Experiencing double vision when purchasing a television? It's a process that can be as stressful and as life-consuming as anticipating a birth. Okay, that may be overstating it a little bit. But just a little bit. Both decisions will cost you. Both things will bring noise and confusion into your house. Both will require a lot of love and attention. But only one will return that love and attention and fulfill you, entertain you, and keep you happy for years to come.
Okay, children DO look better in family photos. I'll give them that.
But purchasing a television is fraught with all kinds of danger as well. What size TV do I buy? What technology should I invest in? Name brand or not? LED backlit, OLED, or one of the other new technologies? What's a good price? What should I look for?
Thankfully, you're not alone. People ask a ton of questions about TVs, and with good reason. If you drop more than $1,000 on a TV, don't you want to make sure it works for you? And fulfills your needs as a consumer?
Before you delve further, consider a few basics to ask yourself.
- What will the television primarily be used for? Movies? Gaming? Web surfing?
- What are the size limitations of the room in which you will keep your television?
- How many people in your household will use the TV?
- And finally, what can you budget for a television?
All important questions should be answered before you walk into a showroom or click on a link. The answer to these questions will determine the make, model, and size of the TV you purchase. So take my digital hand and come with me as we explore more questions you should ask before buying a television.
How big a television should I get?
How big a television you purchase should be directly related to the room in which you'll be placing it. You should always leave at least 10 to 12" of space between the edges of the TV and whatever is around it—if it's a wall-mounted TV, this means try to keep pictures, air, heating vents, and other assorted items that far away. If the TV will be table or stand mounted, try to leave at least four inches from the back or sides of the set and the nearest wall (vents for televisions are usually at the backs or sides of the sets). Measure your wall or stand area, and make sure you have those clearances; that should determine the size of your set. Have a 200" wall? Go for broke.
Another consideration for determining screen size is how close you sit to the TV. A good rule of thumb is that the optimal viewing distance from the television to the viewer is 1.5 to 2.0 x the diagonal of the set. So, a 60" TV is best viewed at about 90 to 120 inches from the set, or about 7.5 to 10 feet away. Make sure you have the clearance in whatever room the TV is going.
Should I wall mount or stand mount the television?
This is more of a personal choice, but you should know that wall-mounting a television is not for the squeamish—for TVs larger than 19", you need to locate studs in the wall, purchase the right mount, rated for the weight of your television, attach the mount, and then have someone help you lift and attach the television.
Wall mounting gives you the option of placing the television higher up so more people can view it comfortably from more angles around the room. Stand-mounted TVs can be viewed comfortably from the davenport or centralized viewing area, but can be blocked by objects such as non-transparent dinner guests or undisciplined children. A stand mount also runs the risk of being toppled. A wall mount makes sure that unless you rip the TV from the wall, it won't be endangered by gravity.
What's the difference between television technologies?
This topic can get long and boring, but I'll keep it quick and basic after a quick aside: plasma and traditional LCD TVs are gone. Plasma was probably the most hotly debated technology, with people either being pro-plasma because of their great black levels, or anti-plasma due to the potential of image burn-in or glare. This debate is still alive and well, however, with a new technology that I'll mention momentarily.
LED TVs are the same as traditional LCD displays, except they use an LED array as a backlight instead of a series of fluorescent bulbs. Some LEDs are edge-lit (though it's still referred to as a backlight for simplicity) and some have full-array backlights. The edge-lit models can have slimmer depths, thanks to the lack of a row of lights behind the panel, but full-array LEDs tend to have better brightness uniformity throughout the screen and less "light bleed," which is what happens when you see a completely black image with bright areas near the edges where the LEDs are. LED TVs typically offer high brightness levels—so typical, in fact, that most manufacturers don't list it in their specs anymore.
Quantum dot TVs, or QLEDs, are LED displays that have a layer of semiconductor nanocrystals (called—you guessed it!—quantum dots) between the light source and the LCD panel. These quantum dots alter the color of the light passing through them, providing a wider color gamut than standard LED TVs.
OLED TVs don't use LEDs at all; OLED stands for organic light-emitting diode. Each pixel in an OLED TV is its own light source, so these TVs can be made considerably thinner than LEDs and QLEDs. Since each pixel creates its own light, they can be turned off to display the color black. This creates two noticeable benefits: OLEDs have no light bleed, and have virtually infinite contrast ratios. So, black levels on OLEDs are as dark as they were on plasmas, if not darker.
OLED is the technology that inherited the old plasma debate. Burn-in is possible, and all OLEDs have a glass front panel, so glare is also possible. The lifespan of OLEDs is also debated, as the technology is organic.
Is UHD 4K “fuller” than Full HD?
Resolution naming can get confusing, which is why I, personally, prefer to refer to them by their numerical names. Thankfully, at this point, there are only three resolutions in the TV realm with which you should be concerned.
HD, aka 720p, refers to TVs that have 1366 x 768 resolution, which means that there are 1366 pixels horizontally and 720 pixels vertically on the screen; whenever a resolution is expressed in this format, it’s always horizontal x vertical. This was TV’s first HD resolution, and is now typically only found on displays 32" and under.
Full HD resolution, aka 1080p, equates to 1920 x 1080. As of this writing, roughly a third of the TVs on the market are Full HD, with most manufacturers focusing on making UHD TVs.
UHD, aka 4K (and occasionally 2160p), is 3840 x 2160 resolution; this is not to be confused with DCI 4K (4096 x 2160), which is for use almost exclusively in multimedia projectors and computer monitors. UHD stands for ultra-high definition and has four times as many pixels as Full HD TV. Blu-ray Discs and streaming content are the most common sources for UHD media, and more UHD content is being added constantly.
What is HDR and do I need it?
