How to buy a (smart) TV

Buying a new television is an overwhelming experience. Prices vary widely for TVs of the same size. TV manufacturers and salespeople use extra features, alien-sounding technologies and hyperbolic claims about picture quality to get you to spend more. And as usual the internet is a mess of conflicting facts, opinions and unexplained jargon.

This guide is intended as an oasis in the vast desert of information about TVs. I strive to fill it with just enough easy-to-understand information to help you select a new television. It won’t answer every question, and when you read it, it won’t tell you “the perfect TV for you” at the end. But I hope it can provide you with the basic tools you need to feel confident when you buy that new set.

Ignore (most of) the specifications

As a rule of thumb, the main purpose of a TV’s specification sheet is to bombard you with confusing terms and numbers in an attempt to get you to “step up” and buy the more expensive version. Just about the only worthwhile numbers are found under Inputs and Weight/Dimensions.

Rather than rely on the spec sheet to provide hints on which TV will perform better than another, our advice is to simply ignore it. The sheet can help when trying to differentiate a TV based on features, such as whether it has HDR, Smart TV capability or a fancy remote, but it’s useless at best and outright misleading at worst when used as a tool for divining picture quality.

Bigger really is better

I recommend a size of at least 40 inches for a bedroom TV and at least 55 inches for a living room or main TV — and 65 inches or larger is best.

In fact, more than any other “feature” like 4K resolution, HDR, Smart TV or a fancy remote, stepping up in TV screen size is the best use of your money. One of the most common post-TV-purchase complaints I’ve heard is from people who didn’t go big enough.

If you want to fit an existing entertainment center, make sure you have at least an inch on the sides and top of the TV cavity to allow for ventilation. Or just junk that old furniture and get a bigger TV.

4K and HDR are worth getting

TVs with 4K resolution, also known as UHD (Ultra High Definition) TVs, have four times as many pixels as standard 1080p resolution TVs. That sounds like a big improvement, but in reality it’s very difficult to tell the difference in sharpness between a 4K TV and a good old-fashioned HDTV.

On the other hand, 4K TVs are easy for manufacturers to produce, so they’re coming down quickly in price. Vizio and TCL offer 65-inch 4K TVs for around $800 in the US, while LG and Samsung TVs sell for around $1,100. These days many TVs — especially the big ones — have 4K resolution, and 1080p and lower-resolution models are quickly becoming resigned to the bargain bin.

Most of the midpriced and higher-end 4K TVs this year have HDR compatibility as well. HDR delivers better contrast and color, so unlike 4K, chances are you’ll actually be able to see an improvement compared with normal HDTV. How big of an improvement (if any) depends on the TV, however, and just like with 4K, you’ll need to be watching actual HDR content.

4K TV shows and movies are rare today, and HDR is even less common. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon offer both, but only with a handful of titles. You can also invest in a 4K Blu-ray player (like the Samsung UBD-K8500 or Xbox One S), which also do HDR, and discs to play on it. Actual 4K and/or HDR TV channels are still nonexistent in the United States, however.

Bottom line? All of the best TVs are 4K TVs with HDR. If you’re shopping for a medium-sized or larger TV, you’ll probably end up with a 4K one anyway, and chances are it’ll do HDR too.

 

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