If You're Buying a New TV Read This First

Know what you want before hitting the store

Shop assistant showing flatscreen TV to customer deciding on a new TV purchase
Westend61 / Getty Images

Buying a new TV used to be easy; the only real options were screen size and cabinet finish. Buying a new TV today, however, is much more complicated. Buyers and sellers alike are confused by the ever-expanding array of choices and technologies.

While the web is packed with TV reviews and specifications, your own needs and expectations can differ wildly. Before buying a new TV, prep yourself by learning the basics.

This information applies to televisions from a variety of manufacturers including, but not limited to, those made by LG, Samsung, Panasonic, Sony, and Vizio.

Start With the Right Screen Size

In the TV world, bigger isn't always better. A screen that's too large for your normal viewing distance will cause fatigue and eye strain. If most of your program choices are standard definition (such as DVDs, non-HD cable, and internet streams), a bigger screen will magnify any imperfections. On the other hand, a screen that's too small won't give you an immersive video experience.

Experts recommend choosing a screen size that's one-third of your normal viewing distance. For example, if you sit 10 feet away from the screen, a 40- or 42-inch model will serve you nicely.

Technology Makes a Difference

There are numerous flat-panel TV technologies on the market, including LCD, LED, and plasma TVs. There are also still some big rear-screen projection TVs that use DLP technology. There are even front projectors that use your wall or an external screen to display pictures, but these are a different animal.

All these TV technologies have their pros and cons. Some will give you a better picture than others, while some perform better in bright rooms. Some are relatively inexpensive, while others command a price premium thanks to super-thin styling.

Evaluate your space and needs and think about your preferences when shopping for a new TV.

To get a better sense of the advantages of the various television technologies, check out our TV Technology Comparison Guide.

Consider Your Programming

With a nice high-definition signal, even inexpensive TVs can look good. If you watch a lot of high-def programming, most TVs will offer a very satisfactory picture. In this case, other factors, such as styling or price, are more important.

But not all programming is high-def, notably DVDs, non-HD cable and satellite, and internet video content such as YouTube. When these signals are fed to an HDTV, the TV converts them to its own "native" resolution, a complicated digital process.

A too-cheap HDTV will likely have lower-quality video processing to convert and display these non-HD signals, resulting in a picture that can be surprisingly poor. Whenever you see bad picture quality on an HDTV, poor video conversion is almost always the culprit.

If non-HD sources comprise much of your viewing, it's worth considering the mid- to higher-level offerings from any given manufacturer's "good-better-best" selection. A few dollars more can often be the difference between a TV you love and one you regret. Better models (often denoted by a different model series) are often more technologically capable.

Bright Room or Dark Room?

Many plasma TVs feature a screen with a high-gloss finish that will clearly reflect light not just from windows, but also from everyday objects such as glass coffee tables and framed wall pictures. This reflection happens even in a darkened room that the TV screen itself is lighting up.

Many LCD sets use a screen material that's more matte-finished, minimizing this problem. LED TVs can go either way, high-gloss or matte.

When deciding on a TV, take stock of the room where it will reside. If you'll be watching TV during the day and there are windows in the room, the surface of your screen's TV should be a consideration. If you'll mount the TV on a wall, choose a wall mount that lets you tilt or angle the TV. Often a small angle change will help a great deal with unwanted reflections.

To learn more about how reflections affect TV viewing, read our guide on room lighting and TV viewing.

Avoid Unauthorized Retailers

The Internet is the world's biggest marketplace, and just like any other marketplace, it includes some disreputable members. An unauthorized retailer might give you a great price on a high-end TV, but the bargain stops there. The TV might not be factory fresh. If there's a problem and you'd like to exchange it, the unauthorized dealer may not take it back, or perhaps charge a 20% restocking fee if they do.

In some cases, unauthorized retailers sell "gray goods," products built for non-U.S. markets that have been illegally shipped here to sell. Almost without exception, no manufacturer will honor a warranty for a product purchased from an unauthorized reseller.

Whether you buy online or in a store, make sure the retailer is authorized to sell that product and brand. If they are, they'll tell you so right away. If they fudge the answer to this simple question, move on to another retailer. Regardless of the price they offer you, it's not worth it.

This Is a Long-Term Decision

It's easy to buy a TV; you can do it in minutes, even from your phone. But this purchase will be an important part of your life for years to come. Don't make a decision based on expediency, Take your time, check out prices, educate yourself, and ask your friends how they like their TVs.

Research and patience will pay off with a great TV-viewing experience that will last for a long time.

Check out even more tips on buying a new TV.