TV Buying Guide for Your New Smart TV
TV Buying Guide for 2018 NewYou’d think shopping for a TV would be simple, given that it’s a pretty mature product category. But buying a TV still involves many choices, some of which may be new to you. You’ll see plenty of Ultra HD (UHD), or 4K, TVs with greater promised picture detail than that of HDTVs, and improved contrast and color. There’s also a new 4K featured, called high dynamic range, or HDR, which promises brighter, more dynamic images, and more vivid, lifelike colors. So one question you’ll face is whether it’s time to move to one of these newer 4K UHD TVs, or stick with a regular 1080p set.
You may also notice that there’s a newer TV technology, called OLED TV, that dominates our current TV ratings in the larger size categories. These sets are still pricier than LCD/LED models—though every year that price gap narrows—so you’ll need to decide if it’s worth splurging for a top-performing set. Also, every year top-performing LCD TVs get better, edging closer to OLED TV-like performance. Right now OLED TVs are available from only two brands, LG Electronics and now Sony, so you’ll have fewer choices than you will with LCD-based sets.
Once you know what type of TV you want, focus on getting the right size, picture quality, and a few key features. And make sure your new TV has the connections required for equipment such as a streaming media player or sound bar speaker. (Our full TV ratings, available to members, provide all the picture-quality evaluations you’ll need. Looking to get rid of cable or change providers? Check our telecom services reviews, covering triple-play bundles and internet, TV, and phone services.)
While 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—there are some general guidelines you can use. You can try one of the many online calculators that are available free, or apply the following, easy-to-use, equation.
If you’re buying a 1080p set—and there are fewer choices now 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 these days, most larger-sized sets are 4K UHD models, and we think it makes sense to buy one since you’re no longer paying a premium for one. These TVs have higher-resolution 4K screens with more densely packed pixels. That means 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 5 1⁄2 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. It’s possible to find good TVs selling for a few hundred dollars, while others go for several thousand, and there are many sets that fall in between those extremes. Screen size, features, and brand will all affect pricing.
Here are a few typical selling price ranges for several screen sizes:
• About $150 to $400 for a 32-inch model
• $250 to $700 for a 39- to 43-inch set
• $350 to $900 for a 49- or 50-inch set
• $450 to $2,500 for a 55- to 59-inch set
• $600 to $7,000 for a 60- or 65-inch set
Our full TV ratings are broken down by screen-size categories ranked by overall score, so it’s easy to see how well the TV performed in our tests and how much it costs relative to other sets of its size.
Choose Between HD and Ultra HD
Ultra-high definition (UHD) TVs, also called 4K TVs, have screen resolutions of 3840×2160, 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.
These days, purchasing a 4K TV makes a lot of sense, especially in larger screen sizes where it’s getting harder to even find HD sets. And you won’t have to pay much more for one because the price gap has narrowed. But you will still find 1080p and 720p TVs in the smaller screen sizes—say, 32 inches or smaller.
The good news is that there’s a growing amount of 4K content to watch, especially from streaming services such as Amazon and Netflix. There are now a number of 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 reason you might decide to make the 4K TV leap: Standards for some UHD features, including high dynamic range (HDR) and a wider palette of colors, have now been set, so you don’t have to worry about missing out on a new important feature. To find out more about high dynamic range, see our HDR section below.
Ultra HD TV
High Dynamic Range (HDR)
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 later in 2018, and even from a new over-the-air broadcast standard when that’s launched over the next year or two. (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.
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. In contrast, HDR10 uses “static” metadata, where brightness levels are set for the entire movie or show.
Dolby Vision won’t be alone in using dynamic metadata, though. There’s a newer version of HDR10, called HDR10+, waiting in the wings. It, too, has dynamic metadata, making HDR10 more like Dolby Vision. We’ll have to see whether any companies in addition to Samsung, which developed HDR10+, adopt it. Amazon has said it will support HDR10+ in its streaming service.
You may also hear something in the coming months about another HDR format, called, 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 only matters for people who get TV through antennas, which are making a comeback.
Finally, there’s another flavor of HDR, called Advanced HDR by Technicolor. It’s more popular in Europe than here right now. Currently, some LG 4K TVs support it, and Philips has said its 2019 TV models will have it. Late last year, the Blu-ray Disc Association said Technicolor HDR would be one of the three optional HDR technologies—the others are Dolby Vision and HDR10+— supported by the group. HDR10 is the lone mandatory HDR format, and all TVs support it.
Yes, that all sounds complicated.
But 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 either HDR10 or Dolby Vision. The quality of the TV is more important than the type of HDR it’s playing.
Our advice: Buy the best TV you can regardless of the type of HDR it supports.
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.
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.
Though 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, not all companies are going along. For example, LG and Samsung participate in the program; Sony and Vizio don’t.
What to do instead? Check our TV ratings and buying guide.
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.
Decide Whether You Want a Smart TV
Around 70 percent of the TVs sold these days are now smart TVs, according to market research firm IHD Markit. But if you’re considering a more basic TV or you already have a TV that lacks smarts, you can easilcontent, such as streaming video services from Amazon Prime and Netflix. Basic smart TVs may be limited to the most popular services, and others offer a vast assortment of apps. Many have full web browsers, and more sophisticated smart TVs can respond to voice commands, make program recommendations, and let you view content from your smartphone on the TV screen.y 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. Prices start as low as $30 for a smaller 1080p models, and 4K players start around $70.
Some manufacturers have developed their own smart-TV platforms, while others may use a licensed system, such as Android TV from Google 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.
Streaming Media Players
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 recent set-top box models include an updated version of the Amazon Fire TV, $100, a new Apple TV, $179, and the Roku Ultra; all support 4K video.
The Google Chromecast Ultra, $70, and new Roku Streaming Stick+, $70, are stick-style players that support 4K. There are also a number of less expensive 1080p models that cost as little as $30. These types of streaming players plug directly into a TV’s HDMI port, so they can often disappear from view, although they need to draw power from the TV’s USB port or an AC adapter plugged into an outlet.
Check to make sure the player you choose supports the services you want—streaming services may be added later via an update, but there’s no guarantee that they will be.
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.
More smart TVs this year will be voice-enabled, using either their own proprietary artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, or working with established third-party digital assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa or 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 light bulbs, all from the TV.
A growing number of smart TVs have full web browsers that let you go almost anywhere on the internet, though we’ve found this to be a less satisfying experience than using a smartphone, tablet, or laptop computer. Many smart TVs come with point-and-click remote controls that can manage onscreen interactions using hand motions or by responding to your voice commands.
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
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.
Make the Right Connections
Nearly all TVs now have side input connections, as well as rear inputs, which provide some flexibility for connecting source components to your TV. Inputs located on the side or bottom of the TV work best if you’ll be mounting a TV flat against a wall. If you are wall-mounting a TV, a short HDMI extender can be used to make connections a bit easier to use.
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