So you’re ready to buy a new TV and want it to be a good one. If this is your first time purchasing a TV where the consideration goes beyond price, you might want to brush up on some terms.
Update, 8/26/22: Checked content for accuracy. Updated old information. Inserted new images and links.
Below are ten factors that should affect your buying decisions, arranged roughly from most to least important. Naturally, not everything will be the same for every buyer. You might be willing to spend a little more for an OLED TV with fantastic contrast versus a larger LED-LCD TV at the same price. But if you factor in all of the following for your buying decision, you’ll be happy with the result.
How Big Should It Be? Panel Size and Type
HD Isn't the Best Anymore? 4K and 8K Resolution
Brightest Brights and Darkest Darks: Contrast Ratio
See Every Detail: High Dynamic Range (HDR)
Say Goodbye to Blur: Refresh Rate
Connect All Your Things: Inputs
When Every Second Counts: Input Lag
Stream From All Your Services: Smart Software
Room-filling Sound: Speakers
Match the Motif: Aesthetics
Obviously, the most immediate factor you’ll notice for any TV is its size, expressed in inches. That’s a diagonal measurement from one corner to its opposite. These tend to come in a few general sizes, from 32 inches on the small end through 40/42, 46, 55, 65, 75, and sometimes even higher, with little variation in between.
But size isn’t everything. If you see a 55-inch TV that costs twice as much as the 65-inch TV next to it, it’s probably using a superior image panel. Most televisions use an LCD (liquid crystal display panel) with an LED backlight. That backlight affects the image quality: better LED lights spaced closer together and, with more fine illumination control, can more subtly illuminate the LCD panel for a superior picture. You’ll pay extra for smaller, more thinly-spaced LED lighting. Different brands have different names for their LED approaches: Samsung’s best TVs use “QLED” arrangements, while Vizio calls its top-line P-Series “Quantum,” even though they use very similar tech.
Rarer and more expensive televisions use OLED, Organic Light-Emitting Diode screens. This design, which you might be familiar with in your phone, incorporates a color-changing RGB cell and a backlight into every pixel. The result means that a pixel that displays black is entirely off, creating a nearly perfect black contrast effect. OLEDs are also (usually) more vibrant and saturated with colors.
Nowadays, it’s hard to find even a small television that doesn’t feature 4K resolution. That’s 4K as in four times 1080p, the previous standard for high-definition video, with a total resolution of 3840 by 2160. The next step up is 8K, eight times 1080p resolution. And while it’s becoming more common, the TVs are still costly, and content that uses up all that space is tough to come by.
At this point, if you’re looking at a new TV, it’s almost certainly 4K unless you go smaller than 40 inches or so. You won’t save any money hunting for a cheaper low-resolution panel, so you might as well go for the upgrade, even if you don’t have any movies or games that work with it yet. And unless you want to be on the cutting edge, you can probably put off 8K until your next big TV purchase.
A television’s contrast ratio is the difference between the panel’s darkest darks and lightest lights. It’s typically expressed as a ratio of 1000:1 or higher. A higher contrast ratio means a more vibrant, rich picture, especially in dark scenes.
Unfortunately, contrast ratios are hard to define and lack standardization, so the specification is useless as a means of comparison. “Dynamic” contrast ratios, adjusting the backlight on different portions of the screen panel to match that particular section of the image on the fly, make things even more complicated. A 100,000:1 dynamic contrast ratio is hard to measure with your eyes since different parts of the backlight will be illuminated to different degrees every second.
If possible, check out TVs with an identical video clip to see which ones offer the deepest blacks, brightest whites, or other vibrant colors. Retail TV “walls” are ideal for this—a trip to an electronics store is worthwhile, even if you only plan to buy a TV online later. (Sorry, Best Buy salespeople.)
HDR stands for “High Dynamic Range.” It started as a photography technique that uses multiple photos of the same subject, taken at different exposures, to bring out the most vibrant colors in a combined image. It’s still used that way with photos (HDR imaging is built into new smartphones now, for example), but the technology has progressed to where we can now do this with video on the fly.
HDR TVs work with all standard video sources, but only that video created with HDR hardware will actually see the benefit. Generally, this will be indicated on the medium: HDR-capable Blu-ray movies will be marked as such, and the latest game consoles all support it.
HDR is another feature that’s tricking down to almost all levels of new TVs. It won’t cost you any extra on a medium or large panel, so you might as well get it.
The TV’s refresh rate is how many images it can display per second. All modern TVs are at least 60 hertz (Hz), with more expensive models offering 120Hz or even 240Hz.
Most of the time, this won’t matter: TV and movie content is almost always displayed at 24 or 30 hertz. Scaling that up to 60Hz isn’t much of a change. But if you display your content at 120Hz or faster, the motion can look smoother.
