How to Buy a TV: What You Need to Know

A couple buying televisions in a store.Dusan Petkovic / Shutterstock

Buying a television is more complex than ever. There are new technologies, formats and buzzwords you need to keep up with. Plus, prices are everywhere as well, as more affordable companies try to topple brands like LG and Samsung.

And if you are looking for a TV specially designed for gaming, different characteristics are more important. We break down everything you need to know to make the best purchase!

Choose a screen: OLED, QLED and more

Currently, there are two dominant display technologies in the market: LED-LCD (including QLED) and OLED. Understand the differences will help you make the right decision. A simple rule of thumb is to match the display type to your viewing habits.

Most televisions on the market are LCD panels with LED backlighting. These include the cheaper newer TVs, from brands like TCL and Hisense, to LG’s NanoCell line, and Samsung’s premium QLED sets.

However, not all LED illuminated panels are created equal. Panels advertised as QLED use a Quantum dot layer which improves the gamut and vividness of colors on the screen. Of all the LCD panels on the market, QLEDs are as good as it gets.

Samsung q95tSamsung

The only downside to panels that use traditional LED lights is that they are backlit. This means that in order to display an image, a bright LED must shine through the many layers that make up the panel. This can cause poor reproduction of black and potential light bleeding around the edge of the screen.

The latest (and better) LED models use full array local dimming (FALD) to soften certain areas of the screen and improve black reproduction. This helps LCD panels come much closer to a “real” black. Since the dimming areas can be quite large, the technology is not perfect. This process often produces a “halo” effect at the edges of the gradation areas.

OLED is a completely different technology than QLED. These panels are self-emissive, which means that each pixel produces its own light. There is no LCD film and no backlighting through the “stack” of layers that make up the screen. In fact, an OLED battery is incredibly thin.

This means that OLED displays have “perfect” blacks because they can turn off pixels completely. The result is a striking image with excellent contrast. On the other hand, OLED displays can suffer from poor, almost black performance. Some models are subject to “black crush”, in which details of dark shadows are lost.

OLEDs are also likely to burn out under certain conditions.

2020 LG CX OLED flagship TVLG

OLED technology can also be a bit more expensive than traditional LED-lit displays, as it is a newer technology with a higher cost to manufacture. With that in mind, LG’s flagship displays, like the C9 and CX, generally belong to the same carrier as Samsung’s flagship QLED displays.

But there is also an outlier: mini-LEDs. These panels still use traditional LCD technology, but with smaller LEDs. This means that they can pack in many other gradation areas. The result is a much less pronounced halo effect and the same deep inky blacks you might see on an OLED.

While MiniLED TVs offer a great balance between price and picture quality, they’re slim in the field at the moment. TCL is currently the only company to sell Mini-LED models in the US market, although more are expected to land from Samsung and others in the near future.

RELATED: How to buy a TV for gaming in 2020

Brightness and viewing angles

It is important to adapt your display technology to your surroundings and your viewing habits. Since LCD assemblies (including QLED) use LED backlighting, they can be much brighter than OLED models. This is because OLEDs use organic compounds whose brightness is limited due to the production of heat.

A QLED set can be twice as bright as an OLED, making it perfect for viewing in a very bright room. Conversely, if you like to watch movies in the dark or especially at night, the higher black levels of an OLED will give a better picture. If you hate washed-out blacks, OLED is the way to go.

A family sitting on a sofa watching television.Monkey Corporate Images / Shutterstock

OLED displays also have excellent viewing angles, making them ideal for group viewing. While some color change may occur when viewing off-axis, the image will not darken significantly even at extreme angles. This makes an OLED a great choice if not everyone in the room will be directly facing the screen.

Different LCD models use different coatings and panel types in an attempt to work around this problem. For example, LG’s NanoCells use IPS panels, which have excellent viewing angles, but poor contrast ratios.

On the other hand, VA panels, like those in Samsung’s QLEDs, suffer from poor off-axis viewing angles, but have the best contrast ratios and color reproduction.

If you have a large family or like to entertain friends over to watch sports or movies, be sure to factor in viewing angles and ambient light in the room before choosing a TV.

RELATED: TN vs IPS vs VA: What is the best display panel technology?

High dynamic range: the future of video

High dynamic range (HDR) is a leap forward in display technology. Dynamic range is the visible spectrum between the darkest blacks and the brightest lights, and it’s typically measured in stops. While a traditional Standard Dynamic Range (SDR) TV has a range of around six stops, the latest HDR displays can go over 20.

This means you get more detail in the shadows and highlights, resulting in a richer image. HDR also incorporates a wider color gamut and much higher peak brightness. You will see more shades of color, which results in less “banding” or grouping of similar colors. You will also see flashes of brightness from objects like the sun, which creates a more realistic presentation.

Dynamic HDR vs. Static HDR

HDR is a big deal because most new movies and TV content takes advantage of it. Next-gen gaming consoles (like the Xbox Series X and S and PlayStation 5) also place an emphasis on HDR, although later-gen systems have been using it for years. If you watch a lot of movies or play games, you will need good HDR support.

First, it helps understand the differences between the main HDR formats. Here are the most important features to note:

HDR10: This is a basic standardized HDR. Almost all televisions on the market support it. If you buy a film with a “High Dynamic Range” sticker on the box, it almost certainly includes HDR10 support.
Dolby Vision: A superior HDR implementation, It uses dynamic metadata to help the TV produce the most accurate HDR picture frame by frame.
HDR10 +: An open evolution of HDR10, it also includes dynamic metadata. This format is mostly found on Samsung TVs.
Log-Gamma Hybrid (HLG): It is a broadcast implementation of HDR that allows SDR and HDR displays to use the same source. Additional data is provided for HDR compatible displays, so that they receive a better picture.

