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Buying a TV involves many choices, some of which may be new to you. This TV buying guide organizes the process into clear, logical steps that will help you make a smart decision.
Of course, your budget will affect all of your decisions. 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, brand, and more affect the price. We can help you get the most bang for your buck, no matter how much or how little you want to spend.
LCD, LED, and plasma TV sets look very similar on the outside, but they use different technologies, and the pictures have different characteristics. There's also a new type of TV on the market using another technology--OLED, or organic light emitting diode. So-called LED sets are actually LCD TVs that use LEDs instead of fluorescent bulbs for backlighting the screen. (When we refer to LCD TVs in this buying guide, that includes models using LED backlights.) LCDs outsell plasmas by a wide margin, in part because plasma sets are available only in screen sizes 42 inches and larger. Panasonic recently announced that it will stop making plasma TVs, leaving LG and Samsung as the only major brands in the category. Many new LCD and plasma TVs can display 3D images as well as regular HD. Flat panels have largely pushed rear-projection and picture-tube TVs to the sidelines; few of those sets are now being introduced or stocked by retailers, so we no longer cover those categories. Though front projectors are a great choice for home theaters--the best choice for a truly big-screen at-home experience--they're not very practical for everyday use, so we aren't currently testing them.
Deciding what size TV to buy is one of the more enjoyable aspects of purchasing a new set. Most consumers tend to go bigger when replacing their old TV, because it enables them to better appreciate the fine, sharp detail of HD content, making it more compelling and creating more of a theater-like experience. If you're replacing an older TV, note that you can't compare the screen size of a conventional squarish tube TV with a widescreen HDTV set because the proportions differ. Stepping up from a 27-inch tube set to a 32-inch–wide screen won't give you an appreciably bigger picture, because the 32-inch screen is wider but not much taller than the 27-inch screen. As a result, "talking heads" on news shows will look about the same size; on the 32-incher you'll just see more of the scenery alongside the people.
Budget and room size permitting, we believe most consumers would be best served by at least a 40- to 42-inch screen for a primary TV. A 46- or 50-inch set is often preferable in rooms where you'll be sitting 8 to 10 feet or so from the screen. Consider an even bigger set for spacious family rooms. You want the screen to be large enough that you can enjoy the impact of a large image and see the detail that makes HD look so lifelike. Just don't buy a jumbo screen and sit right on top of it: If you sit too close to a TV screen you might notice the picture elements (pixels) that make up the images, which can be distracting, especially with lower-quality content like you might get when streaming video. Screens of about 26 to 32 inches are good for casual viewing in bedrooms, and even smaller screen sizes suit kitchens and home offices.
Resolution means the number of pixels, or picture elements, a screen contains. The first number indicates the number of pixels going across the screen from left to right; the second, the number of pixels from the top of the screen to the bottom. A 720p set displays 1024x768, 1280x720, or 1366x768 pixels. A set with 1080p resolution, sometimes advertised as "full HD," displays 1920x1080 pixels. The newest development: Ultra-high-definition (UHD) models, which display 3840x2160 pixels, usually described as "4K." That's four times as many pixels as 1080p displays, enabling UHD sets to present even finer detail. 3D-capable UHD sets, which use passive technology, can present full 1080p resolution to each eye, rather than reducing the vertical resolution by half, as 1080p passive-3D sets do. Most new LCD and plasma TVs with screens 40 inches and up have 1080p resolution. The first UHD models had very large screens, 84 inches, and cost $15,000 or more. Sets with 55- to 65-inch screensd are now available at lower prices. At press time, the 55-inch Sony XBR55X850A, for instance, was on sale for $3,000 at Best Buy, and the 65-inch XBR65X900A was listed at $5,000. Like the other Ultra HD sets introduced so far, these are LCD sets using LED backlighting.
The larger the TV screen, the more you can appreciate fine detail. That's one reason the first UHD sets have fairly big screens. The fine detail of a 1080p screen is more noticeable on a 50-inch or larger TV, though you might see subtle improvements on a 40- to 47-inch screen, especially when viewed up close. In smaller sizes, the benefits of 1080p are less obvious. One exception: If you plan to use your TV as a computer display, 1080p resolution is a plus even on smaller screens. The higher resolution will let you see more text and graphics onscreen with greater clarity and finer detail than you would on a 720p set. (You might have to connect your computer to the TV with an HDMI input to take full advantage of the 1080p resolution and to avoid cutting off outer edges of the image--otherwise known as overscan.)
However, resolution alone doesn't determine picture quality. Factors such as brightness, contrast, and color also come into play. What you're watching matters too. To fully exploit the potential of a 1080p TV, you need top-quality high-def content. You can get that from a Blu-ray disc, which contains true 1080p content. A 1080p set will convert HD signal formats (720p and 1080i signals from your cable box, for instance) to match its native screen resolution. If the video quality of the programming is good and the TV does the job well, the picture can be outstanding. In fact, most 1080p HD sets can derive true 1080p performance from most film-based movies, even when the cable box outputs 1080i. But the quality of HD content varies considerably (especially from cable and streaming video), so it might not take full advantage of a 1080p display's resolution. The situation is a bit more complicated with UHD. Right now, there is no commercially available 4K content, either on disc or from broadcasters, though we expect that to change in the near future. Netflix says it intends to launch a 4K movie service in the first half of 2014, for instance. For now, Sony has a media player loaded with 4K movies and a download service. The TVs will upconvert regular HD to UHD, with impressive results, especially from Blu-ray discs.
Other considerations include features and brand. We'll lead you through those choices and more, helping you to make the best choice for your specific needs and preferences.
Once you're in a store or shopping online, you'll have to decide whether to buy an extended warranty, how much to spend on cables, how to get the best price, and more. Our shopping tips will make you a savvy consumer and help you to save money and avoid hassles. What you'll watch on your new TV is an issue that will affect your enjoyment of your set, so you might be thinking of upgrading your TV service or switching to a new provider. See what cable, satellite, and phone companies have to offer before making a decision.
