There's never been a better time to buy a new TV. Advancements in technology mean there's hardly a bad set out there, while prices are also at all-time lows. You've never been able to get such great picture quality for as little money as today. At the same time, it seems like there are hundreds of expensive, high-end TVs on the market. With so many TVs available, how do you decide? This TV Buying Guide will help you understand the differences between LED and OLED, HDMI and USB, 4K and 1080p, and all of the other important traits of modern televisions you'll need to know when making your purchase.
The first decision you'll need to make is what type of television to buy. As recently as a few years ago, you might have needed to choose between Plasma, LCD, LED, DLP and rear-projection TVs. These days, that choice is a little easier, because almost all TVs sold are the same type: LED-lit LCD TVs, usually referred to as LED TVs.
While LCD and LED TVs are often billed as separate technologies, they both create their picture the same way, with a Liquid Crystal Display.
A Liquid Crystal Display is a thin, translucent panel made of millions of tiny cells known as pixels filled with liquid crystal. Each of the pixels can change in opacity when a charge is applied. Red, blue and green colored filters give each pixel the ability to also create color. When light passes through the pixels from behind, you get the building blocks of a visible image.
(Close Up of LCD Pixel Array)
The main difference between LCD TVs and LED TVs is that LCD TVs used fluorescent lamps to provide their backlighting, while LED TVs use, as you might have guessed, LED lamps. LEDs are much smaller than fluorescent lamps, so the TV can be made much thinner. They also use a bit less power, so LED TVs are more energy efficient.
But best of all LEDs, can perform something that fluorescent backlights could not, a function known as local dimming. This is the act of turning off some of the backlights during scenes with high contrast (i.e. both very dark areas and very bright spots in the same scene) so the brights can be brighter and the dark parts can be darker. LCD TVs could not turn off any of their backlight, which gave them a reputation for blacks that were closer to grey, and an overall less-contrasty image. Local dimming gives LED TVs a more intense image with better contrast and color, leading to a picture that just looks better.
When they debuted, LED TVs were much more expensive than LCD TVs. Since then, the technology in LED TVs has come down in price to the point that there are no longer any advantages to using fluorescent backlights, and today only LED TVs are still available to purchase.
The other type of TV available today is the OLED TV. OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) TVs are similar to LED TVs, with one major difference. Each individual pixel is able to create light itself, in addition to color and opacity. This means that manufacturers can do away with the backlights altogether, which add weight and thickness to the TV, so OLED TVs can be made just millimeters thick. Additionally, because brightness can be controlled at the pixel level, OLED TVs have significantly better brightness, contrast and color saturation than anything on the market. To put it simply: OLED TVs create the best-looking, most vivid picture of any television currently available. However, they are still much more expensive than LED TVs, which is their main drawback.
Bottom Line on TV Type
OLED TV if money is no object, LED TV for everyone else.
The next big decision to make when buying a new TV is what resolution to choose. A TV's Resolution is measured in the amount of pixels in the screen. In previous years, you might choose between a 480p, 720p or 1080p set. Each of those numbers denotes the number of horizontal lines of pixels that the set features. More pixels in a display equals more details, which equals better picture quality (and usually meant more expensive). As TVs get more advanced, resolution increases and picture quality gets better Today, display technology has advanced to the point where 480p TVs are no longer even made, and you'd be hard pressed to find a 720p TV, other than small, low-end sets intended for casual use.
Today, the real choice is between 1080p and 4K TVs. 4K resolution, also known as Ultra High Definition, features four times the amount of pixels as a 1080p set. As in the previous explanation, this pixel increase means that a 4K TV set produces a picture that's vastly more detailed. In many instances, you won't even be able to see the "screen door effect" that most LED/LCD TVs have always produced, where the lines between pixels are visible at close viewing distances. 4K TVs can also reproduce significantly more color depth than regular HD TVs, for a picture that is more vivid and lifelike. In short, everything about the picture of a 4K TV is better.
So, then, why would anyone buy anything other than a 4K TV? For one thing, they do still cost more than a 1080p set of the same quality and size. And the benefit of 4K isn't as significant on smaller TV sets. So If price is the most important factor in your decision, 1080p is the way to go while still getting a great picture. However, prices on 4K TVs are continually dropping, and in the coming years, we'll likely see it become the standard resolution. For more information on 4K TVs and UHD TVs, watch our "What is 4K and UHD?" video.
Bottom Line on Resolution
1080p for TVs less than 40" in size, if cost is the most important factor, or you're planning on replacing your TV in a few years. 4K TV for anyone interested in ultimate picture quality, especially those planning on keeping their TV for as long as possible.
After you've decided on the type and resolution of TV you'd like to purchase, you'll have to select the appropriate size. Once upon a time, most TVs were the same size, with anything above 40 inches considered "big." Today, TVs are available in just about any size that will fit through your front door and even some so big that they probably won't.
