Will Greenwald, senior electronics analyst for TVs at PC Magazine. He is a certified home-theater expert. PCMag.com
4K? UHD? HDR? OLED? Shopping for a TV these days means decoding an alphabet soup of features and functions. Although some are important, others have little impact on the viewing experience. Some tend to be only on higher-priced TVs, while others are included on lower-priced models. Here’s what matters and what doesn’t when you shop now for a new TV…
4K resolution is today’s sweet spot. Also referred to as Ultra HD or UHD, 4K is the current industry standard for TVs with screens bigger than 40 inches. With about 8.3 million pixels—roughly four times as many as on the old standard HDTVs—4K images are far more lifelike, with tremendous detail and clarity. Prices now are reasonable—you can find a good-quality 50-inch 4K TV for a few hundred dollars and even a great 65-inch TV for less than $1,000.
Streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon and Apple are producing original programming in 4K (although 4K access from Netflix requires the top-level plan at $16/month), and many recent films can be streamed in 4K. Broadcast TV does not support 4K yet but likely will roll it out over the next several years. Satellite services DirecTV and Dish are slowly adding 4K capability, especially for some sports events. A few cable-TV providers, such as Optimum and Comcast, offer 4K access through their premium-priced set-top boxes.
Helpful: Even non-4K programming looks better on a 4K TV than on a standard HDTV thanks to “upscaling” technology.
Warning: Some next-generation 8K TVs are on the market, but they can cost tens of thousands of dollars and 8K content isn’t commercially available.
High Dynamic Range (HDR) further enhances a 4K image, but it comes in several competing and overlapping versions. HDR, a format that achieves greater contrast by stepping up brightness, can produce many times more shades in the color palette and more shades of gray than non-HDR TVs, resulting in deeper, richer images.
There are several versions of HDR, and they vary by brand and model. At least one version is available on some bargain TVs and on almost all higher-end TVs, but no TV or streaming device supports all HDR formats. If the content you’re watching isn’t in an HDR format that your device offers, you can still get a 4K image but without HDR.
Content in HDR10, the current industry standard, can be played on all HDR-capable devices, including 4K Blu-ray players. Competing formats that are a step up from HDR10 include HDR10+ (a format created by Samsung), Dolby Vision and HLG (hybrid log gamma), which may become the broadcast and satellite standard format, although very little HLG content is available yet.
OLED TVs deliver an impressive improvement in contrast, but they remain pricey. Most of today’s TVs feature LED displays—a liquid crystal display (LCD) panel backlit by light-emitting diodes (LEDs). The other display option is organic light-emitting diodes (OLED), where the display screen makes the picture and emits the light, no backlighting. With no backlighting, the black in a picture can be completely black, truly improving image quality. No backlight also means OLED screens can be even thinner and more energy-efficient than LEDs. A 55-inch OLED is likely to cost upward of $1,500…a 65-inch, perhaps $2,500—a lot of money to be sure, though not much more than for the best LEDs. Overall, OLEDs offer better picture quality, but they often don’t match the brightness of top LED TVs, which can be a drawback in bright rooms.
Contrast ratios matter—but the contrast ratios claimed by manufacturers do not. Contrast ratio is the difference between the darkest dark a screen can produce and the brightest bright. No LED can match the near-infinite contrast ratios offered by OLED, but some offer stellar contrast for a lower price. Unfortunately, manufacturers can, and do, manipulate this figure. What to do: Compare how dark the black sections of images look on various TVs in stores…or, better yet, find reviews of TVs you are considering from a source—such as PCMag.com or CNET—that tests contrast ratios rather than simply reporting manufacturer data.
Helpful: When viewing TVs in stores, keep in mind that they typically are on the brightest settings and displaying 4K content. At home, you’re likely to choose less garish settings and to be watching non-4K content.
Size. To fully achieve the immersive viewing experience that the high resolution of 4K allows, your distance from the screen should be between one and 1.6 times the screen’s diagonal measurement—much closer than with the previous generation TVs. Example: A 60-inch TV could be appropriate if you sit between five and eight feet from the TV.
Viewing angle. On some TVs, the colors degrade the farther you sit off to the side. OLEDs are especially good at preventing this problem.
Don’t buy based on just a big brand name, unless it’s a high-end TV. Brands such as LG, Samsung and Sony have wonderful TVs at the top of their product lines, but their lower-end TVs are no better than the TVs made by the best discount brands, TCL and Hisense, both of which are giant TV manufacturers based in China. Example: A 65-inch Hisense H9F, which recently was selling for $900, offers better color, contrast and overall picture quality than a 65-inch name-brand TV costing around $2,500 (see below).
Warning: Be wary of name-brand TV “bargains” on big sale days such as Black Friday. Manufacturers sometimes produce particularly low-quality TVs specifically for these sales. Always read reviews of the specific make and model number before buying any TV.
Don’t worry about differences among smart-TV platforms. Nearly all new TVs are smart-TVs now, meaning that they have built-in Wi-Fi and the ability to stream content from services such as Netflix and Hulu. If you happen to dislike your TV’s smart-TV platform, you could always connect an inexpensive streaming device such as Amazon Fire TV Stick, Apple TV or Roku Streaming Stick and use that instead.
Warning: Any new TV that isn’t a smart-TV is probably a very low-end unit that’s also lacking in other more important ways.
Don’t seek the highest refresh rates. This is the speed at which the TV refreshes its image. Manufacturers sometimes claim that high refresh rates result in smoother on-screen movement, but nearly all new TVs have a refresh rate of at least 60 Hz. Speeds higher than that won’t improve most programming but are useful when watching sports and playing video games.
Don’t expect great audio quality from your TV. Few TVs provide high-quality audio from their thin speakers. Instead, choose a TV based on the video quality and then add a speaker system or soundbar system if you want better sound. Example: TCL Alto 7+, which includes a soundbar and a subwoofer, delivers crisp, powerful audio for a reasonable price—recently $149.99.
The best TV for you will depend in part on how much you’re willing to spend for picture quality.
Best bargain TV: TCL 4-Series offers 4K HDR images for very reasonable prices. The contrast ratio (6,101:1), color range and accuracy are not elite but easily outpace similarly priced TVs. The 4-Series supports HDR10 but not Dolby Vision. Recent price: $230 for a 43-inch…$250 for a 50-inch…$300 for a 55-inch.
Best for a balance between superior picture quality and price: Hisense H9F is a 4K HDR TV with an excellent contrast ratio (31,876:1) and elite color range and accuracy—it supports both HDR10 and Dolby Vision. Recent price: $600 for a 55-inch…$900 for a 65-inch.
Best home-theater–quality LED: Samsung Class Q90R offers perhaps the best picture quality available on a 4K LED TV. The contrast ratio is an astronomical 151,080:1, and the color range and accuracy are excellent—it supports HDR10, HDR10+ and HLG, though not Dolby Vision. Only problem: It’s as pricey as OLED. Recent price: $2,800 for a 65-inch…$4,300 for a 75-inch…$5,300 for an 82-inch.
Best OLED: LG Class OLED C9 Series offers the near-infinite contrast ratios and vivid colors of OLED for prices comparable to high-end LED TVs. It supports HDR10, Dolby Vision and HLG. Recent price: $1,600 for a 55-inch…$2,500 for a 65-inch…$5,500 for a 77-inch.