What every best 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 a TV might have will vary by its category and technology. Smart TV platforms are found now in even budget-priced TVs. High-end TVs might include 4K resolution, advanced signal processing and the ability to display more colors than cheaper TVs. Some may have advanced remotes with voice recognition, touchpads or even the ability to move an on-screen pointer with a wave. All LCD sets are now LED TVs with LED backlights, but high-end LED TVs might use a technique like local dimming to improve picture quality, especially during dark scenes. Fast refresh rates can help with motion artifacts such as blur on LED sets, but be sure that you look at the actual refresh rate instead of an "effective" or similar rate that's more about marketing than improved performance. 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 TVs are often designed to look like pieces of modern art when they're off, but even basic sets 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

How big a TV should you buy? According to the experts at THX, buying a TV that's too big for your room can actually harm your viewing experience. They add that one of the key considerations is how far away you plan to sit, and to find the right balance of screen size to seating distance, divide your screen size by .84. Therefore, a 65-inch screen is right if you are sitting about 6.5-feet away, but if you will be closer, say 5-feet, something in the 50 inch range will be more appropriate. THX notes that even these screen sizes might seem large to some, but they help ensure that viewers can get the immersive viewing experience that a wide screen HDTV can deliver.

LED ... or OLED? LED TVs are the best-selling type of flat-panel TV. They look terrific under a wide range of viewing conditions (like well-lit rooms); are thin and light; and are energy efficient. LED TVs are also available in a wide range of sizes to fit any wall or countertop. Their biggest drawback is that they struggle to produce the blackest blacks possible -- a must for high contrast and top picture quality. Viewing angles are also often very narrow -- the farther you sit to the side, the worse the picture will look

OLED is an emerging technology. These sets can create blacks that are extremely deep, have colors that are accurate and well saturated; have wide viewing angles, are very energy efficient; and the screens are incredibly thin. Up to now, OLED was really not a consumer product. High prices, technology bobbles, and limited availability were all issues faced by first generation sets. Prices have dropped, however, and while the very best, 4K OLED sets remain very expensive, some very impressive standard HD sets are now available at mid-range prices.

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 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.

Demystifying HDTV TV features

Scattered throughout this report, and throughout TV marketing and sales literature, you'll find a smattering of terms and features that might be unfamiliar to casual shoppers. All can impact TV performance and user satisfaction -- though some matter a whole heck of a lot more than others. Here is some of what to look for:

Smart TV

Internet-capable TVs are now mainstream, and many reviewers appreciate being able to stream movies and other entertainment from services such as Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, Vudu, Pandora and many more. Some companies offer some type of mobile-phone-like app store, while others have turned to third party platforms, including Android and Roku, for content. Many Smart TVs also include at least rudimentary web browsing capabilities, Skype compatibility (sometimes including a built-in webcam), and other bells and whistles. Some include remote controls that integrate operation of other devices in your home that are web connected. Built-in Wi-Fi is commonplace in all but the very cheapest streaming-enabled sets, so you don't have to worry about having a nearby wired network connection to access all of the online goodies.

3D TV

Despite TV manufacturers' best efforts, 3D has pretty much turned out to be a flop. Some makers continue to offer 3D, but others have drastically reduced the number of sets with that feature and have taken other cost cutting measures, such as making the glasses an optional accessory.

Enhanced refresh rate

When shopping for a TV, you've probably noticed that manufacturers often tout models with higher refresh rates such as 120 Hz and 240 Hz. This refers to how often a TV image is repainted on the screen. Up until a few years ago, all TVs used a refresh rate of 60 Hz, which means the image is repainted on the screen 60 times per second. That's fast enough so the eye sees one fluid, moving image rather than a string of individual frames.

Boosting the refresh rate to 120 Hz or 240 Hz updates the image two or four times more often. What's the advantage? LCD TVs have traditionally been criticized for being prone to motion blur, which is caused by LCD's relatively slow natural response time. A faster refresh rate in these sets forces the screen to update more often and overrides the slower response times, wiping out motion blur in the process -- or, at least, that's the theory.

Whether a faster refresh rate makes a noticeable difference in reducing motion blur is a matter of some debate. It does appear to sharpen test patterns and certain types of motion in LCD TVs, such as fast-moving text on a crawler. Lots of experts say they see the most improvement moving from 60 Hz to 120 Hz, with the jump to 240 Hz yielding only a little further sharpening.

