Consumer Reports

Buying Guide

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TV Buying Guide

Getting the Right TV

You'd think shopping for a TV would be simple, especially now that plasma TVs are gone and almost all new TVs are LED LCD sets. 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 that promise greater picture detail than HDTVs, and improved contrast and color. One question you'll face is whether a regular 1080p HDTV will be good enough, or if it's worth splurging on Ultra HD.

There's also an emerging TV technology called OLED TV that reminds us of what we liked about plasmas. But right now these TVs are pricey, and only LG Electronics makes them.

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. (Our full TV Ratings, available to subscribers, provides all the picture-quality evaluations you'll need.)


Getting the Right TV


Screen Size

Perhaps the most important choice you’re going to make with a new TV is the size of the screen. TV screens are measured diagonally, and they range in size from fewer than 20 inches to more than 80 inches. However, not many people shop at the extremes. Televisions going into kitchens or small bedrooms might measure just 24 to 32 inches, but if you’re shopping for your primary TV, we recommend going bigger, say a set with a 50- to 60-inch screen. You could consider an even bigger set for spacious family rooms, or if you'll be sitting very far from the TV.

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 for free, or apply the following, easy-to-use, equation.

Let's assume you're buying a 1080p set, which is pretty much the standard right now. 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.)

With a UHD TV, which has a higher-resolution screen with more densely packed pixels, 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 $500 for a 32-inch model

• $250 to $1,100 for a 39- to 43-inch set

• $380 to $1,600 for a 46-to-52-inch set

• $450 to $2,500 for a 55- to 59-inch set

• $700 to $5,000 for a 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 this size.

Illustration of 1080p and UHD TV size based on 6- and 9-foot viewing distances.
Rule of thumb for sizing a hi-def TV: Screen diagonal = (Distance to couch, in inches) divided by 1.6. You can go bigger with a 4K, or UHD, set.

Choose Between HD and Ultra HD

These terms refer to the TV’s native resolution. A regular high-definition (HD) set is also a called a 1080p model, as its screen resolution is 1920 x 1080. That means it has 1,920 pixels horizontally, and 1,080 pixels vertically, so it contains roughly 2 million pixels in all. Think of pixels, short for "picture elements," as the tiny individual dots that make up the TV's picture.

Ultra High-Definition (UHD) TVs, also called 4K TVs, have screen resolutions of 3840 x 2160, which 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 make 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.

So why doesn't everyone just get a UHD TV? One reason is that you'll pay a premium of a few hundred dollars or more for a UHD TV, though the price gap is slowly narrowing. And there's still not a lot of native 4K content; what's available comes primarily from streaming services right now. We expect to see the first 4K UHD Blu-ray players, as well as more 4K streaming options, in 2016.

Another reason you may consider waiting: Standards for some UHD features, including high dynamic range (HDR) and a wider palette of colors, are still evolving. We expect most of these issues to be resolved by the end of 2015, when all of the standards—for TVs, streaming media, and Blu-ray discs—are nailed down to ensure that your UHD TV can take full advantage of them.

An illustration showing a close-up of the pixels of a 1080p HD TV, highlighting the visual detail capabilities of such a high-definition TV set.

1080p TV

A high-definition TV, with 1920x1080 resolution, will be fine for most viewers, and you'll save a bit of money compared to a UHD set with a similarly sized screen. Almost every 1080p set available is an LCD TV with an LED backlight, but there are also a limited number of 1080p OLED TVs. And right now, it's unlikely you'll find a UHD TV smaller than 39 inches. We've found that many viewers aren't be able to see the extra detail in a UHD TV from normal viewing distances until they get to very large screen sizes, say 65 inches or above. Just remember that resolution is only one of a number of attributes a TV has to get right to produce excellent overall picture quality. Regular HD TVs remain an excellent choice for many consumers when you factor in price, especially in screen sizes smaller than 65 inches.

An illustration showing a close-up of the pixels of an UHD TV (also known as 4K TV), highlighting the visual detail capabilities of such an ultra high-definition TV set.

Ultra HD TV

Thanks to its higher-resolution 3840x2160 screen, a UHD TV (also known as a 4K TV) can display greater detail than a 1080p set when presented with high-quality UHD content. Images appear a bit sharper, with smoother lines on the edges of objects—depending on your viewing distance. The jump from regular HD to Ultra HD isn't as dramatic as the change from standard definition to HD, but many UHD sets attempt to enhance the image in other ways. For example, we're starting to see TVs with high dynamic range that provide a high level of contrast between the lightest and darkest images. Newer UHD TVs also widen the array of colors a TV can display, but exploiting these advantages requires specially produced content. Since standards for these features are still being finalized, it may pay to wait before making the jump to UHD. 


Decide Whether You Want a Smart TV

Like cat videos and Kardashians, smart TVs seem to be everywhere. These increasingly popular televisions can access online content, such as streaming video services from Amazon Prime and Netflix. Basic smart TVs may be limited to the most popular services, while 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.

Around 60 percent of the TVs sold these days are now smart TVs, according to market research firm Quixel Research. But if you're considering a more basic TV, or already have a TV that lacks smarts, you can easily add Internet capability using a separate streaming media player, such as an Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, or Roku player. Prices start as low as $35 for a smaller stick-styled player, so we don't advise paying too much more for a smart TV.

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.


Picture of various steaming media players.

Streaming Media Players

Streaming media players are a popular add-on for TVs, bringing streaming movies, TV, music and games to TVs that lack Internet access. Even if you own a smart TV, you may consider a streaming player if it has features or services your TV doesn't.

