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."
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In a Nutshell
The latest TVs combine big, beautiful pictures with sleek, slender designs. When shopping, you'll hear lots of tech terms thrown around, but you really only need to know a few things to find the ideal TV for your situation.
What's the best screen size for your room and viewing distance?
2D or 3D? 3D movies are fun in a theater. Do you want that capability at home, too?
Which smart TV features are important to you?
Whether you're shopping for your first TV or your twentieth, we have some tips 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. We sometimes hear from customers who wish they'd bought a larger TV, but we're still waiting to hear from any folks who wish they'd chosen a smaller one.
Get the biggest screen your room, viewing distance, and budget will accommodate.
Your viewing distance is really important, too
We field hundreds of questions every day from TV shoppers.The most frequently-asked question — right after screen size — is how far away from the screen to sit.
Our general recommendation for screen size is "go bigger," and our advice for viewing distance is "sit closer." Doing one or both will make viewing much more engaging.
For screen size/viewing distance recommendations for HDTVs and Ultra HD TVs, plus other helpful tips on room considerations, see our article on choosing screen size and placing your TV.
Shop by TV size
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: 1080p HD or 4K Ultra HD
Numbers like 1080p and 4K refer to a TV's screen resolution — the more pixels a screen has the more picture detail it can show.
A 1080p TV screen is 1920 pixels across by 1080 pixels down, and when you multiply those numbers you get the total number of pixels, which is 2,073,600.
The latest screen resolution 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 an impressive 8,294,400 total pixels — 4 times the resolution of 1080p.
The pixels of a 4K Ultra HD TV are much smaller than those of a 1080p HDTV, letting you see much finer picture detail.
Choosing between an HD or Ultra HD model was more difficult a couple of years ago, when 4K TVs cost way more than comparable HDTVs, and there wasn't much 4K content to watch. But now that 4K models start around $500, and Netflix and Amazon stream many of their original series in 4K, there's not much reason to consider an HD model, at least for your main TV.
Another big picture quality advantage of 4K TVs is HDR (High Dynamic Range). When you watch HDR-encoded video sources on an HDR-capable TV, you'll see an extended range of picture contrast and color. The improvement can be dramatic, and is often more noticeable than the added detail of 4K. Shop our 4K/HDR TV selection, and see our in-depth article explaining HDR.
LED-LCD or OLED?
Most shoppers look first at LED-LCD TVs, because there are tons of models to choose from covering a wide range of screen sizes and prices.
As long as you stick to top-tier brands, you should have no trouble finding a TV that suits your needs.
If picture quality is your top priority, and you're comparing 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 recently.
Compared to LED-LCD TVs, OLED offers superior off-axis viewing. Picture contrast and colors remain vivid even for viewers sitting or standing off to the sides.
OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) is often described as the perfect display technology, combining the best qualities of plasma and LCD. Like plasma and unlike LCD, OLED 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.
OLED TVs still cost more than LED-LCD TVs, but only the very top LED-LCD models come close to matching the picture quality of OLED.
For an in-depth comparison see our OLED vs LED TV article.
2D or 3D
You don't really hear much about 3D TV these days, but there are still 3D models available if you're a fan of immersive viewing. 3D TV picture quality is generally quite good. Its limited success is more due to both a lack of 3D content, and the fact that many people don't want to wear special 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 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 does 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 theater-quality 3D effects.
Samsung stopped building 3D TVs in 2016, but Sony and LG still include 3D on some of their mid- to upper-end TVs.
For in-depth information on 3D TVs, read our 3D TV FAQ.
Screen refresh rates
LCD TVs, and to a lesser extent, OLED TVs, sometimes suffer from 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.
Both LCD and OLED 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.
Increasing a TV's screen refresh rate reduces motion blur. 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.
TVs with a higher screen refresh rate usually are less prone to motion blur.
Every TV maker calls their motion blur technology something different. Samsung uses Motion Rate, while Sony uses Motionflow™. And sometimes you'll see numbers that seem impossibly high, 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. So, 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.
By the way, no 4K TVs have refresh rates higher than 120Hz, no matter what manufacturers might claim.
OLED TVs have some motion blur, but because OLED panels generally operate at 120Hz, and OLED pixels switch on and off much faster than LCD pixels, motion blur is less noticeable.
Samsung's latest smart TVs feature their Smart Hub interface, which makes it easy to quickly switch from live TV to streaming video.
Smart TV features
If the term "smart TV" makes you roll your eyes, you need to check out the latest models, because TV makers have really improved the TV/web experience. They've beefed up the on-board processing power, cleaned up the on-screen interfaces, and added a bunch more apps for streaming services.
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™. And streaming services are often the first source to deliver content with the latest picture quality enhancements, such as 4K and HDR.
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 a smart TV to stream web 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 devices like an Apple TV® or Roku streamer, a networked Blu-ray player, game console, etc.
Most Wi-Fi-equipped TVs offer "screen mirroring" from compatible smartphones and tablets to the TV's screen. Some can also send whatever's on the TV screen to your device.
Built-in Wi-Fi® is now standard equipment
Virtually every current Internet-ready TV includes built-in Wi-Fi. It has many advantages, most importantly, simplifying connections and placement of your 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.
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. Most 2015 and newer 4K TVs feature dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi.
See our wireless router buying guide.
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 usually 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.
The Magic Remote is included with many of LG's upper-end TVs. It has a built-in microphone for voice commands, plus point-and-click motion control like an air mouse.
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.