The majority of HD sets now available are flat-panel LCD and plasma TVs that can be mounted on a wall or placed on a stand. You may see many models advertised as "LED TVs." As mentioned previously, these are actually LCD sets that use LED backlights, not a whole new type of TV. They're covered within the LCD section below. Many new LCD and plasma sets have 3D capability; there are also some rear-projection DLP sets and a few front projectors that can display 3D. (For more on 3D, see the Features section and the sidebar at the end of this Buying Guide.) Rear-projection sets and the familiar picture-tube TVs are becoming much less common. With few new models being introduced, we no longer test rear-projection TVs or picture-tube sets.
Good choice if you want a thin, lightweight TV that comes in a wide range of sizes and is well suited for viewing in a bright room.
Common screen sizes. 15 to 80 inches. Manufacturers have showcased sets even larger, including UHD models with 84-inch screens. No matter how large the screen, most LCD TVs are only 2 or 3 inches thick, and some new ultra-slim sets are about an inch or so deep.
Typical selling prices. About $250 to $500 for a 32-inch model, $350 to $650 for a 37-inch set, $450 to $1,000 for a 40-to-42-inch set, $500 to $1,200 for a 46-to-47-inch set, and $800 to $2,800 for a 52-inch set. 3D capability can add several hundred dollars to the price. (With prices continually dropping and special promotions, you'll probably see some TVs--especially from secondary brands--selling for less than the prices indicated. And top-of-the-line sets loaded with all the newest features can sell for more.)
Key points. There are many more companies selling LCD than plasma TVs, and in a wider range of sizes. Full-featured LCD televisions generally cost more than comparably sized plasma sets, but the gap is narrowing. Many LCD sets with 40-inch or larger screens (and even some smaller models) have 1080p resolution. Most new LCD TVs use LED backlighting instead of the more typical fluorescent backlights. These sets have been among the most energy-efficient we've tested.
LCDs tend to be brighter than plasma screens, and many have matte screens that don't suffer from reflections and glare, making them a good choice for brightly lit rooms. But we are seeing many more LCD sets with glossy screens, which are more reflective. With LCD TVs, there's no risk of burn-in of static images, which can be a concern with plasma TVs, although it is less of a problem than it was in the past.
Advances in technology have also addressed problems that have plagued LCD technology. LCD TVs have had trouble displaying deep blacks, a problem caused partly by backlighting leaking through in dark scenes. Some new models have minimized this problem by using full-frame LED backlights (instead of fluorescents) and local-dimming technology. The backlight can be dimmed behind a dark scene, enhancing the depth of black, while remaining bright elsewhere. TVs with edge-lit LED backlights around the perimeter of the screen typically don't offer local dimming, but some new edge-lit models do. Edge LEDs can allow for extremely thin profiles of about an inch or so. Models with LEDs also use less power than typical TVs; some we've tested were exceptionally frugal with energy. Recent developments have also improved the ability of some LCD TVs to display fast-moving scenes without blurring. A growing number of sets now use 120Hz and 240Hz technology, or quasi-240Hz (120Hz plus a scanning backlight) to reduce motion blur. There are also models with 480Hz technology, and we've seen 960Hz as well. However, LCDs with the usual 60Hz refresh rate still have an issue with motion blur.
LCD TVs haven't caught up with plasma TVs in terms of viewing angle. With most LCD sets, the picture looks its best only from a fairly narrow sweet spot right in front of the screen. As you angle away from the center of the screen--either horizontally or vertically--the image can dim, lose contrast, look washed out, or lose color accuracy. So you could very well be seeing less-than-optimal picture quality if you're sitting off to the side (say, at the end of a long couch), stretched out on the floor, or looking up at a TV over the mantel or looking down at a small set on a kitchen counter.
Good choice if you want a thin TV with a screen 42 inches or larger with an almost unlimited viewing angle.
Common screen sizes. 42 to 65 inches, with more 60-inch-plus models arriving. Most plasma TVs are 3 inches or less in depth, and some new ultra-slim plasma TVs are as thin as an inch.
Typical selling prices. $400 to $800 for a 42-inch set, $600 to $1,800 for a 50-inch model, $1,200 to $2,500 for a 58-inch set, $1,400 to $3,000 for a 60- to-65-inch model. 3D capability can add several hundred dollars to the price. (With prices continually dropping and special promotions, you'll probably see some TVs selling for less than the prices indicated. And high-end models loaded with all the latest features can sell for more.)
Key points. Plasma TVs may be harder to find now that Panasonic, one of the big brands in this category, has stopped making them. Of the sets still available, there are many more 1080p sets than in the past, including 42-inch models. It's hard to beat the best plasma TV sets for accurate colors, deep blacks, and great contrast. And a virtually unlimited viewing angle means that no one has a bad view, because you see the same picture quality from almost anywhere in a room.
New plasmas use much less energy than older models and in general are comparable to LCDs with fluorescent backlights for power consumption. Newer plasma TVs have special dark screens that enhance contrast and minimize glare from ambient light, but some models have shiny screens that can cause reflections in a bright room--similar to what you might have seen with a picture-tube TV, or with LCD sets with glossy screens. Screen burn-in should not be a concern thanks to features such as screen savers and motion-adaptive (also called pixel-shifting) technology, which shifts the picture almost imperceptibly every few seconds. High-contrast static content that is left onscreen for a prolonged period may cause temporary image retention, but such impressions are not obvious, and they disappear after a short while in normal viewing. We haven't seen any evidence of permanent burn-in when testing TVs in our labs over the course of a few months. Some models include a feature that essentially blasts the screen with a white image for a period of time to remove ghosted images.
Good choice if you want a theater-like experience at home, with the largest picture available.
Common screen sizes. The projector has a 9x12-inch or larger footprint. You need a separate screen (typically 70 to 200 inches diagonally).
Typical selling prices. $800 and up for a 1080p HD model, a bit less for a 720p projector. There are a few new 3D models that cost $1,500 and up. You'll need to budget several hundred dollars to $1,000 for a screen, depending on size and type (fixed or retractable, manual or motorized, for example).
Key points. You can get top picture quality from a projector, especially a 1080p model, and you're not locked into a specific screen size as you are with an LCD or plasma set. You can vary the picture size from about 50 to 200 inches by moving the projector closer to or farther away from a screen or wall and using the zoom control. Make sure you buy a model with a recommended placement range that will give you the size image you want. To get TV programming, you must connect an external tuner, such as a cable or satellite box, to the projector. For movies, you can hook up a Blu-ray or DVD player. You generally have to provide an amplifier or A/V receiver and speakers, because most projectors don't have built-in audio capability. 3D-capable projectors may arguably provide the most exciting 3D experience.
