What to Consider Before Buying a New TV

Know what you want before hitting the store

Shopping for the best TV shouldn't be a laborious process. Instead of spending your time combing through specifications and parsing what it all means, you could be sitting on the couch rewatching your favorite workplace sitcom in glorious high definition — or playing team shooter on Xbox One, PS4, or Nintendo Switch.

To help you dissect unfamiliar concepts, like "resolution" and "refresh rate," we've done the heavy lifting for you, breaking down each panel technology by name so that you can make an informed purchasing decision by the time Black Friday and Cyber Monday roll around.

4K TV

TV Resolution: What is it and what is the highest?

If a pixel is one of the millions of small squares that make up an image on your screen, a TV resolution is the number of pixels arranged vertically multiplied by those displayed horizontally. Like the dimensions of any two-dimensional shape, the resolution is written out as the number of pixels wide by the number of pixels high.

The more pixels a TV has, the sharper and more realistic the picture. While avid sports fans and gamers will be tempted to opt for the highest resolution possible, keep in mind that the content onscreen has to first be developed to support that resolution. As of this writing Most console games run at 1080p as their default resolution. TV shows, on the other hand, typically air in 1080i, the interlaced equivalent of 1080p.

Online streaming services including Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video, however, all offer 4K UHD programming, sometimes for an additional cost. With the right equipment, you can also play your favorite PC games in 4K when connected to a supported TV. For comparison, the standard resolution for a 1080p screen is 1920x1080 pixels. By comparison, a 4K TV has a resolution of 3840x2160 pixels. Clearly, 4K has the potential for a lot clearer picture. Since the price of 4K has been steadily falling, the extra investment may be a wise choice for the future.

It doesn't stop there. 8K TVs are the next thing rolling over the horizon. Like the move from 1080p to 4K, there's a major resolution jump with 8K, to 7680x4320. Now, that might sound like you want to jump on 8K for a future-proof TV, right? It's not that simple. 8K TVs come with a hefty premium, and as of now, there is no 8K content available. So, you'd likely be stuck watching 4K content on your 8K TV for the next few years. That's not a great investment, just yet.

Living Room TV

Best TV Size: Which should buy you for your room?

It used to be that how far you sat from the TV determined the size you should buy for a given room. In your living room, for instance, you might sit 10-20 feet away from your TV, far enough not to notice the difference between 720p and 1080p.

Nowadays, as pixel density increases, we don't have to distance ourselves quite as much from the TV to see the clearest picture. As a result, the global average TV size went up by almost five inches, according to Statista, between the years 2015 and 2018. No longer are we confined to our distant couches, squinting at captions, and pretending to hear dialogue from the onboard speakers.

As of the past few years, more homeowners and renters have begun to move their living room seating closer to their TVs, making it easier to sit back and enjoy the suspense at a normal volume without the need for binoculars. And as their bezels get smaller, you can fit a 65- or even 75-inch TV in your home, whether you live in a studio apartment or a four-story house.

Smart TV

Smart TVs: What kind should you get?

Once you reach a certain size and price point, most TVs don't necessitate external devices for streaming content online. By purchasing a smart TV, you can save the money you would otherwise spend on a Roku or a Chromecast or a Fire TV because smart TVs have set-top box functionality built-in. You can stream movies, music, games, and more straight from the TV itself.

Depending on your smart TV brand, the apps and interface design will differ from one model to the next. This is because of the wide variety of operating systems (OSes), or platforms, that can come pre-installed on a given smart TV. Like computers (Windows vs Mac) and phones (iOS vs Android), different smart TV manufacturers install different operating systems out of the box, so there are several "platforms" to choose from.

You can expect any smart TV made by TCL, HiSense, RCA, or Element to feature the Roku OS, the same one found on the company's popular external streaming devices like the Roku Streaming Stick and Roku Premiere. By comparison, Insignia and Toshiba TVs have Amazon's Fire TV OS built-in, while Samsung and LG make their own OSes, dubbed webOS and Tizen, respectively. Finally, Google offers a bespoke version of its mobile OS for Sony Bravia TVs called Android TV.