There are more than a dozen streaming player models, offered in two styles: settop boxes, and stick players about the size of a USB flash drive. The more popular settop box models include an updated version of the Amazon Fire TV ($100), a new Apple TV ($150), and the newest Roku, the Roku 4 ($130). Roku also has several models that cost less than $100. A few, including the Fire TV Stick and Roku 4, now support 4K streaming from services that offer it.

Small stick-styled 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. Popular models: Amazon Fire TV Stick ($40), Google's Chromecast ($35), and the Roku Streaming Stick ($50).

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 they will be.

Picture of a smart TV.

Smart TVs

Smart TVs, also called Internet TVs or connected TVs, can be your bridge to a world of online content that you can access directly from the TV itself. Most smart TVs these days let you access multiple streaming video services, such as Amazon Prime, Hulu, M-Go, Netflix, or Vudu, plus one or more Internet music services, such as Pandora or Spotify. Many smart TVs also let you visit social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and several support casual games as well.  

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 Wi-Fi for accessing your network wirelessly. Be aware  that streaming video requires a robust Wi-Fi connection to prevent the video from freezing or buffering.  


Check the Viewing Angle

Despite many improvements, most LCDs still have a fairly significant shortcoming: limited viewing angles. That means the picture looks its best only from a fairly narrow sweet spot right in front of the screen. We recommend checking the viewing angle by watching a TV from off to the side, and from above and below the main part of the image. As you move away from the center of the screen, the image can dim, lose contrast and color accuracy, or look washed out. And the degree of picture degradation varies from model to model. We've found that TVs that use "IPS" LCD panels offer wider-than-average viewing angles for LCD sets, though this can sometimes come at the expense of contrast.

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 you can easily return the set if it proves disappointing.

An illustration showing how a TV's picture can look washed out as you move off-angle from the center of the TV.
A television's picture looks best when you're sitting right in front of it. Check out the quality of the image from a variety of viewing angles.

Make the Right Connections

Don't forget to consider a TV's connections before you buy. You'll want to ensure that it has the right type of inputs and outputs to support all of your A/V gear.

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.


Brands That Matter

Hisense is a multinational manufacturer with headquarters in China. In addition to selling its own Hisense-branded TVs, starting in January 2016 it will also market TVs in the U.S. using the Sharp brand, the result of its acquisition of Sharp's TV business, as well as a TV manufacturing facility in Mexico. The company offers a wide range of models at varying prices, including UHD TVs that include quantum-dot color technology. Its models are sold in Walmart, Costco, and some independent retailers.
Insignia is Best Buy's signature house brand for televisions. Insignia TVs are value-oriented sets that are priced below similarly featured TVs from the major brands. Insignia-branded TVs are all LED LCD TVs models offered in all size ranges.
LG is a top-tier TV manufacturer, and is currently the only brand making and selling OLED TVs, a new TV technology. The bulk of its TVs are LED LCD sets at varying screen sizes and price and feature levels. It has an expanded lineup of smart TVs, and offers several series of Ultra HD LED LCD TVs, as well as Ultra HD OLED sets in larger (55 inches and above) screen sizes.
Panasonic, once the premier plasma TV brand, now sells a lineup of Viera-branded LED-based LCD TVs, including Ultra HD sets ranging in size from 55 inches to 85 inches. The company has shown, but not yet sold, OLED TVs.
Samsung is a market leader and top-tier TV manufacturer; it offers LED-based LCD TVs at virtually every size, price, and feature level. It offers perhaps the widest assortment of UHD TVs of any TV manufacturer. Samsung TVs are available widely from national and regional retailers, clubs, and websites.
Sharp, which has been making LCD TVs longer than almost any other manufacturer, will be exiting the TV business in North America as of January 2016, having sold its TV business, plus a TV manufacturing plant in Mexico, to Hisense. Sharp was an early leader in LCD TV technology, and it continues to operate one of the most advanced LCD panel manufacturing plants in the world, capable of making very large LCD panels.
Sony is one of the most recognized consumer electronics brands in the world. Its lineup of Bravia LED LCD TVs is now focused on fully featured mid-range to larger-sized sets. The company offers flagship models in its XBR series, and its lineup of UHD TVs ranges from 49 to 85 inches.
Toshiba, a Japan-based global manufacturer, with U.S. headquarters in California, has exited the TV business in North America. The company has licensed the Toshiba TV brand to Taiwan’s Compal Electronics.
Vizio is a U.S. consumer electronics company that has emerged from a warehouse club brand to become one of the top-selling TV brands in North America. It offers a wide range of LED-based LCD TVs that are available online, at warehouse clubs, and from major retailers, including Walmart and Best Buy. Vizio's TV lineup ranges from entry-level models to fully-featured, higher-end Ultra HD TV models, in almost all screen sizes. The company's flagship Reference-series UHD TVs are the first to incorporate Dolby's Dolby Vision high dynamic range technology. The company's business model is to offer step-up features at a price lower than other major brands.
The former Westinghouse licensee, Westinghouse Digital, is no more; after that company's demise, the Westinghouse TV brand for North America was licensed by Chinese electronics manufacturer TongFang Global, which also produces TVs under the Seiki Digital and Element brands in the United States. Products under the license are marketed here by a sales company called Westinghouse Electronics. The company positions Westinghouse TVs as a budget brand priced well below similarly sized and featured sets from major brands.
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