While projectors are great for movie night or major sporting events, they aren't the best choice for typical, everyday viewing. Any light that falls on the screen reduces contrast and washes out the picture, so your best bet is a dark room. Use blackout window shades for daytime viewing, and at night, turn off light from nearby lamps.
The need to add a screen and speakers increases the cost and complexity of set-up. If you mount the projector, be sure to place it at the distance recommended by the manufacturer, angled to prevent the rectangular shape of the image from being distorted. Projectors with a vertical and/or horizontal lens shift give you more placement flexibility; those without a lens shift have to be mounted or placed so that their image is centered on the screen to avoid using the keystone adjustment, which can distort the picture.
In our tests, we used a 110-inch screen ($400) with a matte-white viewing surface 4 1/2 feet high by 8 feet wide. Screens with reflective finishes designed to enhance brightness (called gain) might have a narrower viewing angle than a matte screen. So-called dark screens are designed to enhance contrast by improving black levels, but they take a small hit in brightness. Freestanding screens can be stored when not in use; some wall- or ceiling-mounted screens can be manually or electronically retracted.
In general, LCD projectors haven't been as good as DLP models at reproducing true black, but some new LCD models do well. LCoS projectors are becoming more common, and some are outstanding, though typically a bit more expensive than other types. With a DLP front projector, you may experience the "rainbow effect," a flash of color some viewers notice mainly when they move their eyes across bright objects on a dark background. It isn't obvious to everyone, but once noticed, it can be annoying. Many newer DLP projectors use faster-spinning color wheels, which can reduce the effect. All DLP projectors using a single chip are affected. Only the most expensive DLP units with three chips don't have this issue. A projector's bulb typically needs replacement every 2,000 to 3,000 hours or so. We have no data on reliability of front projectors.
Features can help to ensure your satisfaction with a TV long after you park it in your living room. Many features, such as the inputs and outputs, are common to all TV types, while some are relevant only to a particular type of TV; that's indicated below. Here are some of the more important TV features to consider.
3D is a new feature offered on many HDTVs, not a new type of TV. 3D-capable sets function like any standard HDTV with regular 2D programs. You switch the TV into 3D mode when you want to watch 3D broadcasts or a 3D movie from a Blu-ray disc (which requires a 3D Blu-ray player). You need to wear special high-tech glasses to see 3D images; without them, you'll see blurry double images. You don't need glasses for regular 2D content. There are now two 3D technologies available: active and passive. Active glasses used to be heavier and more expensive than passive glasses, but that's not the case anymore. For more information, see the article on 3D.
This spec refers to the refresh rate or frame rate of the display--how often it updates the images onscreen. LCD TVs have typically had a refresh rate of 60Hz, meaning they update the image 60 times a second. At that relatively slow rate, there's a tendency to blur images during scenes with fast motion, such as sports programs. Because motion is fleeting, though, many viewers don't really notice the blur all that much, especially with typical TV programs. If you are sensitive to the problem, you should consider a TV with a higher refresh rate. Many new models double the number of frames displayed per second to 120 by inserting additional video frames (or black frames). Others use 240Hz or higher refresh rates. With all of these, blur can be minimized because there is less time between frames. In some cases, a model combines a 120Hz refresh rate with a scanning, or flashing, backlight to achieve a "240Hz like" effect. For most consumers, effective 120Hz technology should do the job. Many companies are giving anti-blur technology proprietary names; Sony, for example, calls it Motionflow, and Samsung has dubbed it Auto Motion Plus. Note that the anti-blur feature on LCD sets is sometimes linked to motion smoothing, which can give film-based movies a video-like appearance (like a soap opera) that you might not care for. The only way to restore the film look is to turn off the anti-blur feature, but then you'll lose the blur-reduction benefit. You'll get the most flexibility with a set that gives you separate controls for the anti-blur and motion smoothing features.
LCD displays use lights in the back of the display to illuminate the screen. Earlier LCD TVs all used fluorescent bulbs, and some still do, but most new sets use LED (light-emitting diode) backlights instead. Some have full-array LEDs arranged across the entire panel. These are divided into zones that can darken or brighten independently, a feature called local dimming. Thus the backlight can be dimmed in a dark part of the image to enhance the contrast and depth of black levels while remaining bright in other parts of the picture. Other LCD TVs have LEDs around the perimeter of the screen, a design called edge-lit. Some newer sets with edge-lit LEDs use a form of local dimming. A new type of LED backlighting is called direct-lit. These TVs have a small number of LEDs spread across the back of the set. They don't offer local dimming, and they're typically thicker and lower-priced than other LED-lit models. In general, LEDs can reduce power consumption. Some of the edge-lit LCD models we've tested have been among the most energy-efficient sets we've seen, as well as the thinnest.
Many new LCD and plasma TVs can access the Internet directly, through a broadband connection, without using a computer. The majority of Internet-capable TVs limit Web access to specific content, which varies by brand and model. Typically, that includes streaming movies and TV episodes from Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu, CinemaNow, and HuluPlus; music from services such as Pandora and Slacker; and access to popular sites such as YouTube, Twitter, Flickr photos, eBay, Facebook, and more. (Some Blu-ray players and gaming consoles also offer this feature, so you can get Internet connectivity and streaming video without buying a new TV.) There are now more Internet TVs with full Web browsers, including a few Android-based Google TVs that use an optimized version of Google's Chrome browser.
A growing number of TVs have the ability to connect to a home network wirelessly, so you don't need a nearby Ethernet jack. Some models come with built-in Wi-Fi, while others come with a wireless adapter, also called a dongle, that connects to the TV's USB port. In other cases, the adapter is an option that costs about $70 or $80.
