TV Buying Guide
How to choose a set you'll love watching for years
Steve Kindig has been an electronics enthusiast for over 30 years. He has written extensively about home and car A/V gear for Crutchfield since 1985. Steve is also a volunteer DJ at community radio station WTJU, where he is a regular host of the American folk show "Atlantic Weekly," as well as the world music program "Radio Tropicale."
More from Steve Kindig
Whether you're venturing out to buy your first flat-screen TV or adding to your collection, we have some suggestions to help you choose a set you'll love watching for years. Trying to narrow the choices down to a single best TV is difficult because "best" means different things to different people. These days it's just about impossible to find a bad TV, but we'll help you find the best TV for you.
Start with you...and your room
What do you like to watch? Movies? Sports? Are you a gamer? How big is your room? How far will you be sitting from the TV? Are the room's furnishings and layout "non-negotiable" or could you do some rearranging? What's the lighting situation like? Do you generally watch at night or during the day? Answering these questions will get you closer to a great TV than trying to decipher all the hype, jargon and techspeak.
Screen size: How big is big enough?
When it comes to TV screen size the most common recommendation is "bigger is better" — and that's good advice. Nothing will add more to your viewing enjoyment than a big screen. Over the years we've heard from customers who wished they'd bought a larger TV, but we're still waiting to hear from any folks who wish they'd chosen a smaller one.
When you move up to a screen that's just a few inches larger you're actually gaining a lot more additional viewing area. For example, a 55" screen has over 40% more viewing area than a 46"; likewise, a 65" screen has about 40% more viewing area than a 55". Large images are more engaging in general, and add impact to material like sports and action movies.
In general, we recommend getting at least a 46" screen for your main TV, while a 32" screen is usually a good minimum size for a bedroom TV.
Tip: Get the biggest screen that fits your budget and room.
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Your viewing distance is really important, too
When deciding what size TV to get, your budget and space are key factors, and equally important is how far you'll be sitting from the TV. If this is your first large-screen HDTV purchase you may end up re-thinking your setup and viewing distance. Old-school tube TVs typically had screens 36" or less, and you didn't want to sit too close because if you did you'd notice the screen's scan lines.
LED-LCD and OLED TVs don't have scan lines, and have very crisp, detailed pictures, so you can sit closer. We recommend sitting anywhere from 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 times the screen diagonal for an HDTV with 1080p screen resolution. So, for a 55" TV, that would mean sitting less than seven feet away at the near end of the range, which is a lot closer than many people are used to.
If you're looking at 4K Ultra HD TVs, and want to make the most of your investment in that superior technology, you should be thinking about arranging your TV watching setup so that you can sit significantly closer than you've probably considered before. In order to see the added level of detail 4K TVs can resolve, we suggest sitting at a distance of 1 to 1-1/2 times the screen diagonal from the TV.
Tip: Consider sitting closer to the TV than you have in the past — it can make viewing much more engaging.
For tips on screen size and room considerations, see our article on choosing screen size and placing your TV.
Important picture quality factors
When you're shopping for a TV it's easy to be overwhelmed by all the techspeak, marketing jargon, and endless specs. There are only a handful of picture quality factors you really need to keep in mind.
Screen resolution: 720p or 1080p HD, or 4K Ultra HD
Numbers like 1080p and 720p refer to a TV's screen resolution — the more pixels a screen has the more picture detail it can show. A 720p TV screen is 1280 pixels across by 720 pixels down, and when you multiply those numbers you get the total number of pixels, which is 921,600. Compare that to a 1080p screen which is 1920 pixels across by 1080 down, for a total of 2,073,600 pixels. 1080p has more than twice as many pixels as 720p, so it can show much finer picture detail. If you're comparing two TVs with the same screen size, the 1080p screen's pixels are much smaller than those on a 720p screen.
The newest standard is officially known as Ultra High Definition, but is commonly just called "4K" because it's roughly 4000 pixels across. To be precise, a 4K TV screen is 3840 pixels across by 2160 down, for a staggering 8,294,400 total pixels — 4 times the resolution of 1080p. A 4K Ultra HD TV picture looks incredibly detailed, especially showing true 4K content. At the moment there isn't much 4K content available, so for most people looking for a new TV, a 1080p model provides excellent picture quality at a reasonable price.
These grids simulate the different-sized pixels of 720p and 1080p high-definition screens, and 4K Ultra High Definition. As resolution increases, the pixels get smaller, making the "pixel structure" less visible and allowing much finer picture detail to be displayed.
