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. Better TVs will 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. 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.
- The right size. Experts typically say to buy as big a TV as you can afford. However, all also allow that too large a TV can overwhelm a room, or your budget. What you watch can also have an impact. Rtings.com has more information.
Know before you go
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. In earlier years, OLED was really not a consumer product. High prices, technology bobbles, and limited availability were why. However, wrinkles have been ironed out and prices have dropped to the point where some very impressive OLED 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.
3D TV is dead. 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.
What is an enhanced refresh rate? The refresh rate refers to how often a TV image is repainted on the screen. The standard refresh rate is 60 Hz. However, many LED/LCD TVs tout enhanced refresh rates of 120 or 240 Hz to reduce motion blur (a common complaint with 60 Hz LCD TVs). Better LED TVs have panels that deliver that increased refresh rate, however many are, in fact, only 60 Hz screens 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.
Edge lit or full matrix? LED TVs can be edge lit or use a full matrix backlight. The major advantage of a full-matrix backlight is deeper black levels, higher contrast and sometimes (but not always) better screen uniformity. However full-matrix 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 set is thinner and more energy efficient, but may struggle more with screen uniformity (Owners tend to complain more of edges or corners that are brighter than other parts of the screen, especially in very dark scenes). Buyers of OLED sets need not worry about the backlight, as that technology does not use one.
4K TV. Many mainstream TVs now boast 4K resolutions. Also known as UHD or Ultra HD, these sets 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. 4K content is becoming much more available, via streaming providers such as Netflix, and 4K Blu-ray players.
What are HDR and wide color gamut (WCG)? 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.