With the exception of HDR10 (the “default” HDR implementation), Dolby Vision has much better support than HDR10 +. Streaming services, like Netflix, use it for almost all new content, and Microsoft is also committed to bringing Dolby Vision into games on Xbox Series X and S in 2021.

RELATED: HDR formats compared: HDR10, Dolby Vision, HLG and Technicolor

Whimsical Features: The Devil in the Details

You can buy a great TV for around $ 600, but spending $ 1,200 won’t necessarily give you a TV that looks significantly better. You might even spend more money and get a TV that somehow looks worse.

This is because TVs can differ significantly in terms of additional features. To avoid spending money on features you might never use, it’s worth taking the time to familiarize yourself with a few of them.

Your TV’s image processor can dramatically affect picture quality. A good image processor can take blurry 720p video and make it look presentable on a 4K screen. A bad image processor, however, can handle 24p cinematic content very poorly and introduce distracting stuttering or stuttering. Cheap sets can be mediocre in this area, but high-end brands like Sony handle it well on their high-end sets.

Some brands take it a step further with features like Black Frame Insertion (BFI), which literally inserts black frames at set intervals for smoother movement. This may be important for moviegoers, but it’s not something you should prioritize if you just want a TV to watch the news.

HDMI 2.1 Bandwidth

Connectivity is another area that can get expensive. Most TVs include HDMI 2.0 ports, but the new standard 2.1 takes place slowly. Unless you want the highest resolutions and frame rates (120Hz) on the PS5, Xbox series, or a high-end PC, you don’t need HDMI 2.1.

A high refresh rate display lets you view content up to 120Hz – double that of most TVs on the market. However, unless the source (like a new console or graphics card) provides an image of this quality, you hardly need a 120Hz display.

Game features like FreeSync and G-Sync make games a more enjoyable experience. They smooth out frame rate drops, but they aren’t necessary for most people. Unless you know you need the feature because your hardware is compatible with it, you can shrink it down and save money.

Sony and Microsoft the latest consoles use HDMI VRR, so they don’t necessarily need these features.

Illustration of HDMI

One area that seems to have improved across the board on the latest TVs is software. While the one you bought ten years ago probably has a slow or clunky interface, newer smart TVs often use modern operating systems, like Android TV, LG’s WebOS, Samsung’s Tizen, or TCL’s Roku.

You may want to try out the interface before purchasing a TV to make sure you like the operating system you will be using for the next few years.

RELATED: What is HDMI VRR on the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X?

Bad sound: the audio problem

Modern TVs often emphasize the form factor over almost everything else. This is how we got ultra-thin bezels, slim OLED displays, and flush wall mounting. The side effect of this is that most TVs come with sub-par speakers, which can’t fill a room with good sound.

There are exceptions: Sony’s OLEDs use the glass screen as a kind of speaker, and some TCL models include built-in sound bars. However, the majority – especially those on the budget side of the spectrum – are likely going to be disappointing when it comes to sound.

Yamaha YAS-108 sound barYamaha

To improve your experience, you may want to leave room in your budget for some audio equipment. You don’t necessarily have to break the bank on a Sonos Arc sound bar, unless you want an immersive experience that turns the room around from a small footprint on your entertainment unit.

Soundbars are designed to deliver superior TV sound at a price that won’t make you cringe. Many support the latest standards, like eARC and Dolby Atmos, but these are secondary to the primary function: compensating for the terrible built-in sound that currently prevails on TVs.

On resolution: stick to 4K

With 4K TVs and HDR support now widely adopted, most people finally have a good reason to upgrade. So why are manufacturers already trying to trick you into buying an 8K bundle?

It is true that some 8K sets, like Samsung’s premium QLEDs, are not that expensive right now. Unfortunately, 8K is not yet worth the investment. For some, 8K will never be worth it as the perceived jump in picture quality is negligible at best.

The move from standard definition to HD has been huge in terms of picture quality, but from HD to 4K things are starting to get a bit more blurry. You have to be some distance from a TV to see the benefits of 4K, but there’s no denying that the picture is sharper and more detailed.

So how about 4K to 8K? As you may have guessed, this is a game of diminishing returns. While the difference is visible when you get much closer than what would be considered a reasonable viewing distance, overall you will likely be disappointed.

8K resolution compared

Then there is the question of content. While an 8K display will do a good job of scaling up 4K content, finding native 8K content is next to impossible. YouTube supports it, but there is no way to filter search results for it. Some streaming services don’t even offer 4K content yet, and many cable broadcasts continue to operate in standard definition.

Netflix recommends an internet speed of 25 Mbps for streaming 4K content, which is already heavily compressed. By this logic, you would need at least 50 Mbps for 8K content, which would also use a lot more bandwidth than 4K.

One day, 8K it will be worth it because it will be the norm just like 4K is now. There will be better reasons to upgrade your TV when the time comes. Let’s not forget how badly HDR implementation affected early 4K TVs when they released. We only have a few generations of really great 4K TVs that offer a much better viewing experience than our older HD TVs.

RELATED: 8K television has arrived. Here’s what you need to know

Read reviews

As with any modern electronic product, independent reviewers hold the key to making an informed decision. RTINGS is one of the best resources for buying a TV. A general test criterion is used on all TVs reviewed, which provides an objective overview of strengths and weaknesses.

Simply apply your results to your situation, living room, and viewing habits. There is no one perfect TV for everyone. Just make sure you avoid the common mistakes people make when buying a TV.

RELATED: 6 mistakes people make when buying a TV

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