Because their platforms closely resemble those of smartphones, it should come as no surprise that many smart TVs even work with voice assistants such as Alexa and Google Assistant. Using your smart TV remote, you can ask your voice assistant of choice to turn on the TV, change the volume, switch channels, and more. You can even ask it to play specific shows or launch supported apps, completely hands-free.

Of course, since it has to be connected to the internet to stream your favorite shows and movies, every smart TV requires of your internet service provider (ISP) download speeds of at least 5Mbps for streaming HD and full HD content or 25Mbps for 4K UHD content.

OLED TVs

TV Display Tech: LED vs OLED

An LCD (liquid crystal display) display, according to our own definition, uses "liquid crystals to switch pixels on and off to reveal a specific color." Older examples of this technology were backlit with cold cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFLs). By the same token, an LED (light-emitting diode) panel is an LCD, albeit with LED backlighting instead of CCFLs. Because LEDs are smaller and more compact than CCFLs, LED TVs are thinner than their predecessors. They're also brighter.

Do a comprehensive spec-dive and you'll find LED TVs in two different configurations: full-array backlighting and edge lighting. Full-array backlighting, as its name suggests, trades up the CCFLs of the past for a "full array" of LED lights, dispersed throughout the area located behind the screen. In contrast, edge lighting puts LED strips on the outer edges behind the screen, neglecting the space in the center to reduce manufacturing costs. Despite this concession, edge-lit LED TVs are still brighter than traditional LCDs.

In recent years, Samsung and LG have started to brand some of their leading TVs as "QLED," short for Quantum Dot LED. This technology is similar to LCD but with a slight twist: It uses tiny molecules laid out on a film (called quantum dots) that emit their own independently colored light. However, much like LCD and LED TVs, these panels still rely on LED backlighting. In short, QLED is a marketing term that can often be misleading since it looks and sounds comparable to OLED, the utmost premium option on the market right now.

At the top of the chain, OLED TVs can pick and choose, individually, which pixels to illuminate. In effect, this results in deeper blacks, higher contrast, and unprecedented color accuracy in addition to wider viewing angles. Unlike LED TVs, OLED TV backlighting is achieved using a light-emitting film layer that occupies the whole screen. Though darker than their LED counterparts, when paired with HDR, OLED TVs peak at 800 nits while some LEDs can manage 1500-1200 nits.

Refresh Rate

TV Refresh Rate: 60Hz vs 120Hz vs 240Hz

On a TV, the refresh rate is "the maximum number of times the image on the screen can be drawn, or refreshed, per second." Measured in hertz (Hz). The refresh rate of a TV helps to determine how clear the picture is during motion. You may have noticed that an otherwise crystal clear picture becomes slightly blurry, the more movement is on screen. A higher refresh rate allows more frames of video to display, smoothing out the picture.

Most TVs have a refresh rate of 60Hz; that's the default, and it has been for a long time. Over time, 120Hz TVs have risen in popularity. Assuming you have a 60Hz model, your TV can display a maximum of 60 frames per second (fps), whereas a 120Hz screen is capable of 120fps.

Early on, it was more of a marketing gimmick. Manufacturers used image processing tech to create the effect of a 120Hz refresh rate without the TV actually being capable of it. That's what's going on with terms like "motion rate" or "effective refresh rate." Different manufacturers have their own names for the tech too.

When you're looking for a TV with a higher refresh rate, look for a 120Hz rate. Chances are, the box won't have any fancy marketing jargon regarding the rate. It's more common, now, to find true 120Hz TVs, so just avoid the marketing, and you'll be alright.

Finally, you may see TVs around with a 240Hz refresh rate. Remember how 120Hz was mostly marketing in the beginning, with fancy image processing creating the effect? That's exactly what's going on with 240Hz TVs right now. There's nothing wrong with buying a 240Hz TV, but it's mostly unnecessary, and any improvement you see over 120Hz is likely just a trick of the eye.