Many of us don’t know how to buy a TV. That’s because televisions have become complicated to get right. Within minutes of hunting for a new TV, you’ll come across a lot of acronyms and brain-melting jargon. But stick with it.
Lying behind all the complication, there are some truly outstanding TVs capable of making your old set look like a relic from the stone age.
With this in mind, we’ve put together this simple but comprehensive guide to all the latest TV tech that matters. By the time you’ve finished this guide, you’ll be a TV salesman’s worst nightmare: a consumer who actually knows what they’re talking about.
1. Screen size
The range of screen sizes available today is immense, taking in everything from 14-inches to more than 100-inches. So how do you figure out the right size for you?
While some will always recommend going for the biggest screen you can afford, there are a couple of different formula out there you may find helpful if you want a more scientific approach.
According to THX, you should divide the diagonal width in inches of a screen you’re interested in by 0.84, with the result giving you the number of inches you’ll ideally be able to put between you and the screen.
Using this method, if you get a 65-inch TV you should sit around 6.5 feet from it, or more likely you can perform the opposite calculation to choose a TV once you know how far you’re able to sit from it.
We suspect 6.5 feet will be a bit closer than most normal viewers will be comfortable with for a 65-inch TV, though. So another common calculation you could try is a seating position between 1.5x and 2x the diagonal width of your screen. Using this approach, a 65-inch screen would work for a viewing distance of between 8.1 and 10.8 feet.
Time to get your measuring tape and calculators out, people.
Many people think they’d like to wall-mount their new flat TVs. However, research suggests that when it comes down to it, precious few of us actually do.
If you’re positive this will work for you, though, there are a few things to consider. Firstly, remember that the TV will be right up flat to the wall, so you might want to go up a screen size or two.
Secondly, think about TVs designed to be used with ultra-low-profile mounts, so that they stick out as little as possible from the wall.
Or, given that many TVs don’t ship with wall mounts included, if you want to be able to choose from a wide selection of mounting options at a range of price points, look for a TV with wall mount screw positions compatible with the ‘VESA’ industry standard.
One other thing to bear in mind if you’re thinking of wall-mounting a TV is a set’s realistic viewing angles – especially vertical viewing angles if you’re thinking of mounting a TV above a fireplace (which is not something we’d typically recommend).
3. Panel technologies
There are two types of TV technology you need to understand: LCD and OLED. And there are a couple of important variations on the LCD side.
A key point to consider if you decide to buy an LCD TV is how the LCD panel is lit, since this can have a big impact on the contrast the screen is capable of.
Some use lights mounted on the edge of the screen firing across it (aka edge-lit panels), while some use lights mounted directly behind the screen. Generally speaking, TVs with lights behind the screen deliver better contrast than edge-lit models. But these models don’t generally feature such slim designs, tend to cost more, and often use more power.
One final option to consider with LCD TVs is local dimming. This sophisticated feature allows a TV to output different amounts of light from different sections of its edge or direct lighting arrays, and can dramatically improve contrast.
- OLED vs LED vs LCD: TV panel tech explained
LCD/LED TVs use panels of liquid crystal pixels illuminated by external light sources. The liquid crystals rotate round to let through the amount of light needed to illuminate pictures correctly, with external filters creating color.
The main advantage of LCD TVs are brightness, affordability and durability. Their main disadvantages are limited viewing angles and difficulties controlling light in the picture due to the use of external light sources.
There are two types of LCD panel: IPS and VA. IPS types are predominantly made by LG Display, and feature in all of LG’s LCD TVs, plus some (usually affordable) models from other brands too. VA panels are more widely used, and are made by a variety of manufacturers.
IPS panels offer slightly wider viewing angles than VA panels, but struggle with contrast. VA panels up to this point feature narrower viewing angles, but generally produce much better contrast.
OLED TVs use a system of organic phosphors in self-emitting pixels to enable each pixel to generate its own light, completely independent of its neighbours. This allows for vastly superior contrast and light precision to what you can get with even the most advanced LCD TV.
It also means OLED TVs can be watched from much wider viewing angles than LCD TVs without color or contrast reducing. These features have made OLED popular with many serious AV fans.
However, there are issues with OLED TVs. First, while prices have dropped over the past couple of years, they’re still substantially more expensive than typical LCD TVs (though some are now cheaper than high-end LCD TVs).
