TV Buying Guide
TV shopping has become a bit more complex in the past few years, mainly because of the proliferation of new features and choices.
Go shopping and you'll see plenty of Ultra High Definition (UHD), or 4K, TVs, and even a growing number of 8K TVs, which promise better picture detail than HDTVs offer, along with improved contrast and colour. 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.
Many sets feature a high-dynamic range, or HDR, which promises brighter, more dynamic images and more vivid, lifelike colours. However, not all televisions deliver good HDR performance, and the ones that do better tend to cost more. You'll face another choice there.
Last, Consumer Reports members may notice that OLED TVs dominate our ratings of larger TVs. These sets are 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 an OLED is worth the extra money.
Once you know which type of TV you want, you can focus on getting the right size screen, and on a few other important features and performance characteristics.
New TV Tech
LCD TVs are getting better. While OLED TVs top our ratings, the top-performing LCD TVs get better every year, edging closer to OLED TV-like performance. One reason is the rollout of full-array LED backlights, where LEDs are arranged across the entire back of the panel, rather than just along the edges of the screen. That design is combined with a feature called local dimming, where the LEDs are divided into zones that can be illuminated or darkened separately. The result is that dark areas look darker, and you’re less likely to see halos around bright objects on a dark background.
Now, a new development in LCD/LED TV technology, called "Mini LEDs," takes local dimming one step further.
By shrinking the size of the LEDs in the backlight, companies can use more of them packed together into the same area. In fact, these sets can boast thousands of Mini LEDs behind the LCD panel. These are divided into dimmable zones, and because the LEDs are so small, there can be a lot of them—say, a thousand zones, instead of the dozens found in even the best LCD sets up until now. And the zones can be controlled more precisely.
By increasing the dynamic range of the TV—the difference between the brightest whites and deepest blacks the screen can show—Mini LEDs can also help boost a TV’s HDR performance, which is discussed in more detail below.
Combine all this and Mini LED sets could perform more like OLEDs, while retaining some traditional benefits of LCDs, such as better brightness and a wider choice of brands and screen sizes.
Two more TV tech trends to consider this year are 8K TVs and "Next-Gen TV," the term being used for a new over-the-air broadcast TV system for those who use an antenna.
8K TVs have arrived—at steep prices. Though 8K TVs made their debut two years ago, they've so far been a minuscule portion of TV sales. One reason is that the extra detail you get with these TVs—which have 33 million pixels, compared with 8 million in a 4K set—is mainly evident only in the largest TVs. These new 8K televisions are very expensive, too.
This year, we expect to see more 8K sets from more brands, in screen sizes starting at 65 inches.
While all those millions of extra pixels promise sharper, more detailed images than what you can currently get with 4K UHD TVs, that doesn't mean an 8K set makes sense for most people. For one thing, you won’t find any native 8K content to watch on one of these sets, at least for a while.
Over-the-air TV is advancing, too. Last, there's Next-Gen TV, technically called ATSC 3.0. This refers to a standard for broadcasting signals over the air. Next-Gen TV is still available in just a few areas of the country, but more are coming. The standard lets TV signals carry a lot more data, so broadcasters can start offering 4K programs and movies with HDR that get beamed to ordinary television antennas. The new standard is IP (internet protocol)-based, allowing some broadcasters to offer over-the-air TV plans that marry traditional over-the-air TV channels with a handful of lifestyle networks you’d typically get from a cable TV company or streaming service such as Sling TV or YouTube TV.
With Next-Gen TV, you may eventually be able to get TV shows and other content on smartphones, tablets, and even in moving vehicles. Broadcasters are also promising improvements in emergency and weather alert systems.
To receive these new TV signals your TV will need an ATSC 3.0 tuner, something not found in most existing televisions. Only a few sets come with one. However, you probably don't need to worry about that if you're television shopping. We expect companies to start selling adapters to allow other TVs to use Next-Gen TV signals.
While TV shoppers will see new technology in 2021, a lot of the basic information you need to choose a TV is staying the same. Below is what you need to understand about screen size and other factors to make an informed decision.
Remember when a 50-inch TV seemed gigantic? Well, TVs with 55- and 65-inch screens are now commonplace. "By the end of 2020, 65-inch models had firmly supplanted 55-inch sets as the most prevalent screen size consumers see in stores," says Deirdre Kennedy, business director at the retail market research firm Gap Intelligence, which has Consumer Reports as a client.
In 2021, industry experts expect prices on these larger sets to drop, as they have for the past couple of years, and for more people to buy them. Paul Gagnon, a senior research director at market research firm Omdia, says he expects 60- to 69-inch TVs—mainly 65-inch sets—to account for 18 percent of U.S. television sales in 2021, up from just 12 percent in 2018. And even bigger TVs, 70 inches and larger should account for 10 percent of sales.
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. However, if you'd like some guidance, you can try one of the many free online calculators available, or apply the following equation.
If you’re buying a 1080p set—and these have become unusual 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, just about all larger sets are 4K UHD models. Because these TVs have more densely packed pixels, 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. Below are rough price ranges for several screen sizes. In general, the bigger the screen, the more expensive the set. Of course, performance matters, too—for a given price you can often get a smaller screen with better performance or a larger screen with less performance.
The Ins and Outs of 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 almost 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. 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 benefit of 4K TVs: Most now support high dynamic range (HDR) and a wider palette of colors, for more vibrant, natural-looking images. 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, it's hard to find a UHD TV smaller than 39 inches, although we do have one 32-inch 4K set in our ratings. 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 that 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, many better TVs now have sophisticated video processing and use artificial intelligence to upscale lower-resolution content to the TV's 4K or 8K screens. And most 4K sets now support 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, one of the most exciting recent TV developments 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 being launched in many markets this year. (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.
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.
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.
The Facts About Smart TVs
The overwhelming number of TVs on the market, especially in midsized and larger models, are smart TVs. These televisions can access online content, such as streaming video services from Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Netflix. Basic smart TVs may be limited to the most popular services, while others offer a vast assortment of apps. More sophisticated smart TVs can respond to voice commands, using microphones built into the TV's remote control or using an app on a smartphone.
More than 80 percent of the TVs sold these days are smart TVs, according to market research firm Omdia. 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 Amazon Fire TV, Android TV from Google—which is being renamed Google TV— 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, Apple Siri, 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.
Just be aware that almost all smart TVs collect information about the shows you're watching and the apps you're using—for marketing purposes. The degree to which you can control this data collection varies by the brand of smart TV system, but there are ways you can limit the amount of data being collected and shared.
|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, and many models can play 4K content with HDR from the streaming services that offer it.
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, Hulu, Netflix, Sling TV, and YouTube TV, plus one or more internet music services, such as Pandora and Spotify. Many smart TVs also let you check 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 old plasma TVs did.
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.
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