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How to buy the right TV for you

How to buy the right TV for you

You've decided it's finally time to replace your current TV. Maybe you want something bigger, with a higher resolution, brighter colors, built-in apps or any number of other features. Or maybe you're looking for a second TV for a bedroom or kids room.

Whatever you're after, when you walk into the store or go online, you're going to see hundreds of TVs in all shapes and sizes with features you didn't even know existed. How do you make sure you're making the best decision? We're going to walk you through the choices you need to make when selecting a new TV.

Screen technology

The first thing you need to decide is what kind of screen technology you want. This is actually fairly easy at the moment because the majority of TVs you see are going to be LCD, also called LED TVs because they use LED backlighting, as we'll discuss later.

The prices on LCD TVs have dropped substantially and you can find 40-inch models for under $300, and possibly even $100 this holiday shopping season. Even a nice 60-inch model is going to be less than $1,000.

As for other technology, plasma TVs aren't being manufactured anymore, although you can still find some around. These are generally going to be lower resolution or have fewer features than LCD models.

Then there are new OLED, or organic light-emitting diode, TVs on the market. The screen itself is made up of self-illuminating pixels, which has the benefit of being more energy efficient than a traditional LCD backlight. Also, because each pixel can turn off and be perfectly black, OLED TVs can have a higher contrast so images appear more vibrant.

However, there is still some question about color fading over time. You're also going to be paying a few thousand more than you will for an LCD of comparable size. A 55-inch OLED is around $3,000 while an LCD is under $1,000. True, $3,000 is quite a bit less than OLEDs used to cost, but it's still a hefty price tag. In most cases, you're going to be sticking with LCD.

Resolution

Your next choice is the resolution you want. As a reminder, resolution is how many pixels are packed into the screen. In general, the more pixels there are, the more detail you get on images.

Right now, 1080p, also known as high definition or Full HD, is the standard resolution on TVs. Just about any HD broadcast, HD online video or Blu-ray movie is going to match this resolution. You might still find some smaller TVs with a lower 720p HD resolution but they're few and far between.

However, you will also see some TVs with the newer, higher resolution 4K, or Ultra HD. It's called 4K because you get four times the pixels of 1080p, which means images have a lot more detail. At least they do when you're playing 4K video, which there isn't a lot of at the moment.

In most cases, you'll be playing HD 1080p content on your 4K TV, so it won't do much for you. That's why up until even a few months ago there was no good reason to buy a 4K TV. However, there have been some changes lately.

Netflix, Amazon and YouTube have had a few 4K videos and TV series for a while, but not enough to justify a 4K TV. Now, however, Amazon and Roku have released streaming boxes, the Fire TV and Roku 4, that stream 4K video. Smart 4K TVs could already stream these videos on their own, but with Amazon and Roku in the 4K game we should start seeing even more 4K content arriving.

The other change is that 4K TV prices have dropped quite a bit. You can find off-brand 42-inch 4K TVs for $400. Even a Samsung 40-inch 4K TV is only around $700 (of course, that's still at least $400 more than an HD model).

One caveat is that 4K really only makes a noticeable difference at screen sizes of 60 inches or more. For a 4K TV that size, you can expect to pay $1,200 and up, although prices should drop further during the upcoming holiday shopping season.

Screen size

Another important consideration is the size of the TV you’re aiming for. An 80-inch TV just isn’t going to work in a small apartment, and a 32-inch TV isn’t ideal for a large family room. Fortunately, there is a formula to help you choose the ideal screen size.

Measure the distance between your couch and your TV. The size of the TV should be between one-half and one-third that distance. That gives you the minimum size and maximum size you would want to buy.

To help you out, here are some examples:

DistanceMinimum sizeMaximum size
6 feet24-inch screen36-inch screen
8 feet32-inch screen48-inch screen
10 feet40-inch screen60-inch screen
12 feet48-inch screen72-inch screen

Some people recommend going a bit bigger than the maximum listed here, but it’s mostly down to personal preference. When you’re in the store, stand back from the TV the same distance you will be at home. That should tell you if it will be too big or small for comfortable viewing, meaning you don't have to strain your eyes, or move your head around to see everything.

Refresh rate

Lately, manufacturers have been making a big deal about screen refresh rate. This is how many times an image appears on the screen each second.

In the past, the highest TVs got was 60 hertz, or 60 refreshes a second. However, to make 3-D video work, manufacturers had to bump the refresh rate up to 120Hz. Even though 3-D fizzled, they kept 120Hz, claiming it allows for a crisper image. And it can, sort of.

Basically, with 120Hz the TV creates new frames to go between the usual 60 frames. Those in-between frames help reduce motion blur when there's movement on screen. It generally works fine for sports and video games, but many people don't like it for TV and movies because it gives everything a "soap opera" look.

Not content with 120Hz, many manufacturers have TV sets that have 240Hz refresh. This is supposed to make things even sharper; however, in practice there's very little improvement over 120Hz.

