVs have been our top-rated televisions for the last few years, but they're also very expensive. Only LG manufactures OLED panels right now, so if you find an OLED from another company—Panasonic or Sony, for example—you're not getting a different "type" of OLED, it's still an LG OLED panel. Instead, you're getting differences in design, video processing, software, and (sometimes) audio.
Strictly speaking, all 2018 OLEDs should be almost identical in terms of basic picture quality, with only features, design, and processing differentiating them. OLED TVs have superior picture quality compared to LED TVs, but are vastly more expensive and available in much fewer screen sizes and at much fewer retail locations, generally.
For LED/LCD TVs, picture quality and core specs fluctuate widely. There are still 28-inch, 720p resolution LED TVs available, as well as 82-inch 4K behemoths that dwarf the OLED TVs on the market. LED/LCD TVs implement various ingenuous technologies to bring their picture quality in line with OLED TVs, and are available in a much wider range of sizes and price points.
The main difference in quality between LED/LCD TVs are panel and backlight type (LCD type and LED type):
- Modern LED/LCD TVs use either IPS or VA type LCD panels. IPS tend to have better viewing angles, but worse black levels than VA. VA tend to have better black levels, but worse viewing angles than IPS.
- For LED backlights, they are either full-array LED or edge LED; the LEDs are either behind the entire screen, or mounted along the perimeter. Given equal dimming abilities, full-array LED is almost always better, albeit the TVs cannot be as thin and stylish.
Typically, the best performing/most well-reviewed LED/LCD TVs use VA panels and full-array LED backlighting with a "local dimming" function, but if you're planning to wall-mount a TV (or it's in a brighter than average space), the thin form-factor and wider viewing angle of IPS-paneled, edge-lit TVs can be a better choice.
For current top-tier formats (4K resolution and HDR), the best LED/LCD TVs and OLED TVs are very similar. Typically, OLED TVs look best in dimmer or dark rooms (they get darker than LED/LCD TVs), but for bright rooms, a premium LED/LCD TV may be a better option (they get brighter than OLED TVs).
Professional reviews aren't just for cleanly listing out the core specs of a TV that falls within your budget: the more scientific review publications also test TVs with the same equipment used by manufacturers and TV calibrators. We measure light and color to discover if the TV actually performs as it ought to for what you're paying.
I stand by all of my reviews with full confidence, but I'm also only human: you should read as many reputable reviews as you need to in order to feel like you fully understand the pros and cons of the product. Remember: there is no such thing as a perfect TV, but there is almost always a perfect TV for you specifically.
Also, online user reviews can be extremely valuable in terms of signaling trends in experience, be they spotty delivery or issues with longterm reliability (both areas professional reviews are often blind to). However, individual consumer experiences aren't always accurate—if someone hasn't owned a new TV in 7 years, of course it's going to look amazing to them.
Once you've bought the TV, getting it to your house or apartment is the next step. If you're picking it up from the store, make sure your car has enough space to even fit the TV, and—if the TV is particularly heavy—see if you can use the loading zone found in front of most retailers, so you (or some poor employee) aren't left hefting a huge box across the parking lot.
Measure your vehicle door size/interior space against online information about the size of the boxed TV, its shipping size. If it doesn't fit, you may need to rent a taxi van, though most brick and mortar retailers will offer both delivery and installation, especially if you're spending a lot of money.
It's more than likely these days that you'll buy your TV online, however. While delivery is often free, I also understand concerns about the TV being damaged upon arrival. Reviewed has ordered hundreds (if not thousands) of TVs from retailers like Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and (primarily) Amazon over the last decade, and the number that have arrived damaged can be counted on two hands.
Once you have the TV, assembly is usually simple. Some TVs assemble with as little as four screws (and usually no more than eight), and stands have become so minimalist that you can go from boxed to watching Netflix in 20 minutes. If you're planning on wall mounting, check out our simple guide.
Last but certainly not least, if you're looking for the utmost accuracy and highest picture quality, you may want to hire a professional TV calibrator. If you're not sure what TV calibration is, think of it like a finish you stain a deck with once it's built: Calibration will improve your viewing experience and extend the lifespan of some TVs, but it isn't absolutely necessary, especially if it's an entry level or budget TV for a dorm or guest room.
And if you're not sure if you need TV calibration or not—we have a guide for that too. Best Buy's "Geek Squad" does in-house TV calibration, but I strongly recommend hiring a certified local calibrator instead.
Most people have a destination for their old TV in mind when they upgrade. Maybe it goes to a friend, family member, or is relocated to another room (I have a theory that most bedroom TVs were, at one time, living room TVs).
However, if you don't have the space to keep your old TV or simply don't want it cluttering up your home, check out this list of options on how to dispose of your old TV properly.