With any TV, consider the number and type of inputs it has for hooking up devices to your TV, especially connections capable of carrying HD. Most larger TVs now have at least three or four HDMI inputs plus two component-video inputs (which sometimes do double duty as composite-video connections), both of which can carry HD. That should be adequate for most current uses. You could connect your cable or satellite receiver to HDMI1, for instance, and your Blu-ray player and streaming video device to two other HDMI inputs. You use your TV remote to toggle between them. HDMI inputs carry both video and audio, so you connect only one cable to get both picture and sound. With component-video, you have to connect three (red, green, blue) for picture and two (red, white) for sound. Smaller sets typically have fewer of each type. Both HDMI and component-video connections are capable of carrying high-definition signals from devices such as cable and satellite boxes, DVRs, and Blu-ray players. 3D-capable models have HDMI 1.4 inputs, necessary to handle 3D signals. (And any high-speed cable can carry 3D and HD signals; you don't need to buy a high-priced specialty cable.) You can use the RF (antenna/cable) input to feed high-def TV signals, either from an off-air antenna or from a cable hookup. Composite-video inputs are generally used with older gear such as a VCR or sometimes a DVD player. If you want to hook up a video game system or camcorder occasionally, look for a TV with front- or side-panel inputs, which are more accessible than those on the rear of the set.
Movies created for the theater come in different shapes that don't always fit an HDTV's screen perfectly. In those instances, you'll see black or gray bars around the image. To compensate, most widescreen (16:9) sets have stretch and zoom modes that expand or compress an image to fill the screen better. That helps to reduce or eliminate the dark bands. The tradeoff is that the picture is distorted or cut off a bit in the process of being stretched or zoomed. A mode called "native," or 1:1, which is found on many but not all TVs, presents the full image, without cutting off the edges. This is especially helpful when using the TV as a computer display. Vizio recently introduced the first ultrawide screen, which has a 21:9 aspect ratio that more closely mimics the aspect of some theatrical movies.
The Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) supports a standard that enables interoperability among various consumer electronics devices across a home network. A DLNA-compliant TV can access photos, movies, and music stored on a DLNA-enabled PC or smartphone through a network connection. So if your phone is on your wireless network, you could view photos you shot or received via e-mail on your TV screen.
All TVs have menus with settings that enable you to adjust the picture, sound, and more. We suggest adjusting the TV's settings once you get home to get the best viewing experience. Newer sets have a menu option that allows you to choose between a "home" or "retail" ("store") setting) when the TV is first connected. The home mode adjusts the TV's picture controls to settings appropriate for viewing in a home environment. You can also choose from other pre-set picture modes that are optimized for certain types of content (such as movies, sports, or games), and make adjustments to individual attributes, such as brightness, color, and so forth. (With some sets, you can adjust attributes individually only in a custom or user mode.) With more sources for video available all the time, it's handy to have a feature that allows you to customize settings for each input, such as the one you routinely use for your cable box or the DVD player. For example, you might set sharpness to zero, or its lowest level, when watching high-quality DVDs or Blu-ray movies routed through the HDMI input, but use a higher sharpness setting to improve the softer appearance of standard-definition programs coming in by cable through the component-video input. (For more information, see Fine-tuning your HDTV.)
This lets you watch two channels at once--one in a small window, the other as a full-screen image. It's useful if you want to browse the onscreen guide while keeping an eye on the program you're watching or keep track of a sports event while a Blu-ray movie is playing. Most TVs with PIP have a single tuner, so it must be connected to another device, such as a DVR or cable box, to display two live programs at once.
Some new Web-enabled TVs come with remotes that have integrated or slide-out keyboards for entering text or passwords. We're also starting to see more TVs that let you control the set and navigate menus by pointing and clicking with the remote, using hand gestures, or using voice control. Some TVs now come with two remotes, one of them a small and simple device for the most-often-used functions. Some remotes have either backlighted keys or glow-in-the dark keys to make it easier to use in a darkened room. Backlighting is preferred because glow-in-the-dark keys fade quickly. In some cases, only a few of the most-used keys are illuminated. You can also use a smart phone to control certain new TVs.
On most TVs, speakers are built-in at the bottom of a TV, along the sides, or occasionally on the rear of the set. The location of the speakers can affect the width of the set and could determine whether it will fit into a niche in an entertainment center. A recent trend with flat-panel TVs has been toward "invisible" speakers that are integrated within the screen bezel and barely visible to the eye. Some TVs have audio outputs that will allow you to connect external speakers or a powered subwoofer. Monitors, which don't include an ATSC tuner, may not have speakers. Front projectors generally don't include speakers.
Like old-fashioned picture-tube TVs, which have reflective glass screens, some plasma TVs have shiny screens that show reflections from windows and lamps when their light falls directly on the screen. However, many newer plasma TVs have special dark screens that enhance contrast and minimize glare from ambient light. If you weren't bothered by reflections on a tube set, this shouldn't be a major issue for you. Otherwise you can close window blinds or dim lighting to minimize any glare issues. A growing number of LCD TVs have shiny screens too, so they're subject to the same glare.
Burn-in--faint but persistent ghostlike images on the screen--might have been a problem with earlier plasma sets, but it isn't much of an issue now. Many plasma TVs have features to prevent burn-in, such as screensavers and motion-adaptive (also called pixel-shifting) technology, which shifts the picture almost imperceptibly every few seconds. This helps prevent static images such as a station logo or the bars on the sides of an image from permanently etching into the TV's phosphor coating. We haven't seen any evidence of burn-in when testing TVs in our labs over the course of a few months, and we have heard no anecdotal reports of permanent burn-in from staffers or readers who have used plasma TVs long-term at home. Temporary image sticking is more likely to occur. In this case, static images that remain on the screen for a matter of hours--or on a few sets we've seen, in minutes--may leave a subtle impression that's noticeable on a dark screen, though hard to detect with typical video. These impressions disappear when you play random video scenes. Some models include a feature that essentially blasts the screen with a white image for a period of time to remove lingering images.
Front projectors, which project an image onto a screen or wall, have some unique features. One, a lens-shift mechanism, is a must-have feature if the projector can't be centered directly in front of the screen. It enables you to get a geometrically correct picture from less than ideal positions. Some projectors have a vertical lens shift, and others have vertical and horizontal lens shift. However, there are some models--primarily lower-cost DLP models--that don't have any lens shift, which can make projector placement more difficult.
