These days, buying a new TV can lead you into a minefield of unfamiliar jargon as more technologies are developed in the industry, making it tricky to work out which set is really the best one for you. Do you need a Smart TV? Should you pay a premium for OLED over LED? What about 4K and HDR?
Don't worry. We're here to cut through the noise and explain what's really worth worrying about on the TV tech horizon.
What Resolutions Should You Consider?
You probably have an idea of the size of the screen you want, but what about the resolution? The screen resolution in TVs, which is simply the number of lines of pixels that make up the picture, has grown enormously in the last decade. Here's a quick look at some common terms and the actual resolutions they refer to.
- DVD: 720x480 pixels
- HD or HD Ready: 1280x720 pixels
- Full HD or Blu-ray: 1920x1080 pixels
- Ultra HD or 4K: 3840x2160 pixels
- 8K: 7680x4320 pixels
Go for 4K if You Want a Long-Term TV (And Forget 8K for Now)
The first 8K TV sets are already here, but the prices are astronomical and there's virtually no 8K content available yet anyway. At the other end of the scale, Full HD or 1080p is probably as low as you want to go. Realistically, if you're buying today, your choice is between 1080p and 4K.
If you mainly watch broadcast TV, satellite, or cable, and you have a large Blu-ray collection, then it may make more sense to opt for 1080p. The rise of 4K means you can get excellent-quality, feature-packed Full HD TV sets for less than ever before.
However, if you want a TV that's going to be current for the next five years or more, then we'd suggest you opt for 4K. We're starting to see more and more 4K content from streaming services like Amazon and Netflix, and you can find lots of 4K videos on YouTube. The 4K content landscape is still quite limited right now, but that's definitely going to change over the next few years, and it's worth considering that 4K sets will upscale regular 1080p content.
Perhaps the most important factor to consider if you're trying to decide between 1080p and 4K is the viewing distance. Various schools of thought exist about how far you should sit from your TV screen for an optimal viewing experience, but in simple terms, the higher the resolution of your TV, the closer you can sit to it. If you have limited space, but you still want to have a big screen, then you'll get more benefit from a 4K set. On the other hand, if you buy a 40" TV and then sit 8 feet away from it, a 4K set probably isn't going to look any better than a 1080p TV.
OLED Screens Are Still Expensive but They're Getting Cheaper
The vast majority of TVs on the market now are LED LCD, using light-emitting diodes to illuminate a liquid crystal display. Most of them have LEDs on the edge of the screen, but there are full-array LED sets with grids of lights behind the screen, which makes for better contrast.
The future however is OLED, organic light-emitting diodes, which can effectively control individual pixels instead of relying on backlighting. OLED is vastly superior, with deeper blacks, better contrast, amazing detail, and great viewing angles. If you're uncertain, just go and look at an OLED TV next to an LED LCD, and you'll see the difference instantly.
The problem is that OLED is more expensive, and there's a lot less choice right now. Panasonic and LG are the only major manufacturers with OLED TVs on the market, at the time of writing.
LG has bet big on OLED and leads the field in terms of affordability. The first 55" OLED TV it released was around $10,000, but these TVs are getting cheaper all the time. LG actually cut prices on its OLED TV range by 30% to 45% back in October, and you can pick up a 1080p 55" OLED for $2,000 now. We expect to see further cuts in March when the new ranges, just unveiled at CES, actually start to arrive in stores.
If you can afford it, there's no question that OLED is the way to go.
HDR and WCG Give a Big Boost to Picture Quality but There's Little Content
A lot of focus has been on 4K, but some TV enthusiasts are arguing that HDR and WCG will actually deliver a more noticeable improvement to picture quality.
HDR, or high dynamic range, expands the range of color and contrast, which means bright parts of the picture look brighter, blacks look deeper, and colors look more natural and realistic. WCG, or wide color gamut, will deliver a much wider color range. We're starting to see this technology in high-end TVs, but there's a lack of content to take advantage.
If you really want to future-proof, then take HDR and WCG into account.
High Refresh Rate Helps Sports Fans and Gamers
The refresh rate tells you how many times per second the picture is refreshed or redrawn. It's always measured in hertz. This is particularly important for gamers and sports fans, because the picture on TVs with a low refresh rate can look blurry or choppy, and you might see tears when there's a fast horizontal pan of the camera, where part of the image doesn't update fast enough. If you're concerned about this, then try to get a TV with a refresh rate of at least 120Hz.
Smart Features Are Now the Norm
You're going to be hard-pressed to find a TV nowadays that doesn't have Smart features built in. This usually just means that it connects to the Internet and can play apps like Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon. Some platforms offer more than others. Lots of Android TVs are coming onto the market from manufacturers such as Sony, but there are alternatives; for example, LG supports webOS and Panasonic uses Firefox OS.
Since this effectively makes your TV a computing device, check out the reviews carefully before you buy. For example, an underpowered TV trying to run Android with a dual-core processor might be slow to respond and prone to crashing. It's a good idea to get a hands-on look at the interface and decide whether the extra features are important enough to sway your decision.
Curved Sets Look Cool but May Not Do Much Else
Does a curved screen actually deliver any viewing benefits, or is it a gimmick? Opinions vary, but converts to the curve argue that it reduces reflections and adds depth. Manufacturers claim that curves offer a wider field of view, but we're skeptical about this. They can actually distort the image and reduce the side-viewing angles. Curved sets look stylish, but we don't think there's any other convincing strong argument for them.
Don't Expect Great Sound With Slimmer TVs
The majority of TVs don't have good built-in sound, especially as they're getting slimmer all the time. If audio quality is going to be really important for you, then it's best to plan to buy a surround sound system or a decent sound bar to go along with your new TV.
Consider HDMI Ports, Smart Remotes, and More
Unfortunately, there's no standard measure of contrast ratio that manufacturers agree on, so don't rely on the stated spec; take a look at the picture yourself or check reviews.
You'll probably want at least three HDMI ports to connect your various devices, and to ensure that they'll work with 4K content in the future, make sure that they're HDMI 2.0 with HDCP 2.2 compliance.
Some TVs have Smart remotes with features like touchpads for easy navigation, voice search for finding content quickly, and motion sensors. You'll use it a lot, so a good remote could be enough to help you decide between two TVs you like.
You might find some of the best prices for TVs online, but we strongly advise you to do your research in a store first, to get a hands-on look before you actually order one. There's lots of advice online and plenty of opinions, but the only one that really matters is yours. Play with the remote and settings, compare the picture quality with other sets you like, and try to get a look at the interface and different kinds of content, so you can make an informed decision.
Readers, what are your thoughts on new TV technology? Do certain features and specs trump others when you're searching for a TV? Let us know in the comments below!