HDR, or high dynamic range, is a technology that produces more vibrant colors and a higher contrast ratio than standard dynamic range. There are four different standards currently on the market: HDR10, HDR10+, Dolby Vision, and HLG. HDR10 applies its enhancement once, whereas Dolby Vision and HDR10+ are is constantly analyzing and processing the image. HLG is unique among these in that it is the only technology that is backward-compatible with non-HDR displays and does not require metadata. HLG is employed primarily in broadcast TV, while HDR10, HDR10+, and Dolby Vision are used for Blu-ray and streaming content.
One other important differentiation should be made here: TVs with HDR10 cannot be upgraded to support Dolby Vision because Dolby's format requires their hardware and certification, but Dolby Vision TVs can have their firmware upgraded to support HDR10.
While HDR is certainly not a requirement for a good picture, it will make a visible difference when viewing HDR-compatible media, when paired with an HDR-compatible source, such as a Blu-ray player, of course. And yes, everything in your home theater chain would need to be HDR-compatible to view HDR content; that means the source, the playback device, and the TV, plus your receiver if it's in the signal chain between your HDR Blu-ray player and your TV.
What extras should I look for?
Salespeople will throw a lot of items your way, but the most basic thing to remember is the TVs inputs and outputs. You do want a TV with as many HDMI inputs as possible—after all, if you hook up a receiver, DVD player, streaming media device, and gaming system, you want them all to run through HDMI for the highest picture quality available. HDMI also transits sound via the same cable. And don't let anyone fool you about HDMI cables—they are all made to the exact same standards using the exact same protocol, and a $5 cable works just as well as a $50 cable, in my experience. Besides that, another extra that's nice to have is digital sound outputs for the home entertainment receiver mentioned above. Also becoming increasingly important is a USB port for streaming media sticks or file storage.
Besides what to look for in the back of the TV, look for LED TVs with local dimming capabilities. Local dimming only dims certain sections of the screen, leaving other sections brightly lit. This can improve the contrast and deepen blacks and grays on the screen. Although it's a nice feature, you will pay a slight premium and, honestly, you may not notice the difference, but if you're looking for a set and it has local dimming, that's a plus.
What is a smart TV?
A smart TV is a television set that can access your home network and the Internet through built-in Wi-Fi. Smart TVs usually come preconfigured with their own set of software and apps (Samsung smart TVs, for instance, can access the Samsung Hub of apps and programs). Is smart TV a deal maker when purchasing a set? It used to be, but with the advent of streaming media devices, it may not be as enticing as it once was.
What is a streaming media device?
Television and the Internet are the perfect partners. With both in one device, you can access far more information than you could with just your TV. Not too long ago, getting the Internet to work on your TV required running cables from your networked computer to the TV, using the TV as an ad-hoc secondary display. Eventually, television manufacturers developed smart TVs, which allowed you to access the Internet through a built in Wi-Fi receiver. But that left plenty of recent sets without the cool ability to surf the Web.
Along came streaming media devices like Chromecast, which is a plug-in device that turns any TV with an HDMI port into an Internet-enabled TV. Using Chrome's minimalist interface, more consumers can have access to the Internet via Chromecast.
But there are other streaming media devices which, while they don't give you free-range Internet access, do allow you to access free and paid subscription movie services like Netflix, Hulu, and countless other streams or "channels." One of the most popular is the Roku streaming device, now available in stick form. Plug this into any HDMI port on your TV, and sit back and enjoy hundreds of free channels in an easy-to-use GUI that will keep you busy indefinitely.
Brand name or no name?
This is like asking, Should I buy a cheap no-name car or an expensive flashy car? It's up to you and your budget. Brand-name TVs offer better customer support (sometimes), better online help and communities, and some peace of mind. No-name brands offer rock-bottom prices. But remember the caveat of all purchases: you get what you paid for. Remember, VIZIO used to be no-name, and it quickly climbed the ranks as a respectable television manufacturer. At the same time, can someone help me repair my Daewoo TV?
Will my new TV sound as good as it looks?
Believe me when I tell you that it is near to impossible to find a large-screen television with decent speakers. You almost always must enhance the sound from flat-screen TVs. Why? Because the manufacturer is putting a lot into the R&D of a TV's screen, and a lot less into the audio. Secondary industries have arisen, devoted to making your big screen sound better. Depending on the level of refinement you're looking for—cinephiles and gamers love great big sound, families are looking for something more budget-oriented that makes their favorite TV shows pop—your choices are a full home-theater-in-a-box (HTiB) solution with a receiver, front, rear, and center speakers and a subwoofer, or a sound bar. Sound bars are much better than they used to be, and many can deliver amazing sound in a small space, but they cannot deliver a full surround-sound experience. Your room, your call. If you go with a surround sound system, you should make room for at least five speakers. Sound bars usually sit below the TV and add to their sleek aesthetic while delivering enhanced audio. You will find sound bars ranging from $80 to $2,500, and HTiB systems from $100 - $5,000.
What's the most important accessory to buy?
There are a lot of things you can buy to enhance your television: sound systems, wall mounts, a nice table stand; but the most important thing you'll need, especially if you're not TV savvy, is a good protection plan. Many things can happen to a TV, and a lot of them are unexpected, but television repairs are far costlier than you realize. Protect your TV with a good plan (one that covers very specific repairs, like motherboards, capacitors, and control boards) and you won't be faced with a bill that costs half as much as the TV.
So there you have it—a quick and easy guide to the most often-asked questions about TV purchases. Remember, it's a big decision, one that will affect your household for years to come. Except you don't have to pay for a television to go to college. Big plus.
Are you looking for a new TV? Are there any specific features you're looking for? Join the conversation by letting us know in the Comments section, below!