TV Buying Guide
You might think shopping for a TV would be simple, given that all new televisions have been flat-panel sets for many years now. But buying a TV still involves many choices, some of which may be new to you. More TVs now have a feature called high dynamic range, or HDR, that promises brighter, more dynamic images, and more vivid, lifelike colors. You’ll see plenty of Ultra High Definition (UHD), or 4K, TVs, and even some 8K TVs, which promise better picture detail than HDTVs offer, along with improved contrast and color. So one question you’ll face if you’re buying a larger TV is whether it’s time to move to one of these newer 8K UHD TVs, or stick with a regular 4K set.
You may also notice that OLED TVs dominate our current TV ratings in the larger size categories. These sets are still pricier than the LCD/LED models that make up the bulk of televisions on the market—though that price gap narrows every year—so you’ll need to decide whether it’s worth splurging for a top-performing set. Also, every year top-performing LCD TVs get better, edging closer to OLED TV-like performance. Right now OLED TVs are available mainly from two brands, LG Electronics and now Sony—we’ve also tested an OLED TV from an emerging brand called Skyworth—so you’ll have fewer choices than you will with LCD-based sets.
If you’re looking for a set smaller than 55 inches, the smallest OLED TV screen size available, you’ll be getting an LCD-based set.
Once you know which type of TV you want, focus on getting the right size, picture quality, and a few key features. And make sure your new TV has the connections required for equipment such as a streaming media player or sound bar speaker. Our full TV ratings, available to digital and all access members, provide all the picture-quality evaluations you’ll need. Looking to get rid of cable or change providers? Check our telecom services reviews, covering triple-play bundles as well as individual internet, TV, and phone services.
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Perhaps the most important choice you’re going to make with a new TV is the size of the screen. TV screens are measured diagonally, and they range in size from smaller than 20 inches to larger than 80 inches. However, not many people shop at the extremes. Televisions going into kitchens or small bedrooms might measure just 24 to 32 inches, but if you’re shopping for your primary TV, we recommend going bigger—say, a set with a 50- to 65-inch screen. You could consider an even bigger set for spacious family rooms or if you’ll be sitting very far from the TV.
While there are no hard-and-fast rules for determining the right size TV—personal preference, the field of view, and even visual acuity come into play—there are some general guidelines you can use. You can try one of the many free online calculators or apply the following equation.
If you’re buying a 1080p set—and there are fewer choices now in larger screen sizes—the closest you can sit to your television, while still maintaining the proper maximum field of view, is 1.6 times the diagonal measurement of your television. So if you have a 60-inch screen, you’d want to sit at least 96 inches (or 8 feet) away.
You can simply reverse the arithmetic if you want to start out with the viewing distance. Measure the distance from your couch to the TV in feet, divide that number by 1.6, and then multiply the result by 12 to get the screen measurement in inches. If you’ll be sitting 8 feet from where you want to put the TV, you’ll end up shopping for a 60-inch television. (You can make the math even simpler if you just measure everything in inches.)
But don’t feel obliged to perform these calculations. These days, most larger sets are 4K UHD models, and we think it makes sense to buy one because they’re typically no more expensive. (In fact, you might not have a choice of an equivalent 1080p set in larger screen sizes.) These TVs have higher-resolution 4K screens with more densely packed pixels. That means you can go larger, and your seating distance can be as close as the screen diagonal itself. So, for example, with a 65-inch UHD TV, you could sit as close as 5½ feet from the set.
Just remember that the goal is to create a comfortable, immersive viewing experience. You don’t want to be so close that you can’t see the whole picture or so far back that you miss out on the high-definition detail you’re paying for.
You’ll also have to pay attention to your budget. It’s possible to find good TVs selling for a few hundred dollars, while others go for several thousand, and there are many sets that fall in between those extremes. Screen size, features, and brand will all affect pricing.
Here are a few typical price ranges for several screen sizes:
• About $100 to $250 for a 32-inch model
• $180 to $500 for a 39- to 43-inch set
• $250 to $700 for a 49- or 50-inch set
• $350 to $2,000 for a 55- to 59-inch set
• $550 to $4,000 for a 60- or 65-inch set
Our full TV ratings are broken down by screen-size categories ranked by Overall Score, so it’s easy to see how well a TV performed in our tests and how much it costs relative to other sets of its size.
Rule of thumb for sizing a 1080p TV: Screen diagonal = distance to couch, in inches, divided by 1.6. You can go bigger with a 4K, or UHD, set.