Keystone correction is another feature designed to retain proper geometry of images, but avoid using it if at all possible because it can cause resolution to suffer. Essentially, it corrects for the trapezoidal effect an image takes on when you tilt the projector up or down to center the image on the screen. Most projectors have some form of keystone correction--vertical, horizontal, or both--that can correct for this distortion. But it's far better to position the projector correctly or to use lens shift so you don't need to use keystone correction.
To help improve the depth of black levels, many projectors include a manual or dynamic iris, which acts as a brightness adjustment by automatically varying (typically reducing) the amount of light sent to the lens. A manual iris lets you reduce overall light output to improve black-level performance, but it applies that light reduction across the entire picture, so whites won't be quite as bright. A dynamic iris, which is controlled by a motor, has circuitry that closes the iris during darker scenes and opens it up again for brighter scenes, effectively boosting contrast. This can be very effective at improving black levels. However, if the feature is not implemented well, you might notice the image brightening and dimming on scenes, an effect called "breathing." Such brightness fluctuations can be distracting. There are some models that can achieve deep black levels without the aid of a dynamic iris, yielding excellent contrast even on dark scenes.
There are literally scores of brands of TVs, some very well known and others much less familiar. Some manufacturers offer sets of various types, while others are known mostly for one type of TV. Here's a rundown of some of the major brands you'll encounter, listed in alphabetical order. Information on the performance history and reliability history of major brands is available to subscribers.
While not best known for its TVs, Bose offers several highly-featured VideoWave LCD TVs in 46-inch and 55-inch sizes. These TVs incorporate a built-in Bose home theater system, and are sold through Bose company stores, and include delivery and setup.
As of August 2013, Gordon Borthers, an investment company, has purchased the Coby brand and all of its assets—but not its liabilities—out of bankruptcy. To date, Gordon Brothers has not introduced any new Coby-branded TVs, and the company is not honoring warranty claims for Coby TVs sold before its purchase.
Dynex is a Best Buy house brand, and offers a limited line of value-oriented LCD TVs, ranging from small screen sizes up to about 55 inches. Dynex TVs tend to have fewer features than Best Buy's Insignia TV line.
Funai is the North American sales and marketing company for consumer electronics products manufactured by Funai Electric Company of Japan. Its brands—including Emerson, Funai, and Magnavox—are typically sold at mass-market stores and warehouse clubs.
A Funai subsidiary, P&F Holdings, is the exclusive licensee for Philips consumer televisions and home theater products, and acts as the exclusive distributor in North America for Philips lifestyle entertainment, which includes home and portable audio, headphones, portable DVD and accessories.
Haier, a brand perhaps better known for its appliances such as air conditioners, offers a diverse TV model lineup that includes small-screen to large-screen LCD TVs, and also LCD HDTV/DVD combos, most with LED backlights. Its distribution tends to be more limited than the better-known brands and its models are generally priced below comparably featured models from the major brands.
Hisense is a multinational manufacturer with headquarters in China that sells its own Hisense-branded TVs in the U.S. The company offers a wide range of models at varying prices, and has recently added Ultra High Definition TVs to it lineup. Its models are sold in Walmart, Costco, and some independent retailers.
Once a prominent TV brand, Hitachi now offers a limited line of entry-level and midlevel LED-based LCD TVs, with screen sizes ranging from 24-inches to about 55-inches. HItachi TVs are sold in Sam's Clubs, Best Buy, and regional retailers.
Insignia is Best Buy's signature house brand. It is positioned as a "value" line" offering more features for the price than better-known makes. It offers LED-based LCD TVs ranging in size from 19 inches to about 50 inches.
JVC now licenses its brand name for TVs to AmTRAN, a Taiwan-based multinational manufacturer responsible for production and sales of its LED-based JVC LCD TVs. JVC TVs range in size from 28 inches to more than 55 inches, and are sold mainly in warehouse clubs.
LG is a top-tier manufacturer in the LCD TV category, offering a wide range of LED-based LCD TVs, at varying screen sizes and price and feature levels. It has an expanded lineup of smart TVs, and offers several series of Ultra High Definition LCD TVs. It is also one of the few companies offering TVs using the new OLED technology.
With the introduction of its 2014 line, LG is one of only two manufacturers still offering plasma TVs.
The Magnavox brand is licensed by Funai from Philips. The company makes value-priced LED-based LCD TVs in a wide range of sizes, which are sold online and through discount and mass-market stores.
Panasonic continues to expand its VIERA line of LED-based LCD TVs, adding more models and announcing a growing line of Ultra High Definition LCD TVs ranging from 55 inches to 85 inches.
Once the market leader in plasma TVs, Panasonic has exited that market for 2014.
P&F Holdings, a subsidiary of Funai, is the exclusive TV Licensee for the Philips TV brand in the U.S. Philips-branded LED-backlit LCD TVs are offered in a variety of screen sizes, ranging from value-oriented 19-inch sets to full-featured LED-based 55-inch sets.
RCA is a trademarked line of TVs distributed in the U.S. by ON Corporation, a Korea-based global consumer electronics manufacturer. RCA offers value-based LCD TVs and TV/DVD Combos. Its TVs range in size from 19 inches up to 70 inches, and are available from Sears, Walmart, Kmart, Best Buy, and online.
Samsung is a market leader and top-tier TV manufacturer; it offers LED-based LCD TVs at virtually every size, price and feature level. Samsung TVs are available widely from national and regional retailers, clubs, and online. Samsung offers the widest range of Ultra High Definition LCD TVs, including several curved-screen UHD TVs. Samsung is one of only two remaining brands to still offer plasma TVs, although it has announced only one new model for 2014.
Sanyo's value-oriented LED-based LCD TVs are sold through Walmart, typically at lower prices than sets from first-tier manufacturers.
Sceptre, a California-based privately-owned marketer of consumer electronics products, offers a line of value-oriented LCD TVs that range in size from 16 inches to 50 inches. Its TVs are sold online and are also available from Walmart, Target, Best Buy, and warehouse clubs, including Costco and Sam's.
Seiki Digital is a China-based multinational television manufacturer with U.S. corporate headquarters in California. A relatively new brand in the U.S., Seiki offers a line of value-oriented high-definition LCD TVs and some of the lowest-priced Ultra HD LCD TVs, in a wide range of screen sizes. Seiki TVs are available online and from national and regional retailers, including Best Buy and Walmart.
