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 with greater promised picture detail than that of 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-high definition.

There’s also a newer 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 and now Sony make 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, provide all the picture-quality evaluations you’ll need. Looking to get rid of cable or change providers? Check our telecom services reviews, covering triple-play bundles and internet, TV, and phone services.)

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 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 $400 for a 32-inch model

• $250 to $700 for a 39- to 43-inch set

• $350 to $900 for a 48- to 50-inch set

• $500 to $3,500 for a 55- to 60-inch set

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

• $800 to $7,000 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 of its 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 because its screen resolution is 1920x1080. 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 3840x2160, so they 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 makes 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.

These days, purchasing a 4K TV makes a lot of sense, especially in larger screen sizes where it’s getting harder to even find HD sets. And you won’t have to pay much more for one because the price gap has narrowed. But you will still find 1080p and 720p TVs in the smaller screen sizes—say, 32 inches or smaller.

The good news is that there’s a growing amount of 4K content to watch, especially from streaming services such as Amazon and Netflix. There are now a number of 4K ultra HD Blu-ray players that can play 4K Blu-ray discs. We expect more to come on the market in the future.

Another reason you might decide to make the 4K TV leap: Standards for some UHD features, including high dynamic range (HDR) and a wider palette of colors, have now been set, so you don’t have to worry about missing out on a new important feature. To find out more about high dynamic range, see our HDR section below.

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 with a similarly sized UHD set. 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 you’re unlikely to find a UHD TV smaller than 39 inches. We’ve found that many viewers aren’t 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. Because standards for these features are still being finalized, it may pay to wait before making the jump to UHD. 

High Dynamic Range (HDR)

Perhaps this year’s biggest TV buzzword is high dynamic range, or HDR. When done right, HDR boosts a TV’s brightness, contrast, and color, making the pictures on the screen look more like real life.

As you can see in the image below, when HDR is at work, you’ll see details that might not otherwise be obvious, from the texture of the brick on a shady walkway to nuances in the white clouds in a daytime sky.

You’ll also see brighter, more realistic “specular highlights,” which are glints of light, such as the sun’s reflection off a car’s chrome bumper or an airplane wing. With HDR, those highlights pop; without it, they wouldn’t stand out against other bright objects.

HDR does all that by increasing the contrast between the brightest whites and the darkest blacks a TV can produce. That’s where the “dynamic range” in the name comes from.

“When done well, HDR presents more natural illumination of image content,” says Claudio Ciacci, who heads the Consumer Reports TV testing program. “HDR can flex its dynamic-range muscles in strong sunlit scenes that push the TV’s contrast to the limits,” he adds, “but you’ll also see HDR’s subtler benefits on more simply lit scenes.”

Typically, HDR TVs also produce more vibrant, varied colors than other sets. That’s because HDR is often paired with “wide color gamut,” or WCG, capability.

Standard HDTVs can display about 17 million colors, but those with WCG can display up to a billion. That’s like giving your TV a larger box of crayons to play with.

But you won’t see all that fantastic contrast and color every time you turn on the TV. You have to be playing a movie or TV show that has been mastered to take advantage of HDR and WCG. Those offerings are a bit thin right now, but a lot of new content is expected later this year and in 2018. (Find out where you can watch 4K content with HDR.)

Types of HDR

So far we’ve been talking about HDR as if it were just one technology, but there are a few types of HDR, each following a different set of technical specs.

One type, called HDR10, has been adopted as an open standard. It’s free to use, and all 4K TVs with HDR support it. That’s also true of all 4K ultra HD Blu-ray players and HDR programming, so you won’t be stuck with a set that can’t play HDR.

But some TVs also offer another type of HDR, called Dolby Vision, which is being promoted as an enhanced version of HDR10. Companies pay a licensing fee to use it. On paper it has some advantages. In particular, it supports “dynamic” metadata, where the brightness levels for a movie or show can be tweaked scene by scene. In contrast, HDR10 uses “static” metadata, where brightness levels are set for the entire movie or show.

Dolby Vision won’t be alone in using dynamic metadata, though. There’s a newer version of HDR10, called HDR10+, waiting in the wings to do the same thing, making HDR10 more like Dolby Vision. We’ll have to see whether any companies in addition to Samsung, which developed HDR10+, adopt it.