The Ins and Outs of Resolution
These terms refer to the TV’s native resolution. A regular high-definition (HD) set is also a called a 1080p model because its screen resolution is 1920x1080. That means it has 1,920 pixels horizontally and 1,080 pixels vertically, so it contains roughly 2 million pixels in all. Think of pixels, short for “picture elements,” as the tiny individual dots that make up the TV’s picture.
Ultra High Definition (UHD) TVs, also called 4K TVs, have screen resolutions of 3840x2160, so they contain 8 million pixels, or four times the number of individual pixels as an HD set. The more densely packed array of pixels in UHD sets makes them capable of greater picture detail. The benefits of a UHD TV are more apparent in larger screen sizes—say, 65 inches and above—or when you’d like to sit closer to the TV than you could with a 1080p set.
We're now also starting to see the first so-called 8K TVs, which have screen resolutions of 7680x4320, with more than 33 million pixels. This is the highest resolution that has been defined in the UHD standard, so technically these sets are also UHD TVs. Right now there aren’t many of them, and they’re typically a good bit more expensive than comparably sized 4K sets.
We don’t recommend purchasing an 8K set right now, because you’ll pay a premium for it and there’s no 8K content yet. So these days, purchasing a 4K TV makes the most sense, especially in larger screen sizes where it’s getting more difficult to even find HD sets. But you will still find 1080p and 720p TVs in the smaller screen sizes—say, 32 inches and smaller.
There is now a decent amount of 4K content to watch, especially from streaming services such as Amazon and Netflix. There are also 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray players that can play 4K Blu-ray discs. We expect more to come on the market in the future.
Another reason you might decide to make the 4K TV leap: Standards for some UHD features, including high dynamic range (HDR) and a wider palette of colors, have now been set, so you don’t have to worry about missing out on a new important feature. To find out more about high dynamic range, see our HDR section below.
A high-definition TV, with 1920x1080 resolution, will be fine for most viewers, and you’ll save a bit of money compared with a similarly sized UHD set. Almost every 1080p set available is an LCD TV with an LED backlight, but there are also a limited number of 1080p OLED TVs. And right now you’re unlikely to find a UHD TV smaller than 39 inches. We’ve found that many viewers aren’t able to see the extra detail in a UHD TV from normal viewing distances until they get to very large screen sizes, say 65 inches and above. Just remember that resolution is only one of a number of attributes a TV has to get right to produce Excellent overall picture quality. Regular HD TVs remain a great choice for many consumers when you factor in price, especially in screen sizes smaller than 65 inches.
4K/8K UHD TV
Thanks to its higher-resolution 3840x2160 screen, a 4K TV can display greater detail than a 1080p set when presented with high-quality UHD content. New 8K TVs, with 7680x4320 screens, are capable of even greater fine detail. Images on these sets appear sharper, with smoother lines on the edges of objects, depending on your viewing distance. Many UHD sets attempt to enhance the image in other ways. For example, we’re starting to see a growing number of TVs with HDR, which provides a higher level of contrast between the lightest and darkest images. Newer UHD TVs also widen the array of colors a TV can display, but exploiting these advantages requires specially produced content. More content that has been encoded with HDR is available every year.
High Dynamic Range (HDR)
As we previously noted, the TV industry's biggest buzzword is high dynamic range, or HDR. When done right, HDR boosts a TV's brightness, contrast, and color, making the pictures on the screen look more like real life.
As you can see in the dramatized image below, when HDR is at work you'll see details that might not otherwise be obvious, from the texture of the brick on a shady walkway to nuances in the white clouds in a daytime sky.
You'll also see brighter, more realistic "specular highlights," which are glints of light, such as the sun's reflection off a car's chrome bumper or an airplane wing. With HDR, those highlights pop; without it, they wouldn’t stand out against other bright objects.
HDR does all that by increasing the contrast between the brightest whites and the darkest blacks a TV can produce. That’s where the "dynamic range" in the name comes from.
"When done well, HDR presents more natural illumination of image content," says Claudio Ciacci, who heads the Consumer Reports TV testing program. "HDR can flex its dynamic-range muscles in strong sunlit scenes that push the TV's contrast to the limits," he adds, "but you'll also see HDR's subtler benefits on more simply lit scenes."
Typically, HDR TVs also produce more vibrant, varied colors than other sets. That’s because HDR is often paired with "wide color gamut," or WCG, capability.