Second, OLED TVs currently can’t get as bright as LCD TVs, something that could become an issue with HDR content.
Finally, there have historically been issues with lifespan and image retention (where bright image elements can ‘burn’ into the screen’s phosphors if left on for too long). However, LG, the main manufacturer of OLED screens, claims to have fixed these lifespan/image retention issues, and we haven’t seen any evidence recently that might counter those claims.
- For a full rundown, check out our guide to OLED TVs
Quantum dots (QLED)
Some (usually high-end) LCD TVs use Quantum Dot technology to deliver wider color ranges than you can get with normal LCD panels. Quantum Dots are tiny particles ranging from two to 10 nanometers in size, with each size capable of emitting a different color. Using them allows LCD TV makers to avoid color filters and white LED Backlights – two things that typically limit an LCD TV’s color performance.
Samsung is the biggest advocate of Quantum Dot technology. Its QLED models using a new metal-coated type of Quantum Dot that can produce a much wider color range, more brightness and a wider viewing angle than traditional Quantum Dots. Quantum dot TVs are generally markedly more expensive than normal LCD TVs, though.
There are alternatives to Quantum Dots when it comes to expanding color range. Some TVs – including Sony’s Triluminos models – use wide-range phosphors. LG, meanwhile, will be using Nano Cells in its high-end LCD TVs. These alternatives to Quantum Dot technology use same-sized dots just one nanometer wide in conjunction with normal color filters – a combination which LG claims enables its Super UHD TVs to deliver better contrast and more balanced colors.
- Samsung QLED: what you need to know
4. Resolution and HDR
There are two resolutions to choose from right now: Ultra HD (also known as 4K), and HD. Ultra HD TVs carry 3840 x 2160 pixels, while HD TVs carry 1920 x 1080 pixels. This means Ultra HD TVs have four times as many pixels as HD ones, and so can deliver pictures with much more resolution.
With native 4K sources starting to become more common now (Netflix, Amazon, Ultra HD Blu-ray and Sky Q in the UK) and the prices of 4K TVs plummeting, we’d generally recommend that you buy a 4K TV even if you don’t currently have any access to 4K content, especially if you’re looking at a TV of 50 inches or more.
While we’d recommend 4K for a main living room TV now, though, HD TVs can be good bargains for second screens.
But what of HDR? High dynamic range (HDR) TVs are able to produce pictures that contain much more brightness and contrast than normal TVs, so long as they are fed HDR content that contains this extra luminance data.
All current HDR TVs also support wider color spectrums (often described as wide color gamut, or WCG – essentially meaning that) than most non-HDR TVs – which is handy, as pretty much all HDR content also carries wide color spectrum picture data.
There are currently three types of HDR. HDR10 is the industry standard, and all TVs support this. Dolby Vision adds an extra layer of information that tells a TV how to render pictures on a scene by scene basis. Only some brands – most notably LG, Vizio, TCL and (via an upcoming firmware update to some models) Sony – support this.
Finally there’s Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG), designed for HDR broadcasts. The majority of TV brands have pledged support for this via firmware updates in the course of 2017.
- HDR: high dynamic range explained
5. Connections and ports
These days the main connections you need to look for are HDMIs, USB ports and multimedia support.
With HDMIs you’re talking about the number (try and get at least three) but also the specification. With 4K TVs, try and get a TV with v2.0 HDMIs rather than v1.4 HDMIs – as most will naturally – to guarantee the widest compatibility with current and upcoming source equipment. To future-proof for 8K content or make sure you can get 4K gaming at high frame rates (120Hz) you’ll want at least one HDMI 2.1 port too.
USBs ports are useful for both playing back multimedia (especially photos and videos) stored on USB drives, and, with some TVs, recording from the TV’s tuners to an attached USB hard drive. Look for at least two, and ideally three USB ports.
Most TVs now have built-in Wi-fi and Ethernet ports so that you can connect them to the internet. Not all TVs, though, also let you use these network connections to access multimedia stored on other devices on your network. So if this is a feature you want, make sure the TV you buy supports it. Note, too, that some TVs additionally support Bluetooth communication with external devices.