Sharp, which has been making LCD TVs longer than almost any other manufacturer, sells TVs under the Aquos sub-brand. It has one of the most advanced LCD panel manufacturing plants in the world, capable of making very large LCD panels. It sells LCD TVs ranging from competitively priced, value-oriented 32-inch sets up to full-featured LED-based 90-inch LCD TVs. Sharp also sells Ultra HD TVs, and has a new Quattron+ technology it says can bridge the gap between 1080p and UHD TVs.
Sony is one of the most recognized brands of LCD TVs. The company is no longer offering LCD TVs in smaller screen sizes, and is now focusing on midrange to fully-featured 32-inch and larger screen sizes. Its newest high-end XBR-series LCD TVs are all Ultra High Definition sets, with screen sizes ranging from 49-inches up to 85-inches.
Up until recently, TCL—a large multinational electronics manufacturer based in China with U.S. headquarters in California—was best known for licensing the RCA brand for TVs in the U.S. The company is now looking to build its own brand here, and offers value-oriented LCD TVs and UHD TVs that are available in a wide range of screen sizes, and available online, from warehouse clubs, and from select independent and national dealers.
Toshiba is a Japan-based global manufacturer, with U.S. headquarters in California. Toshiba offers a range of midrange to fully-featured LED-based LCD TVs; its HDTVs range from 23 inches up to 50 inches. Toshiba has also introduced a premium line of Ultra High Definition LCD TVs ranging from 58 inches to 84 inches.
Vizio is a privately held 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 is the only brand to offer a full-array LED-backlight design in the majority of its new models, which range from entry-level models to fully-featured higher-end Ultra HD TV models in a Reference series. The company's business model is to offer step-up features at a price lower than other major brands.
Westinghouse Digital is a privately held U.S. company that markets a range of value-oriented LED-based LCD TVs that can be found at retailers including Best Buy, Costco, Sam's Club, and Target, and online. Westinghouse Digital is expected to launch its first Ultra HD TVs this year.
It's hard to judge TVs well for yourself in stores. That's because TVs are usually set to a Retail or Store mode, which pumps up brightness and color to a level that looks great under fluorescent lights. Also, retailers often display sports programs, which tend to be super-bright with unnaturally vivid colors that minimize any flaws in the picture. See whether a salesperson will set the TV to Home mode and tune in programming with typical indoor scenes (including closeups of people, if possible, so you can evaluate skin tones). With an LCD, pay attention to the viewing angle. Look at the set from the side, not just head on, to judge the viewing angle. If possible, vary your vertical position too so that you can judge how the screen looks when you are sitting and standing. With most LCDs, you'll notice that the picture quality deteriorates as you move away from the center. We've found considerable variation among brands and models, so check our test results. Your best bet is to use our TV Ratings. Our tests are based on settings that you would use at home, with content that reveals the strengths and weaknesses of a given set, so you can get an accurate assessment of picture quality.
To get an idea of a TV's energy use, look for the Energy Guide label. They list a model's estimated yearly energy cost and how that compares with other similarly sized models. Just note that we often suggest that you turn off some energy-saving features to get the best picture quality, so actual energy use may vary. TVs and cable and satellite converter boxes now must use at least 40 percent less energy than comparable models to be branded Energy Star compliant. The new regulations also address "vampire power" issues--devices that draw electricity even when set to "off" or "standby." New Energy Star-compliant cable and satellite boxes must have a "deep sleep" mode, dropping energy consumption from about 16 watts to 2 watts or less. The EPA estimates that if all TVs and set-top boxes in the U.S. met these new standards, consumers would save more than $5 billion in energy costs annually, and the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from power plants would be equal to taking 7 million cars off the road.
"Prestige" brands offer very-high-priced cables. You'll see some HDMI cables in the 6-foot range (a typical length) selling for $100 or more, and longer cables that cost several times that. We've found that the modestly priced brands sold at most consumer electronics stores and online for far less should work well in typical use. We've had no problems using 6-foot HDMI cables we bought online for a few dollars. Any "high-speed" (Category 2) HDMI cable should be adequate for connecting to a TV, even for 3D, so don't fall for the line that you need expensive specialty cables for 3D. Just avoid inexpensive cables at dollar stores; those might have flimsy connectors or inadequate shielding on the cable itself.
You might be able to talk your way to a better price, especially for higher-priced TVs. See what a TV is selling for at reputable online retailers and in local stores, and use that information in negotiating a price. Once you've chosen a set, ask for a break on installation or delivery costs, or for free HDMI or component-video cables, which you'll need to get high-def signals to your new TV.
Many retailers will match or beat a lower price from a local competitor, so go to the store with those prices in hand. Even after the sale, some stores promise a refund within a specified period of time, often 30 to 60 days, if they reduce the price of your TV within it or if you find the set selling elsewhere for less. There are usually restrictions, so check the details. Save your receipt and keep checking the ads even after you buy.
It's generally not worth the money to buy an extended warranty for an LCD or plasma TV. Our survey data from thousands of TV buyers show that sets of both types from most major brands have had a very low rate of repairs for the first three years of use. Rather than paying for extended coverage, use a credit card that doubles your warranty, or shop at a retailer like Costco, which adds one year to the standard coverage. Detailed repair rates by brand are available to subscribers.
Many Internet shopping sites are one-stop shops where you can check prices for specific TVs at hundreds of retailers. You can sort the listings by price, including tax and shipping, and check reader reviews of products and retailers. Some sites to consider: BizRate (and its affiliate, Shopzilla), Google Shopping, MySimon, PriceGrabber, Shopping.com (and affiliate DealTime), and Yahoo. You'll also find a price comparison and local shopping link in the Ratings at ConsumerReports.org. Remember to factor in shipping costs, which can be substantial on a big-screen TV, or look for a free-shipping offer.
Some bots will send price alerts by e-mail. Indicate your target price or range for a model, and the site will e-mail you when it finds a store selling at that price. Retailers such as Crutchfield.com will send alerts too. If you're not in a hurry, and won't be disappointed if that particular model sells out, just sit back and wait for your price.