Finally, you may hear something in the coming months about one more HDR format, called, called HLG (hybrid log gamma). It could be important if it’s adopted for the next generation of free over-the-air TV signals, which will follow a standard called ATSC 3.0. Some TVs already support HLG, but it looks like others will be able to get firmware updates if necessary. This only matters for people who get TV through antennas, which is making a comeback. 

Yes, that all sounds complicated.

But there’s some good news. First, your TV will automatically detect the type of HDR being used in the content and choose the right way to play it. No fiddling required. 

Second, the type of HDR doesn’t seem to be too important right now. What we’ve seen in our labs is that top-performing TVs can do a great job with either HDR10 or Dolby Vision. The quality of the TV is more important than the type of HDR it’s playing.

Our advice: Buy the best TV you can regardless of the type of HDR it supports.

Are All HDR TVs Created Equal?

No. Our tests show that not every TV with “HDR” written on the box produces equally rich, lifelike images. 

First of all, TVs are all over the map when it comes to picture quality, HDR or no HDR. But there are also challenges specific to this technology. Most notably, a TV might not be bright enough to really deliver on HDR. To understand why, you need to know your “nits,” the units used to measure brightness.

Better-performing HDR TVs typically generate at least 600 nits of peak brightness, with top performers hitting 1,000 nits or more. But many HDR TVs produce only 100 to 300 nits. With an underpowered TV, the fire of a rocket launch becomes a single massive white flare. With a brighter television, you’d see tongues of fire and smoke, as if you were really there.

“The benefits of HDR are often lost with mediocre displays,” Ciacci says.

How Can I Tell a Great HDR TV From a Bad One?

Unfortunately, you can’t just read the packaging—or even rely on how the picture looks in the store.

Though some TVs carry an “Ultra HD Premium” logo, indicating that they’ve been certified as high-performance sets by an industry group called the UHD Alliance, not all companies are going along. For example, LG and Samsung participate in the program; Sony and Vizio don’t.

What to do instead? Check our TV ratings and buying guide.

As you’ll see, the TVs with the best HDR tend to be the priciest. But there are also some good choices for people who want to spend less. And if you’re buying a smaller set, or just want to wait on 4K and HDR, you can find several good—and inexpensive—options.

Photo: Sony

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, and 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 70 percent of the TVs sold these days are now smart TVs, according to market research firms. But if you’re considering a more basic TV or you 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, an Apple TV, a Google Chromecast, or a Roku player. Prices start as low as $30 for a smaller 1080p models, and 4K players start around $70.

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: set-top boxes, and stick players about the size of a USB flash drive. The most recent set-top box models include an updated version of the Amazon Fire TV, $100, a new Apple TV, $179, and the Roku Ultra; all support 4K video.

The Google Chromecast Ultra, $70, and new Roku Streaming Stick+, $70, are stick-style players that support 4K. There are also a number of less expensive 1080p models that cost as little as $30. These types of streaming 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.

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 that 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, FandangoNow, Hulu, Netflix, or Vudu, plus one or more internet music services, such as Pandora or Spotify. Many smart TVs also let you go to 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 WiFi for accessing your network wirelessly. Be aware that streaming video requires a robust WiFi 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 angle. 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 that you can easily return the set if it proves to be 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 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.

Interactive Video Buying Guide

For more, watch our interactive buying guide below. You can skip to chapters based on your interests, such as display type, features, resolution, and more.

TV Brands

Hisense is a multinational manufacturer with headquarters in China. In addition to selling its own Hisense-branded TVs, it also markets TVs in the U.S. under 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 at 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, has currently stopped selling TVs in the U.S. It is unclear whether it will re-enter the market.
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.
The Sharp TV brand in the U.S. is now licensed by Hisense, which also acquired Sharp’s TV manufacturing plant in Mexico. 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 midsized and larger sets. The company offers flagship models in its XBR series, and its lineup of UHD TVs ranges from 49 to 85 inches.
TCL, one of the largest TV manufacturers in China, has aggressively expanded its presence in the U.S. It was an early adopter of the Roku smart-TV platform in a line of TCL-brand Roku TVs.
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 typically offer a lot of features for the money.
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 controls the Element and Seiki TV brands.

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