On smaller screens, say under 40", 720p usually looks fine. Aside from showing less picture detail, the other drawback to 720p is that the pixels are larger, so the screen's pixel grid is more visible. Some viewers will notice this more than others — the easy solution is to sit a little farther away from the TV so you don't notice the pixels. If you're really trying to stay within a tight budget you may still find a few bare-bones 40"-43" 720p models. But if you're looking for a 46" or larger TV, it should definitely be 1080p.
Tip: For screens under 40" 720p usually looks sharp enough, unless you're really picky. For a 46" or larger TV, go with 1080p.
LED-LCD or OLED?
Nearly everyone shopping for a new TV will be focusing their attention on LED-LCD models. And as long as you stick to top-tier brands, you should have no trouble finding a TV in your size and price range that will provide years of happy viewing. If picture quality is your top priority, and you're looking at higher-end LED-LCD TVs, you owe it to yourself to check out the latest OLED TVs, too. Their picture quality is amazing and their prices have plummeted since they were introduced in 2013.
As of this writing (late 2015) there are a handful of HDTVs and 4K Ultra HD TVs that use OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) screen technology. OLED (pronounced "oh-led") combines the best qualities of plasma and LCD, and is often described as the perfect display technology. Like plasma and unlike LCD, OLED it is self-illuminating and needs no backlight. Picture contrast, black levels, color saturation, and off-axis viewing match or exceed the capabilities of even the best plasma TVs. When you see OLED in person you can't help but be wowed by both the ultra-thin panel — we're talking less than 1/4" — and the simply gorgeous picture quality.
Tip: Whether you're shopping for an HDTV or a 4K TV, LED-LCD models offer the widest range of screen sizes and prices by far. OLED TVs still cost more than LED-LCD TVs, but only the very top LED-LCD models approach the picture quality of OLED.
For an in-depth comparison see our OLED vs LED TV article.
2D or 3D
When TV makers introduced 3D TVs a few years ago they thought the technology would be the Next Big Thing. It didn't work out that way, but you'll find plenty of 3D models when you're TV shopping. 3D TV picture quality is generally impressive — its limited success has more to do with a lack of 3D content and the fact that many people don't want to put on glasses to watch TV.
Speaking of glasses, there are two types of 3D TV — active and passive — and the main difference is the glasses. Active 3D TVs use battery-powered active shutter glasses with LCD lenses that open and close in response to sync signals beamed wirelessly from the TV. With passive 3D TVs, the screen is doing almost all the work. The glasses don't need batteries — they're simple polarizing glasses like the ones handed out in movie theaters. Both active and passive TVs can provide convincing 3D effects.
Tip: 3D is basically thrown in for free on mid- to upper-end TVs. Even if you don't care about 3D, these models also deliver the best 2D picture quality.
For in-depth information on 3D TVs, read our 3D TV FAQ.
Screen refresh rates
The way LCD TVs create images makes them vulnerable to a display effect known as motion blur. It's just what it sounds like — a blurring of on-screen objects, especially noticeable watching fast-action sports or movie scenes where the camera pans from side to side. LCD TVs — unlike CRT- or plasma-based TVs — draw a complete image, then hold that image onscreen until the next frame comes along. Our eyes can actually respond faster than the images are presented, so we see some blur. Some people are more sensitive to motion blur than others.
In recent years, TV makers have conquered motion blur by combining higher screen refresh rates with technologies like rapidly blinking LED backlights. The normal frame rate for video in the US is 60 frames per second, usually written as 60Hz. By doubling the screen refresh rate to 120Hz, an additional video frame is created for each original frame, and each frame appears for only half the original time. Our eyes perceive this faster frame rate as clear, seamless motion. This is an example of a TV with a native refresh rate of 120Hz.
Every TV maker has their own name for their motion blur technology: Samsung uses Motion Rate, while Sony uses Motionflow™. And sometimes you'll see much higher numbers, like "Motionflow XR 960." TV makers use these higher numbers to describe the effective refresh rate: a made-up figure that's supposed to represent the motion blur improvement of the refresh rate combined with other technologies like a blinking backlight. Some examples: Samsung's Motion Rate 120 is actually 60Hz, and Motion Rate 240 is 120Hz; Sony's Motionflow XR 960 is 120Hz. While things like blinking backlights and other types of video processing can reduce motion blur, we make an effort to track down the native refresh rate for every TV we carry so that you can more easily make apples-to-apples comparisons.
OLED TVs have pixels that switch on and off much more rapidly than LCD TV pixels, so motion blur is less noticeable on them.
