What every best LCD TV has

  • Great or at least very good performance. Factors such as black levels, contrast ratio, color accuracy and saturation, accurate signal processing, screen uniformity and screen reflectivity can make or break the TV viewing experience. The set that nails all of these perfectly has yet to be made -- and likely never will be -- but the best sets hold their own in all or most of these performance categories.
  • Useful and usable features. The exact lineup of features an LCD TV might have will vary by its category. Smart TV platforms, 3D and fast refresh rates are found in even mid-priced sets. High-end LED TVs might include voice and gesture control, and advanced remotes with touchpads or even the ability to move an on-screen pointer with a wave. All but the very cheapest LCD sets are now LED TVs with LED backlights, but high-end sets might use a technique like local dimming to improve picture quality, especially during dark scenes. Regardless of the specific features, each should be easy enough to use that you won't need a manual or an engineering degree to do so.
  • Function over form. Flagship LED TVs are often designed to look like pieces of modern art when they're off, but even basic LCD TVs are rarely offensive. Even more important are the number of connections: Make sure there are enough to handle all of your gear and that they're easy to access. And don't overlook the remote. It's how most people control their TVs, and poor ergonomics or an illogical key arrangement can make that challenging.

Know before you go

Plasma or LCD ... or OLED? LCD TVs, including LED sets, are the best selling type of flat-panel TV. Plasma TVs remain available, however, and are more appropriate for some buyers. Plasma TVs typically have deeper blacks than all but the best LED TVs, wider viewing angles where the picture can be seen without losing quality, and better uniformity so screens don't suffer from bright spots or color shifts.

On the other hand, LCD TVs do better under a wider range of viewing conditions (like well-lit rooms, in which plasma TVs can look washed out); are thinner and lighter; and are more energy efficient, sometimes by a considerable margin. LED TVs are also available in a wider range of sizes; the smallest currently available plasma sets start at about 40 inches. If you think a plasma TV might be for you, we cover them in their own report.

OLED is an emerging technology, very different from LCD/LED sets or plasma TVs. They are brighter than LED sets, let alone plasma TVs; offer blacks that are extremely deep (deeper even than the best plasma TVs); have colors that are accurate and well saturated; have wide viewing angles; are very energy efficient; and the screens are incredibly thin. However, because of challenges in manufacturing, the two current OLED TVs -- from LG and Samsung -- are also incredibly expensive. Reviewers have also raised questions regarding the lifespan of OLED sets, as well as concerns over issues, such as image retention.

What about the backlight? Before 2012, the question TV buyers had to answer was whether they wanted an LED backlight or a standard CCFL backlight. The use of CCFL technology has since dropped dramatically, so now the question has become whether buyers want an edge-lit LED design with LEDs located only at the edges of the screen or a full-matrix array, often called direct-lit since each pixel subgroup is lit by its own LED. Each type has its pros and cons.

Sets with full-matrix backlights used to be more expensive than edge-lit ones, but no more. In fact, many budget LED TVs use direct-lit backlights that cut costs by using fewer LEDs. Direct-lit sets are slightly thicker than edge-lit sets and are more prone to an artifact called blooming, in which light appears to leak from bright objects surrounded by a dark background.

An edge-lit LED backlight is thinner than a direct-lit one and more energy efficient, but these LED TVs struggle more with screen uniformity. Owners tend to complain of edges or corners that are brighter than other parts of the screen, especially in very dark scenes. The issue can vary from set to set, however, and bothers some viewers more than others.

What is unilateral pricing? Most top-tier consumer electronics companies have put in place unilateral pricing policies that set a limit on the lowest price that an authorized retailer can offer on certain products, including many LED TVs. To put teeth into those policies, companies have threatened to cut off the supply of products to retailers that deviate from that pricing. Lower prices can sometimes be found at non-authorized dealers, but many manufacturers will refuse to honor warranties or offer support of any kind for products purchased outside of their dealer networks. Some retailers will substitute their own warranties for the manufacturer's warranty, although the value of that warranty will obviously vary, and could become completely worthless if the retailer goes out of business. Shoppers will need to carefully weigh whether a lower price offered by a non-authorized dealer is worth that trade-off.

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