6. Contrast ratio
Few TV brands still quote contrast ratios. But if you do see one, it’s basically a calculation of the difference between a screen’s deepest black and brightest whites, written as, for instance, 10,000:1. It’s generally worth taking these figures with a pinch of salt, though, as they can be measured in multiple, very different ways.
7. Curved or flat?
Curved TVs are much less common now than they have been in recent years, with pretty much all manufacturers bar Samsung deciding that they’ve run their course.
If you are looking to buy a very large TV and/or you’re going to be sitting pretty close to your screen, the way the picture on a curved screen enters your peripheral vision can make for a slightly more immersive experience. Curved screens follow the shape of your eye, too, arguably making the corners of the picture look sharper than they do on flat TVs. Plus curved screens tend to suffer less with color and contrast loss when viewed from an angle.
However, there are issues with curved TVs too. First, they tend to distort any on-screen reflections so that they cover much more of the screen than they would with a flat TV. Second, if you watch from an angle of really much more than 20-25 degrees, the picture can start to look foreshortened.
Finally, if you’re not sitting in the optimal position (if you’re either too far back or off to the side), curved TVs can distort the picture’s geometry.
- Confused? Allow us to confuse you further with some more background reading:
- Why curved OLED TVs are a bad idea
- Why curved TVs might not be the devil’s work after all
The sound quality of flat TVs can vary immensely. So if you’re not intending to use some sort of external sound system, this is something you should pay attention to.
Most brands quote a number of watts of power for their TV speaker systems, but this is seldom helpful in deciding how a TV is likely to sound.
Look instead, for instance, at how many speakers a TV has, and the configuration of those speakers. For instance, a ‘2.1’ configuration would indicate stereo main speakers with the ‘.1’ bit pointing to a dedicated bass speaker. Or a 3.1 configuration would point to a dedicated centre or dialogue channel alongside stereo and bass speakers.
Subwoofer speakers for bass are always welcome given how much TV speakers generally struggle with the lower end of the sound spectrum.
- If you’re not satisfied with your TVs built-in speakers, here’s a guide to the best soundbars around
Another audio issue is that the lack of room available to speakers in thin TVs means they usually have to fire their sound downwards, which can lead to an indirect, muffled, weedy sound. TVs that manage to provide forward-firing speakers tend to sound much cleaner and more powerful.
Some TVs of late have even gone so far as to ship with soundbars that either hang off their bottom edge or sit separately below the main screen frame.
One final word of warning here is that you should treat the claims of TVs to offer DTS or Dolby Digital surround decoding with scepticism. No TV can deliver anything close to a proper surround sound experience from its own speakers without using actual rear speakers, and many sound pretty horrible if they try. Experience shows that a good stereo sound – especially with a subwoofer to add bass – routinely trumps a half-baked pseudo-surround sound system or mode.
9. Smart TV
Almost every TV these days can be added to your broadband network to enable the use of online features or, in some cases, access media files stored on other storage devices – mobile phones, tablets, NAS drives etc. This sounds great on paper, but in reality, the quality and usefulness of such ‘smart’ features can vary greatly.
Generally speaking, if you have a number of personal smart devices in your home, TVs that can access content on other devices in your home – including via Bluetooth as well as Wi-fi – are worth looking out for.
Where online features are concerned, don’t be seduced by app quantity. The vast majority of TV apps are borderline pointless, and just clutter up the smart interface.
App quality is much more important. In fact, for many households, the only online features that really matter are online streaming/catchup services. Especially Amazon Prime, Netflix, and catch-up services for your region’s broadcasters, such as BBC iPlayer in the UK.
Finally, the simplicity of a smart TV interface plays a key role in how much you might use it. Currently, LG’s webOS and Panasonic’s Home Screen 2.0 systems handle their content most effectively.
For a full breakdown of how the various manufacturer’s smart TV interfaces stack up check out our best smart TV platform guide.
If your TV is going into a fairly bright room, sets that stand out in brightness terms on a shop floor can give you some idea of how their pictures will hold up when you get them home.
A lack of brightness is a particularly common problem with relatively small TVs. It’s also recently become a big deal for the big-screen marketplace, though, with the arrival of high dynamic range technology.
Without sufficient brightness a TV won’t produce well the bright white and color highlights that are so important to a successful HDR picture. They’ll look washed out, flat and short of detail – as if they’ve been bleached of color tone detail.