In other words, don't buy a TV based on the refresh rate. If you do buy a TV with a high refresh, make sure you can drop it back to 60Hz in case you don't like the look.

LCD backlight

LCD TVs require a backlight to work, and there are a few different kinds. Technology-wise, you probably won't see any old-school CCFL, or cold-compact fluorescent light, models. Those were replaced with brighter and more energy-efficient LED backlights a while ago.

In fact, as we said earlier, LCD TVs now are typically called LED TVs in advertising and in the store. Don't confuse these with OLED TVs, however.

When it comes to LED backlights, there are a few styles you'll see, but the main ones are full array and edge lit.

In a full-array backlight, the LEDs are equally spaced behind the panel. In an edge-lit system, they're in the edge. Edge lit has the advantage of allowing for a thinner TV while full array generally gives more consistent lighting across the entire panel.

Each system will have a local dimming feature for better screen contrast. In other words, sections of LEDs can turn off when needed to make the blacks truly black, which improves the picture contrast and makes images more vibrant. It doesn't work as well as OLED, which can dim individual pixels, but it's something.

Full array with local dimming is the best choice, but it's also the most expensive. Edge lit with local dimming is OK, but it can occasionally produce a bloom effect in images.

Unless you're a serious videophile with a dedicated theater room, you probably won't notice much of a difference with any of these options. So, don't let the choice stress you out.

Connections

The days of having just a cable box to plug into your TV are fading fast. Now you might have a streaming box or two, one or more video game consoles, or any number of other things you want to plug in. Swapping out cables is annoying, which is why TV manufacturers have started putting more ports on TVs.

You'll want at least two HDMI ports, although three to five would be better for future compatibility. They should also be HDMI 1.4 for an HDTV or HDMI 2.0 for 4K. On a budget TV, HDMI 1.3 isn't the end of the world, but it might not always work well with newer technology.

Many TVs will have USB ports, which are handy for plugging in flash drives to show images. However, these can also be used to power gadgets like Google's Chromecast or an HD antenna. It's best to have two or more USB ports just to be safe.

Most TVs will also have optical outs for audio receivers, and some will have component input to handle VCRs or other older technology. If you are dealing with a home theater setup or older technology, be sure to look for these.

If your TV is "smart" then it should also have built-in Wi-Fi. 802.11n is OK, but if you're planning to stream video directly to the TV, or want better future-proofing, 802.11ac would be better if it's available. If you're using a third-party box for streaming, then the Wi-Fi doesn't matter as much.

If you want solid streaming and your home has shaky Wi-Fi, look around for a TV that includes an Ethernet port so you can plug it directly into your network.

Smart TVs

As streaming online video has gotten popular through sites like Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Amazon and others, TV manufacturers have built streaming apps right into the TVs. That way, you don't need a third-party box to get online video to your screen.

On the one hand, that's convenient because you only have to buy one unit and you can control it with one remote. On the other hand, manufacturers generally develop proprietary software and have their own app stores. This means you have to check carefully what services the TV supports (hint: None of them supports iTunes) and you shouldn't expect frequent upgrades or additions.

Some TVs do use third-party software such as RokuOS or Google's Android TV. These get more frequent updates, and in the case of Android TV lets you access any app in the Google Play app store.

The other part of the equation is the TV's hardware. It takes a lot of processing power to stream video or run game apps smoothly. Budget smart TVs aren't going to have the most powerful processors, which generally means they run slow, although video streaming should be smooth once it gets going. More expensive TVs will have quad-core processors and tend to be snappier.

In general, you'll have better luck buying a third-party streaming box to go with your TV. It won't add too much to the cost and it will typically have more options and better hardware. Learn about the streaming boxes currently on the market.

Other thoughts

Earlier, we mentioned off-brand manufacturers. Generally, you do want to stick with recognizable brands, such as Samsung, LG, etc. They often have better build quality and customer service when something goes wrong, although they do tend to cost more.

However, you shouldn't always discount lesser-known brands. Vizio, for example, hasn't been around long, but it's made a name for itself with solid products at cheaper prices than the big brands. It even developed its own impressive backlighting system that serves it well.

Look around online and judge a TV based on its reviews, not just the brand name. Learn how to spot fake online reviews so you can get the real story on a product.

3-D TV technology is included in a lot of TV sets now and doesn't cost extra, so you might want to give it a try. If you want to use the 3-D features, however, you'll need to choose between active 3-D, which requires battery-powered shutter glasses, and passive 3-D, with polarized filters. The active 3-D glasses are coming down in price, but are still a bit more than the passive ones.

Once you get your TV home and fire it up, you might be disappointed with the image quality. That's because TVs are often calibrated to look good in store lighting, not home lighting. You could hire a professional to calibrate your TV for your room, but most people can do a good enough job on their own with the right tools. Learn how to calibrate your own TV for better image quality.

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