The issue with enhanced refresh rates became more complicated in recent years when many TV manufacturers began marketing sets with inflated specifications, backed by a little technical sleight of hand. HDGuru.com spilled the beans on this back in 2012, but the practice continues unabated. Some reviewers, such as CNET, report a TV's true refresh rate in addition to the manufacturer's claimed specification.

Enhanced refresh rates are sometimes confused with dejudder technology, which is no surprise since the two are often interlocked. Dejudder refers to eliminating a subtle shaking artifact -- called judder -- in content originally recorded on film. While some find judder objectionable, it's what gives film-based video its distinctive "movie" look. Remove judder, and the content looks like it was shot directly to video. Some love the look of the smoother motion but others hate it, calling it a "soap-opera effect," or something a bit less polite. TV manufacturers market dejudder technology under various names, such as Sony's MotionFlow or Samsung's Motion Plus.

Edge lit or full matrix?

Before 2012, the question LCD TV buyers had to answer was whether they wanted an LED backlight or a standard CCFL (cold-cathode fluorescent lamp) backlight. The use of CCFL technology has now all but disappeared, so 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 can be significantly more expensive than ones that are edge lit, but some budget 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. On the plus side, they often have better uniformity (blacks and/or colors are the same from edge to edge on the screen) and better black levels. Blacks can be deepened still further using a technique called local dimming where groups of LEDs (called zones) are actually turned off in areas that call for pitch black. The more zones an LED TV backlight has, the better the effectiveness of local dimming.

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. Some edge-lit sets use a version of local dimming as well, but effectiveness is more uneven -- helping black levels on some sets, but either having little effect or even harming picture quality on others. Buyers of OLED sets need not worry about the backlight, as that technology does not use one.

4K TV

4K sets, also known as UHD or Ultra HD, have screens featuring resolutions that are roughly four times that of standard HD sets. When fed with native 4K content, these TVs are capable of incredible picture quality.

That's part of the rub with 4K. Up to now, there has been virtually no native 4K content available. Instead, 4K sets have mainly been up-converting standard HD images to fit their screen resolution. The result can be very nice, but 4K TVs can't reproduce information that's not there in the first place. That's why DVDs up-scaled to high-definition resolutions by a Blu-ray player or HDTV can look very good, but not quite as good as a Blu-ray Disc.

Things are slowly starting to change. Netflix streams some of its content in 4K, including original series such as House of Cards and popular programs such as Breaking Bad, as does Amazon Instant video, YouTube and a few other providers. In addition, Blu-ray players capable of playing back 4K disks are now available, and the library of movies available on 4K discs, while still modest, is growing.

Curved or flat screens?

If you are in the market for a flagship TV, you've no doubt noted that some high-end models now sport a curved screen rather than the traditional flat one. Manufacturers are quick to tout the supposed advantages of this innovation, including a more immersive viewing experience, reduced image distortion, and reduced reflections.

Experts aren't as sure, and some say that while the aesthetics may be desirable, on balance there's no appreciable difference in the overall viewing experience, at least not in a set with a 70-inch or smaller screen size. That said, in some situations, curved screens can provide some advantages. A curved screen can produce fewer reflections than a flat screen, though light placement still will need to be considered as any reflections the screen does produce can be magnified -- stretched over the entire face of the screen in extreme situations.

Curved screens also eliminate some of the unavoidable geometric distortions introduced by viewing on a flat screen, but introduce a few of its own related to viewing on a curved surface. Which set of distortions is more bothersome will vary by viewer, so if you are obsessive about such things -- and most viewers never notice them in the first place -- check out a curved screen before committing to one.

HDR

There's always some new wrinkle when it comes to TV technology and, for now, that's High Dynamic Range, or HDR. Mid-range HDR-capable 4K sets are now available, and more are on the way. Basically, HDR sets can deliver both higher contrast (the difference between the black level and the white level) and a wider color gamut (more colors) -- with the result being a more lifelike picture. However, it requires specially processed content to do so -- and there are competing standards, though two -- HDR10 and Dolby Vision -- are the most common. DigitalTrends.com has an article on HDR standards, along with info on where you can get HDR compatible programming.

Quantum Dots

Having the ability to reproduce a wider color gamut is one thing, having a screen that can take advantage of that and accurately display those expanded colors is another. That's where Quantum Dots come in. These ultra-small bits of semiconductor allow for better, more accurate color rendition than is possible using a standard LED backlit LCD TV. The technology is offered under a number of different marketing names by different manufacturers, including Triluminous by Sony and Nano Crystals by Samsung. If you want more information, this article at Techhive.com gives the details.

Elsewhere in This Report