TVs that aren’t really bright enough for HDR will also create HDR pictures that look unnaturally dark and/or which leave dark parts of the picture looking too dominant and ‘hollow’. A good test of a TV’s HDR brightness is to put a shot on the screen that shows a dark object with lots of detail foregrounded against a bright backdrop. With TVs that are struggling for brightness, the dark object may lose all of its subtle shading and detailing, so that it just looks like a silhouette.
As a side note here, though, bear in mind that TVs which excel for brightness can struggle more than lower brightness TVs when it comes to black level, contrast and backlight stability/uniformity. In other words, don’t just assume that lots of brightness alone will get the job done; look at brightness and contrast issues as a balancing act.
11. Viewing angles
How well a TV can be watched from an angle can be a big deal in a lot of living rooms. To check this on a TV you’re interested in, pause an image on the screen that contains a bright, ideally colorful object against a dark backdrop, and start walking round it from straight opposite to down its sides while looking for the following:
- Significant greyness over parts of the picture that look black when viewed straight-on
- Colors losing vibrancy
- The increased appearance of backlight clouds, stripes or halos.
Once one or more of these issues becomes distractingly obvious, note roughly the angle you’re looking at the screen from and apply that to your living room seating positions.
Color is one of the trickiest picture quality attributes to judge in a store environment. But as well as the viewing angle color point mentioned above, there are a few things you can try and focus in on.
- How natural do tones look? Try and look both at the image as a whole and at individual color elements. For instance, do greens look radioactive or sickly? Do reds look orange? Do blues look muted? Studying the way skin looks is a particularly good way of seeing how well a TV’s colors are working together. Do people look too pale? Too pink? Too yellow or green around the gills?
- How balanced do colors look? Do some tones stand out so much that you get distracted by them?
- How wide is the TV’s color range? This isn’t so important for SDR-only TVs; with those you just want to make sure the TV has enough color performance to deliver natural, balanced tones. With HDR, though, you want to see if a TV manages to deliver a clear improvement in color saturation, vibrancy and blend subtlety when you switch from SDR to HDR.
- How subtle is a TV’s color handling? Look out for obvious bands or stripes where there should be smooth color blends (this striping issue is especially common with HDR). Look for blocking effects over background walls or, sometimes, people’s faces, especially in dark areas. Finally, look out for skin that looks too plasticky and smooth due to a lack of color tone subtlety.
You’re ideally looking here for how crisp a TV’s picture looks with all the different source resolutions now available: high definition, ultra high definition (4K) and, to a lesser degree, standard definition. Though given the way things are moving now, we’d suggest that a TV’s performance with standard definition is relatively unimportant. If you’re buying a 4K TV, though, you should certainly try and pay attention to how well it ‘upscales’ HD sources such as Blu-rays to its native 4K screen.
When judging HD to 4K upscaling, look for common upscaling problems such as extra grain/fizzing, a reduction in color vibrancy, jagged edges, motion blur, fizzing or shimmering noise over areas of fine detail and fine lines, and glowing halos around fine lines.
More general TV problems that can affect sharpness with any source are blurring over moving objects, poor color resolution (as described in the previous section), poor video processing and over-aggressive noise reduction processing. Try turning a TV’s noise reduction systems off if a picture initially looks soft and ‘mushy’ to see how much that improves things.
TVs can suffer with two motion problems: judder and blur. Look for both, ideally with 60Hz (console game) content, 50Hz (broadcast) content and 24Hz (Blu-rays, UHD Blu-rays).
Do camera pans stutter along? Do fast-moving objects look blurred, short of detail or even leave a smeary trail behind them? Do you see momentary ‘freezes’ during action scenes? Do vertical lines in the picture suffer ‘doubling’ during camera pans?
Most TVs offer some sort of motion processing to counter blur and judder issues, so try and check these out. However, these processing systems can cause their own problems, specifically shimmering halos around moving objects, flickering over areas of really fast motion, and a tendency to smooth out judder so much that pictures – especially 24-frames-a-second movie pictures – are left looking unnaturally fluid.
Bear in mind that most TVs offer different ‘strengths’ of motion processing, so try adjusting the settings to get a more comprehensive idea of a TV’s motion performance.