Some viewers like this advanced motion, and some don’t, often calling it a “soap opera effect” that differs too much from a conventional viewing experience. Check out this How-To Geek guide to learn more about this and how to turn it on or off.
Gamers may be particularly interested in a TV’s refresh rate. Most console games aim for 60 frames per second, but advanced consoles like the Xbox One X and powerful gaming PCs can output games at 120fps or higher. Match up a higher refresh rate and higher frames per second, and you get silky-smooth game animation that looks fantastic.
You probably don’t have any particular need for 120Hz if all you ever watch on your television is TV and movie content. If you’re on the fence, ask for a demonstration of 60Hz vs. 120Hz at an electronics store.
Inputs are everything that plugs into your television, not including the power cord. Most modern TVs have at least two HDMI ports, more often three—HDMI is the standard cable type for HDTV content. More expensive televisions will have four or more.
Note that not all HDMI ports are created equal. On some 4KTVs, only one HDMI port can accept a 4K resolution signal, so you’ll want to look for a model with multiple 4K HDMI ports if you’re planning on using more than one 4K source at a time. HDMI-ARC is for the Audio Return Channel, a more advanced variant necessary for some soundbars and audio receivers. Most mid-range and high-end TVs also have an optical cable jack, which is also for sound (despite what the name might imply).
Other input options include composite (red-white-yellow, often called “RCA”), S-Video, and components for older devices, plus a headphone jack for standard stereo audio. Most new smart TVs have an Ethernet port for wired data (in addition to the Wi-Fi built-in), and some also have more exotic USB ports or DisplayPorts for PCs. All televisions in the US should have at least one coaxial input for a digital antenna, which can be used for over-the-air television or cable systems.
When choosing a new TV, inventory everything you intend to plug into it, including data and audio. You have nothing to worry about if you’re only looking to plug in a mid-range console and maybe a Blu-ray player. If you have a DVR, three consoles, a surround sound receiver, and a 4K Blu-ray player, and you want them all to have access to Ethernet, you’ll have to hunt for a TV that can handle your setup.
If you’re debating between two sets and sacrificing a feature, you want to get more HDMI ports, however, consider how make-it-or-break-it HDMI ports are for you. If most of the stuff you’ll be plugging in is used infrequently, you might be better off getting the TV you want and buying an inexpensive HDMI switch so those seldom-used devices can share a single HDMI port.
Speaking of gamers, input lag or display lag will only be important to them. Input lag is the time it takes for an image to get from the TV’s processor to the screen, generally around one-hundredth of a second (10 milliseconds).
But for gamers, every millisecond counts. In fast-paced shooters or one-on-one fighting games, ten milliseconds can be the difference between victory and defeat. So if you’re planning on playing many competitive games, you might want to look for a TV with a lower input lag, 5ms or lower.
Some TVs feature a “game mode” that can boost this by turning off some picture-improving image processing. Your TV will look a bit duller in this mode, but it might be worth it, especially if you can set it to only activate for a game console.
Most new televisions are Smart TVs. That means they come pre-loaded with software and can download apps for streaming video, like Hulu and Netflix. This is another case of “it’s free, you might as well get it.”
Even so, not all smart TV systems are created equal. We’re partial to Roku’s simplicity and wide selection, which comes pre-loaded on TVs from TCL, Sharp, Philips, Sanyo, RCA, and several others. A close second is Android TV, the default interface for Sony TVs, and is also available on some Hisense, Sharp, and Philips sets. Toshiba and Insignia have TVs with Amazon’s Fire TV system pre-loaded. LG, Samsung, and Vizio use their own proprietary systems. Some newer models will also accept commands from a smart home system, like Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa.
Except for Apple TV, most smart TV systems have apps for all the major video services. If you don’t like the smart TV system built into your new TV, you can always plug a stand-alone Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV, or Fire TV device into one of the HDMI ports and use it that way.
TVs are getting thinner and thinner, which means there’s less and less room for good speakers built-in. While the old CRT TVs often included quite good speakers, LCD and OLED TVs typically aren’t loud enough to fill up a large living room all by themselves, even on the largest and most expensive models.
If you’re strapped for cash or want a TV for a smaller space, the integrated speakers might be enough. Test them in a store or check reviews for sound quality. Otherwise, you’ll want to augment your TV with a good sound bar or surround sound system. These can be had relatively cheaply, or you can spend a thousand bucks or more on them—it’s up to you.
Of course, the last thing you want to consider is how the TV looks. Or maybe it’s the first thing—that all depends on how much you want your TV to integrate with your home’s décor. Most modern TVs are little more than big rectangles, but some of the stylistic touches on the high-end models (especially the curved ones) are very appealing. Some high-end TVs even include an integrated bias light or are small and light enough to do double duty as a digital painting frame.
The aesthetic worthiness of a TV set is all relative. Just be aware that if you find one that’s particularly pretty or stylish, it will probably be a bit more expensive than other sets with the same technical features.