Standard HDTVs can display about 17 million colors, but those with WCG can display up to a billion. That’s like giving your TV a larger box of crayons to play with.
But you won't see all that fantastic contrast and color every time you turn on the TV. You have to be playing a movie or TV show that has been mastered to take advantage of HDR and WCG. You can get 4K content with HDR right now from streaming services, on 4K Blu-ray discs, and even from DirecTV's satellite TV service. But we expect to see more HDR content become available, including through a new over-the-air broadcast standard that’s to be launched in the next year or two. (Find out where you can watch 4K content with HDR.)
Types of HDR
So far we've been talking about HDR as if it were just one technology, but there are a few types of HDR, each following a different set of technical specs.
This can get complicated, and before we get into the details there’s some good news.
First, your TV should automatically detect the type of HDR being used in the content and choose the right way to play it.
Second, the type of HDR doesn't seem to be too important right now. What we've seen in our labs is that top-performing TVs can do a great job with different types of HDR. The quality of the TV is more important. So it makes sense to buy the best TV you can regardless of the type of HDR it supports.
However, if you’d like to understand the differences among types of HDR, here’s an overview.
One type, called HDR10, has been adopted as an open standard. It’s free to use, and all 4K TVs with HDR support it. That’s also true of all 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray players and HDR programming, so you won’t be stuck with a set that can’t play HDR.
But some TVs also offer another type of HDR, called Dolby Vision, which is being promoted as an enhanced version of HDR10. Companies pay a licensing fee to use it. On paper it has some advantages. In particular, it supports “dynamic” metadata, where the brightness levels for a movie or show can be tweaked scene by scene. By contrast, HDR10 uses "static" metadata, where brightness levels are set for the entire movie or show.
Dolby Vision isn’t alone in using dynamic metadata, though. There's a newer version of HDR10, called HDR10+. It, too, has dynamic metadata, making HDR10 more like Dolby Vision. Right now it’s supported mainly by Samsung, which developed HDR10+, and Amazon, which has said it will support HDR10+ in its streaming service. We’ll be watching to see whether other TV manufacturers adopt it.
You may also hear something in the coming months about another HDR format, called HLG (hybrid log gamma). It could be important if it’s adopted for the next generation of free over-the-air TV signals, which will follow a standard called ATSC 3.0. Many new TVs already support HLG, but it looks like others will be able to get firmware updates if necessary. This matters only for people who get TV through antennas, which are making a comeback.
Finally, there's another flavor of HDR, called Advanced HDR by Technicolor. It's used more widely in Europe than it is here right now. Currently, some LG 4K TVs support it, and Philips said its 2019 TV models have it. Late last year, the Blu-ray Disc Association said Technicolor HDR would be one of the three optional HDR technologies—the others are Dolby Vision and HDR10+— supported by the group. HDR10 is the lone mandatory HDR format, and all TVs support it.
Are All HDR TVs Created Equal?
No. Our tests show that not every TV with "HDR" written on the box produces equally rich, lifelike images. That’s one reason we now provide a separate HDR score in our TV ratings.
First of all, TVs are all over the map when it comes to picture quality, HDR or no HDR. But there are also challenges specific to this technology. Most notably, a TV might not be bright enough to really deliver on HDR. To understand why, you need to know your “nits,” the units used to measure brightness.
Better-performing HDR TVs typically generate at least 600 nits of peak brightness, with top performers hitting 1,000 nits or more. But many HDR TVs produce only 100 to 300 nits. With an underpowered TV, the fire of a rocket launch becomes a single massive white flare. With a brighter television, you’d see tongues of fire and smoke, as if you were really there.
"The benefits of HDR are often lost with mediocre displays," Ciacci says.
How Can I Tell a Great HDR TV From a Bad One?
Unfortunately, you can’t just read the packaging—or even rely on how the picture looks in the store.
Some TVs carry an Ultra HD Premium logo, indicating that they’ve been certified as high-performance sets by an industry group called the UHD Alliance, but not all companies are going along. For example, LG and Samsung participate in the program; Sony and Vizio don't.
What to do instead? Check our TV ratings, which now have a score for HDR.
As you'll see, the TVs with the best HDR tend to be the priciest. But there are also some good choices for people who want to spend less. And if you're buying a smaller set, or just want to wait on 4K and HDR, you can find several good—and inexpensive—options.
HDR can help images come alive.