You might want to consider having the biggest-screen sets delivered. The cartons are too large to fit in many vehicles, and they can be awkward to carry. See whether the TV will be delivered inside the house; some retailers may only deliver to the curb, and it's your responsibility to bring the TV inside and set it up. Retailers that offer "white glove" delivery will typically bring the TV into a room, place it on a stand or cabinet, and connect it to your cable or satellite box. Often they'll remove the packaging as well. Sometimes this service is free, but at other times you may have to pay an additional fee.
When you first start up your new TV, make sure you choose the "home" picture mode rather than a retail setting. The picture might be on the dim side out of the box, because manufacturers have started using an energy-saving mode to meet Energy Star requirements. You can change that using the remote control. Find the menu with picture adjustments, then cycle through the various preset picture modes. A setting called something like "standard" or "cinema" yields a more accurate realistic picture than modes called "vivid" or "dynamic," but see what you prefer. If this is your first HD set, make sure you have everything required to watch HD. A surprising number of HDTV owners are not getting HD programming because they're missing something. You need an HD-capable set-top box from your service provider, connected to your TV by HDMI or component-video cables. Then make sure you've tuned in an HD channel, which might have a different channel number than the standard-def version. You can also get free HD off-air from an antenna to your TV, through the RF (cable/antenna) input. You might be able to handle a basic hookup of a cable box and a Blu-ray player on your own, but connecting more devices--a DVR, DVD recorder, VCR, and digital receiver and sound system--gets trickier. If you're not comfortable with technology, you might consider consulting a knowledgeable friend or having professional installation. With wall mounting, you might want to hide the wires behind the wall or in conduits, a task that might be best handled by a professional (wires that run in walls and ceilings require a different UL rating). Ask the retailer to recommend an installer or contact the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (800-669-5329 or www.cedia.net) to find one in your area. Plan on paying from $300 to $1,000 for labor, plus $100 to $250 for mounting brackets.
Part of the responsibility of owning consumer electronics gear is properly disposing of it if it breaks or you're ready to upgrade. One option is to trade in older gear for an allowance good toward the purchase of a new product. A site called TechForward lets you purchase a guaranteed buyback plan on TVs that locks in how much you'll receive for your trade-in during the two-year period covered. Best Buy also runs an electronics trade-in program for TVs and other products. You start the process online then drop off the TV at a store. You'll receive a store gift card for the value of the set.
Manufacturers, retailers, and third-party firms all offer recycling initiatives. Best Buy, for example, offers in-store electronics recycling on most consumer electronics, regardless of where you bought them. The company also has a "haul away" program that removes an old item from a home when a new item is purchased and delivered. Details of the company's recycling programs are available on its website.
Most major TV brands now have take-back programs to recycle old TVs. MRM, founded by Panasonic, Sharp, and Toshiba, accepts all types and brands of consumer electronics for recycling at its sites across the country. There's no fee for Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Sanyo, Sharp, Toshiba, and Vizio TVs; other brands' TV are recycled for a fee (except in states where such fees are prohibited). Other companies support MRM sites in selected states across the country.
LG Electronics has partnered with Waste Management's WM Recycle America arm for its recycling program, which lets consumers drop off unwanted LG products free at 200 designated drop-off centers. As mentioned, Samsung offers recycling through its Samsung Recycling Direct program, which combines drop-off locations, participating retailers, and special recycling events. Sony's Take-Back Recycling program, also a partnership with WM Recycle America, lets consumers drop off items at (or ship them to) either WM drop-off centers, or locations supporting its Greenfill drop-off program.
Electronics Takeback Coalition (http://www.electronicstakeback.com/how-to-recycle-electronics/)
The Environmental Protection Agency's Plug Into eCycling (http://www.epa.gov/wastes/conserve/materials/ecycling/)
1 800 Recycling (http://1800recycling.com/)
Though flat-screen LCD (including those using LEDs) and plasma TVs look very similar on the outside, they use different technologies. The best sets of both types are capable of excellent picture quality, though there are subtle differences in the nature of the picture. One point that needn't concern you is any difference in longevity between the two technologies. Despite reports you might have read about plasma's allegedly short life span, LCD and plasma sets should last a good 10 years or more in normal use. Neither technology is clearly better for all situations, but there are reasons to choose one over the other. Note that plasma TVs may become scarce now that one of the major brands, Panasonic, is exiting this market. UltraHD TVs are more expensive than HD sets, and there isn't much native 4K content to watch. We'd hold off until prices drop and more 4K is available. OLED TVs are brand new and still very expensive.
With a plasma TV, as with a picture-tube set, the picture looks the same from almost any angle. That's a big plus if a TV will be watched by a number of people sitting around a room. Most LCD TVs still look their best only from a limited "sweet spot" in front of the screen. Generally, as you move off to the side, the picture quality of an LCD screen degrades. The image can dim, lose contrast, look washed out, or lose color accuracy as you angle away from the center of the screen. Vertical position also matters, for example if you're sitting on the floor or watching a set that's mounted above a mantel. Some new LCD TVs have a somewhat wider viewing angle than the typical set of this type, but few if any maintain off-angle picture quality as well as a plasma.
In general, plasma sets are better than LCD TVs at displaying fast motion with no blurring. That's not true of LCD displays. In our tests of LCDs with the typical 60Hz refresh rate, using special images designed to reveal this problem, we saw blurred edges, smeared details, and problems with detail on the worst performers. Most LCD sets with 120Hz or 240Hz did better than 60Hz sets, displaying less blur. Casual viewers might not notice any blur in TV programming with little motion, such as news and talk shows, but it might be apparent--though fleeting--in sports, movies, and video games. Note that the anti-blur feature on LCD sets is sometimes linked to motion smoothing, which can give film-based movies a video effect you might not like. The only way to restore the film look is to turn off the anti-blur feature.
A good plasma TV's deep black levels and strong contrast can provide rich, natural-looking images with a more dimensional, cinematic look than an LCD offers. None of the LCD sets we've tested, including the LED-backlit models, have those same characteristics. And even LCDs that have strong blacks and contrast tend to lose them unless viewed from dead center. Also, on certain LCD sets, uneven brightness from the backlight can create cloudy areas in darker scenes that can be distracting.