15. Sound quality
Assuming that you’re not going to be running your new TV with some sort of external sound system, you’re going to have to pay attention to how good a potential new set sounds.
This is relatively easy to do, thankfully. Just play a couple of loud action scenes and scenes with loud scores, listening for the following:
- Harshness – does the sound get brittle and thin at high volumes/when there’s a lot going on?
- Bass – is there any ‘rumble’ to round out explosions, earthquakes etc. If there is, does it sound clean or muffled and overpowering?
- Detail – does the sound contain lots of subtle details, or sound dense and ‘squashed’.
- Voices – do they sound realistic (for both men and women), and do they still sound clear even when there’s a lot of noise going on behind them?
- Do the speakers drop out or make a ‘phutting’ sound under pressure?
- Does the TV’s cabinet rattle or buzz under pressure?
- Does the sound spread beyond the TV, and if it does can it still sound cohesive?
- Do voices sound like they’re coming from the right place on the screen?
16. When to buy your new TV
TV prices vary a lot over the course of the year. While it can be tempting to rush out and buy the latest and greatest sets when they’re hot off the production line, like many other consumer electronics it can pay off big time if you’re willing to hold off on your purchase for a few months.
There are a couple of key points to consider when trying to get a TV for the best possible price. You might have to be a little more patient, but if you’re willing to play the long game you can end up with an astonishing TV at a fraction of the price it would have been new.
Last year’s sets can be a bargain
Unlike headphones or speakers, which tend to have models that stick around for a few years before their manufacturers replace them, television line-ups tend to be replaced like clockwork once a year.
However, while sets do tend to get better from year to year, often the changes are incremental. This means you can get a very similar experience by opting for last year’s televisions.
You’ll have to be careful if you choose to go down this route, because while a lot of changes in TV tech are incremental, there are a couple of key areas that are anything but.
Take HDR as an example. Certainly, the technology existed a few years ago, and the difference between older HDR and 2020’s is nowhere near as big as the difference between HDR and SDR.
However, back in 2016 or 2017 fewer sets were equipped with the technology in the first place, meaning you have to pay slightly closer attention to the specs than you’d have to with a modern set.
The simplest way to do this is by looking out for the UHD Premium specification, which will ensure that any television you buy is compatible with the next generation of TV technologies.
So long as it meets the UHD Premium requirements, a set that’s a few years old can prove to be an absolute bargain.
Timing is crucial
Aside from which year’s televisions you buy, there are also a key couple of periods throughout the year when retailers are very keen to discount their wares.
With televisions these periods often come around the start of major sporting tournaments, where retailers will discount televisions that they advertise are the best way to watch the action.
However, when it comes to televisions, the biggest day of the year is undoubtedly Black Friday, when retailers often discount this year’s models to lure in customers and, in the US at least, to clear out stock post-Thanksgiving.
Amazon Prime Day is also another source of some tasty bargains, so be sure to keep an eye out to see if any of your preferred sets receive a discount.
The amount of deals scrambling for your attention on these days can be overwhelming, but keep your eyes trained on TechRadar where we’ll be hunting around for the best deals on the day.
Always check historical pricing
Retailers will often happily boast about what a saving they’re offering compared to a television’s initial price, but often these sets were heavily discounted before they were technically in a sale.
This isn’t necessarily a problem if the price is still good, but what’s especially important is finding out whether the set has actually been discounted by more in the past. In these cases you might be best off waiting to see if it hits that same price again.
In all cases, it’s never a bad idea to check what price the television has been sold for in the past. The site CamelCamelCamel is excellent for this purpose. Just put in the URL of a product you’re thinking of buying, and the site will tell you how cheap it’s been in the past.
If you’re prepared to wait, then you can even use CamelCamelCamel to set up price alerts to have it automatically notify you when a television drops to a certain price.
Don’t just buy a television because the retailer says it’s discounted. Always do your research first to work out how good a discount is really being offered.
17. And finally – picking a TV brand
You’ve learnt about the specs – but what brand will you go with?
For a full comparison of the biggest TV makers out there, check out our best TV brands guide, where we go into detail on Sony, Samsung, LG, Philips, Panasonic, and more.
- Want some top recommendations? Check out our guide to the best 4K TVs around.