Decide Whether You Want a Smart TV
Like cat videos and Kardashians, smart TVs seem to be everywhere. These increasingly popular televisions can access online content, such as streaming video services from Amazon Prime and Netflix. Basic smart TVs may be limited to the most popular services, and others offer a vast assortment of apps. Many have full web browsers, and more sophisticated smart TVs can respond to voice commands, make program recommendations, and let you view content from your smartphone on the TV screen.
More than 70 percent of the TVs sold these days are now smart TVs, according to market research firm IHS Markit. But if you’re considering a more basic TV or you already have a TV that lacks smarts, you can easily add internet capability using a separate streaming media player, such as an Amazon Fire TV, an Apple TV, a Google Chromecast, or a Roku player. (Details below.)
Some manufacturers have developed their own smart-TV platforms, while others may use a licensed system, such as Android TV from Google or Roku TV. A TV with built-in smarts can make accessing content easy—there’s only a single remote control—but a separate streaming media player may have more content options, or use an interface that makes finding and accessing content easier.
More TVs these days come with support for third-party voice-enabled digital assistants, such as Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. This will let you perform basic TV controls—such as raising and lowering volume, and changing channels or inputs—and search for shows and movies using voice commands. Sometimes you’ll be able to control other compatible devices, such as smart speakers, lights, or thermostats, right from your TV.
Streaming Media Players
Streaming media players are a popular add-on for TVs, bringing streaming movies, TV, music, and games to TVs that lack internet access. Even if you own a smart TV, you may consider a streaming player if it has features or services your TV doesn’t, or it just performs better.
There are more than a dozen streaming player models, offered in two styles: set-top boxes, and stick players about the size of a USB flash drive. The most basic ones support 1080p video, while many new models can play 4K content from the streaming services that offer it.
Prices for 4K models start at about $50 for an Amazon Fire TV or a Roku player, to about $180 for an Apple TV. You can get a 1080p model starting around $30. Because 4K models often come with promotional discounts, getting a 4K player probably makes the most sense for most consumers because their next TV purchase will likely be a 4K model.
And be aware that streaming video requires robust broadband and WiFi connections to prevent the video from freezing or buffering. If you move more of your entertainment to the internet, you may need to upgrade to a faster connection.
Smart TVs, also called internet TVs or connected TVs, can be your bridge to a world of online content that you can access directly from the TV itself. Most smart TVs these days let you access multiple streaming video services, such as Amazon Prime, DirecTV Now, Hulu, Netflix, Sling TV, YouTube TV, and Vudu, plus one or more internet music services, such as Pandora and Spotify. Many smart TVs also let you go to social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and several support casual games as well.
More smart TVs are now voice-enabled, using either their own proprietary artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, or working with established third-party digital assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant. (Some sets may have all three.) Some TVs from the major brands will also connect to, and interact with, other smart home devices, allowing you to play music on smart speakers, raise or lower the temperature on smart thermostats, or adjust the room’s lighting on smart lightbulbs, all from the TV.
Like streaming media players, smart TVs need to be connected to your home network. We recommend using a wired Ethernet connection, if possible, but all smart TVs now also have built-in WiFi for accessing your network wirelessly.
Check the Viewing Angle
Despite many improvements, most LCDs still have a fairly significant shortcoming: limited viewing angle. That means the picture looks its best only from a fairly narrow sweet spot right in front of the screen. We recommend checking the viewing angle by watching a TV from off to the side, and from above and below the main part of the image. As you move away from the center of the screen, the image can dim, lose contrast and color accuracy, or look washed out. And the degree of picture degradation varies from model to model. We’ve found that TVs that use “IPS” LCD panels offer wider-than-average viewing angles for LCD sets, though this can sometimes come at the expense of contrast.
By contrast, OLED TVs have almost unlimited viewing angles, just like plasma TVs did.
Recently, we’ve seen some TVs from Samsung and Sony that have wider-than-average viewing angles for an LCD-based set without using IPS panels. TVs in two of Samsung’s QLED series—top-of-the-line Q80 and Q90 models—have the widest viewing angles we’ve seen from an LCD TV.
If you try to check out a TV’s viewing angle in the store, be aware that the TV’s retail setting typically cranks the brightness and boosts colors to unnatural levels, artificially improving off-angle viewing. Whatever you experience in the store, it’s important to also check the viewing angle after you’ve set it up in your home. We suggest you do it immediately so that you can easily return the set if it proves to be disappointing.
A television's picture looks best when you're sitting right in front of it. Check out the quality of the image from a variety of viewing angles.