Plasma sets tend to cost a bit less than comparably sized, full-featured LCD TVs, so the same budget could buy you a bigger screen. That's especially true of 720p plasmas, which are often exceptional bargains.
Many brands now sell only LCD (including those using LEDs) TVs, so you'll have a much wider choice of manufacturers and models. The main plasma brands now in stores are LG, Panasonic, and Samsung, plus Best Buy's Insignia store label. All those companies also sell LCD TVs.
LCD TVs are available a wide range of screen sizes, from very small (below 20 inches) sets that can double as computer monitors, to extra-large screens (70 inches and larger) that can serve as the video centerpiece of a home-theater system. Plasma sets start at 42 inches and go up to 65 or more inches. If you're looking for a smaller TV you'll have to buy an LCD set.
Passive 3D LCD sets use polarized glasses that are much more comfortable to wear than active glasses, and much cheaper--often just $10 or $15, compared to as much as $150 for active glasses. They dim the image less than active glasses too, resulting in a brighter picture. Compared to LCD TVs using active 3D technology, they have less ghosting, but the polarization process reduces the TV's vertical resolution in the 3D mode, so images aren't as sharp or detailed.
LCDs are generally brighter than plasma TVs, and thus hold their contrast better in bright lighting. Plasma TVs can look a bit dim in bright lighting when set to the Normal or Standard mode, which we generally recommend for home use. If you switch to the Vivid mode or raise the brightness control to compensate, the picture quality might not be as good. Another difference: Some LCD sets have matte screens, which are less reflective than glossy screens, and better for daytime viewing in rooms with lots of windows or for nighttime use in rooms with bright lighting. With plasma and LCD TVs that have a glossy screen, you might see glare or mirror-like reflections if light falls directly on the screen, especially during dark scenes. (This is similar to what you might have experienced with the glass screen on a picture-tube TV; if that bothered you, this might too.)
Both types of flat panels can do the job, but with an LCD, there's no chance static images will "stick" on the screen. With a plasma TV, temporary image retention can be a concern with video games, computer programs, and other content that has high-contrast fixed images onscreen for a long time. Many plasma sets have screen-saver features to minimize the risk, which we consider to be very low. In our tests of newer sets, we've seen temporary image sticking that goes away in a day or so of normal viewing, but no evidence of permanent image retention, or burn-in. Recent anecdotal evidence from our staff and online forum participants hasn't turned up any burn-in issues in typical long-term use at home. To be safe, video gamers should try to avoid leaving the game menu or other static graphics on screen for indefinite periods of time.
LCD sets with LED backlighting (especially edge-lit models) tend to use less power than LCDs with fluorescent backlighting and plasmas. So choose an LED model if you want to cut your bills and be kinder to the environment. A regular LCD with fluorescent backlights won't save you much, if anything, over a plasma set of comparable size. Thanks to new panel designs, today's plasmas typically use about the same amount of power as a conventional LCD.
The first 3D-capable LCD and plasma sets arrived in 2010, and there are now dozens of models on the market from virtually all of the major brands, in a wide range of screen sizes. Prices range from about $450 to $6,000. 3D projectors with 1080p resolution start at about $1,500 or less. Mitsubishi still sells rear-projection TVs with 3D capability.
3D sets are not a new type of TV. They are regular HDTVs that function like any other HDTV with regular 2D programs. They simply have an extra feature that enables you to switch into 3D mode when you want to watch a 3D Blu-ray disc or TV program. You have to wear special glasses to watch 3D, or you'll see blurry double images. You don't need glasses for regular 2D TV programming. (Note that watching 3D can cause some viewers to develop eyestrain or a headache.)
In our tests, the best TVs did a terrific job creating a 3D effect. Images were well-defined, with sharp, clear edges, and they looked believably three-dimensional. Overall, the 3D effect was as impressive as what we've seen in theaters.
All plasma TVs on the market use active glasses, but a growing number of LCD 3D sets now use passive glasses. There are pros and cons to each technology. Active glasses have shutters that turn on and off very rapidly so that each eye receives its own separate image. If the images aren't kept completely separate, you might see ghosting, or double images, even while wearing the glasses. This takes away from the 3D effect and can be distracting. The shutters can also dim the 3D images a bit. On the plus side, active 3D sets can display full 1080p resolution to each eye when viewing a full HD source, such as a 3D Blu-ray disc. Passive 3D glasses use a polarizing film on the TV, so there are no shutters on the glasses. As a result, 3D images look brighter, with less ghosting. But the vertical resolution of passive 3D TVs is cut in half--from 1080 lines to 540--when viewed in 3D mode. That means you see less picture detail. You might also see more video artifacts, such as jaggies and moire. UHD sets with passive technology are an exception. They present full HD to each eye.
Along with picture quality, the comfort and cost of the glasses are important points to consider. Try on the glasses if possible to see if you find them comfortable, especially if you'll be wearing them over prescription eyeglasses. With some TVs (especially those using passive technology), several pairs of glasses are included, but with other sets you have to buy them separately, generally for $10 a pair and up.
There's a growing amount of 3D content to watch. There are a few hundred 3D Blu-ray discs available, and more are coming. To play them, you'll need a 3D-capable Blu-ray player, currently starting at less than $100. There's a limited amount of 3D broadcast content. The 3Net channelis now available on several TV service providers, but several other options, including ESPN 3D and n3D, are no longer in service. You can also display your own 3D photos and videos on your TV screen as well.
Most 3D TVs can convert standard 2D images into 3D on the fly. We've found that the effectiveness of the conversion can vary from OK to unnatural and distracting, and in no case was it comparable to a program that was originally shot or produced in 3D.
There are several reasons to consider a 3D TV, even if you're not interested in 3D right now, especially as the premium you'll pay for 3D continues to fall. One reason is that many 3D TVs are among the best TVs we've tested, with either excellent or very good picture quality with both 2D and 3D content. Another is that 3D may be bundled with other features you'd like, such as Internet capability. Plus you'll be good to go if 3D becomes more compelling to you as new applications emerge and more content becomes available. But if you don't think you'll ever care about 3D, opting for a model without this capability will probably save you anywhere from $100 to a few hundred dollars, depending on the screen size.