Tip: Motion blur is less of an issue for today's TVs, and few models have screen refresh rates higher than 120Hz, despite the higher numbers TV makers throw around.
Smart TVs have come a long way. Samsung's Smart Hub offers quick, easy access to your favorite web apps from a single screen.
Only a few years ago Internet-ready TVs were taking their first stumbling steps, with limited ability to stream movies, shows and other content. The on-screen interfaces were clunky at best, and overall operation was pretty slow.
In recent years TV makers have dramatically improved the TV/web experience. They've beefed up the on-board processing power, cleaned up their interfaces, and included many more apps for popular streaming services. Dual-core processors have become almost the minimum, and a many better models feature quad-core or even 8-core processors, for even smoother, speedier operation.
A wealth of web streaming options — movies, TV shows, music, and more
It's hard to think of anything that's changed the TV watching experience more than the ability to instantly stream movies and TV shows via online services like Netflix®, Hulu™, and Amazon Instant™. In fact, the selection and convenience of web streaming is contributing to the rise of "cord cutters" — people who are cutting back or eliminating their cable or satellite TV service. Lots of folks are able to get all the programming they want through a combination of an antenna for over-the-air broadcasts, plus web streaming.
Having said all that, you don't necessarily need an Internet-capable TV to stream content. If you find a TV with the picture quality and features you want, but lacking Internet capability, go ahead and buy it. It's easy (and inexpensive) to add Internet capability via an array of products like an Apple TV® or Roku streamer, a networked Blu-ray player, game console, etc.
Many new Wi-Fi-equipped TVs offer "screen mirroring" from compatible smartphones and tablets to the TV's screen. A few TVs can even do 2-way mirroring, adding the ability to send whatever is on the TV screen to your smart device.
Built-in Wi-Fi® is now standard equipment
Virtually every current Internet-ready TV includes built-in Wi-Fi. It has many advantages, and perhaps the most important are simplifying connections and placement of the TV. With Wi-Fi, you don't have to worry about running an Ethernet cable to the TV. As long as you're within the coverage area of your home network, you should have no trouble streaming programs wirelessly to your TV.
Wi-Fi also opens the door to some cool control options. Most TVs from major brands offer free downloadable smartphone apps for compatible Apple® and/or Android™ devices. You can then use your smartphone to operate the TV in place of the TV's remote. You'll have one less remote to keep track of, and because the commands are sent via Wi-Fi, you don't have to aim your phone precisely to get results, the way you do with a typical TV remote.
Another feature that's really taken off this year is "screen mirroring." Again, using a Wi-Fi-equipped TV and compatible smartphone or tablet, you can mirror whatever is on your device's screen onto the TV screen. A few TVs even allow 2-way mirroring, where you can mirror whatever is on the TV's screen onto your device's screen. That means you can get up and fix yourself a snack in the kitchen without leaving your entertainment behind.
Having a fast Internet connection can make a big difference in the picture quality of streamed video — especially high-definition and 4K content. And if you're using Wi-Fi, you may want to upgrade your Wi-Fi router if you plan to watch services like Netflix and Amazon. The latest version of Wi-Fi is called 802.11ac, or sometimes just "ac." It can operate on two bands: 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Many 2015 4K TVs also feature dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi.
See our wireless router buying guide.
The Magic Remote is included with many of LG's upper-end TV models. It has a built-in microphone for voice commands, plus point-and-click motion control like an air mouse.
The not-so-humble remote control
A lot of basic TVs — even entry-level Internet-ready models — still come with the conventional-style button-based "clicker" that we've all loved (and lost). Higher-end TVs increasingly include more advanced remotes that feature some degree of voice and/or gesture control. These new remotes operate more like a trackpad or wireless mouse you'd use with a laptop. Samsung and LG are leading the way with these smart remotes.
LG's Magic Remote is one of the best examples of the new smarter remotes. A built-in microphone lets you speak into the remote to use the Internet apps, web browser, and social networking. The gesture control feature lets you search and select web entertainment just by pointing and clicking —it's a lot like using a wireless videogame controller.
Even the best of these remotes can still be tedious to use if you're entering lots of text, like searching for a title. You have to tap out one letter at a time on the on-screen keyboard. For any text-heavy application, you might consider picking up a wireless keyboard. These keyboards operate via Bluetooth®, and most TV makers offer one that's compatible with their own models.
Now you know the basics
Hopefully you'll come away from this article with a few basic ideas about what to look for in a TV. It's worth taking your time because a TV is an investment that you'll enjoy for many years. One of the quickest ways to find the right TV for you is to give us a call. Our expert Advisors can answer all your TV-related questions.