While most shoppers will automatically look at the largest TV they can afford, bigger isn't always best. A TV too large for your viewing distance can be just as annoying as watching a TV that's too small. If you've ever been stuck in the front row at the movie theater during an action flick, you've felt the pain of a sore neck and strained eyes. So if you have only a certain amount of space in your TV room, let that guide you in choosing a screen size. If you have a larger room and flexible seating options, you can be more flexible with the TV dimensions.
Sitting too close to your LED TV will also make the screen door effect more visible. So, you'll want to pick a TV and place it at a distance that finds the balance between being close enough to take advantage of the resolution, but still far away enough to give everyone watching a good viewing angle
TV Screen Size & Distance Calculator
Bottom Line on TV Size
Buy what fits your viewing space and distance, but beware that watching too large a TV can be unenjoyable.
Other Things To Consider
Many TVs today are 3D-Ready, meaning that they can play specially-formatted 3D content from appropriate sources, such as a 3D-enabled Blu-ray player or cable box. Many 3D TVs can also convert regular 2D content into a 3D picture. Viewing 3D content requires the use of 3D glasses, which are usually provided with 3D TVs. For more info on 3D TVS, visit our 3D TV info page.
Smart TV Functions
Most TVs sold today are "smart TVs," meaning they can wirelessly connect to your home network and have special processors built-in to take advantage of web apps. A smart TV lets viewer's stream movies from services like Netflix or Vudu; play music from Pandora, Spotify or network-attached storage; or even check their social networks, all without the need for a separate computer. Smart functions will usually add a marginal amount to the cost of a TV, so if you're looking for the absolute least expensive TV, you'll likely find one without these functions. Of course, you can always add these functions onto a non-smart TV by utilizing a streaming media player like the Roku or Apple TV.
If your entertainment system consists of many components, it's important to make sure your new TV has enough inputs to support them all. A typical home theater system might include a Blu-ray player, Cable Box, A/V Receiver, streaming media player, and video game system. Each of those devices would require an HDMI input. If your TV doesn't have enough HDMI inputs, you will have to rely on a signal splitter, or manually swap cables when switching between devices.
While the maximum size of TVs has continued to grow in the last few years, if you want to go really big, nothing beats a digital projector and dedicated projector screen. If your TV room allows it, a projector and screen gives you the truest home theater experience, and can be set-up more affordably than very-large screen LED TVs. For more info, visit our Digital Projector Buying Guide
One of the most convenient aspects of today’s high-tech digital A/V equipment is the dawn of a cable standard. The High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) interface was created by a consortium of technology companies, in order to have a cable that would be guaranteed to work with all digital display devices, regardless of brand or type. Today, even devices that have historically had proprietary cable connections (video game systems are the most notorious) all have HDMI ports. HDMI cables simplify the connection process by passing both audio and video through a single cable. For more info on selecting an HDMI cable, visit our Cable Buying Guide
Unlike the glass front panels of tube TVs, the screens on LCD and OLED TVs are made from plastic that can be easily damaged by common household cleansers. Most manufacturers suggest a microfiber cleaning cloth and specially-formulated screen cleanser to remove smudges and other marks on your TV's screen.
Mounts and Stands
One of the benefits of a flat-panel TV is the ability to hang it directly on a wall in your home. A wide variety of TV mounts are available that let you adjust your television in every direction, or keep it completely static. If you'd prefer not to hang your TV, all flat-panel TVs also come with removable pedestals, so you can simply place your TV on a table or specially-designed TV stand.
The same advanced electronics inside your TV that give them a world of high-tech functions also make them extra susceptible to surges in electricity. Whether from faulty wiring, a lightning strike or a power outage, a voltage surge can permanently damage the internals of your TV and A/V components. Thankfully, some simple prevention can keep you safe. For a very low cost, a surge protector can keep your devices safe in the event of a voltage surge.
Your new TV will include a remote that gives access to all of the TV's controls and adjustment menus. Many manufacturers provide remotes that can also control other devices they make (e.g. the remote for your Samsung TV will likely be able to control your Samsung Blu-ray player or soundbar). Most Smart TVs can also be controlled with a web-connected device, like your smartphone or tablet, so you'll never have to worry about finding the remote again.
If you have an entertainment system that consists of multiple components, especially from multiple different manufacturers, you may be interested in a universal remote control. These remotes can be programmed to control a variety of different devices, regardless of brand. The simplest of these require you to select each component before you can control it, while advanced universal remotes can be programmed to turn on every one of your devices, adjust the volume to a predetermined amount and even select your favorite channel, all with the press of a single button.
Believe it or not, a simple antenna still has a place in some households. If you're trying to avoid a costly monthly cable bill, it's still possible to get crystal-clear HD broadcasts of your local networks (typically CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, PBS and multiple others depending on your location). If you're in an ideal location (in a large metropolitan area) a set-top antenna (also known as "rabbit ears") will be able to pull in any available signals. Those located farther from broadcast towers may want to choose a rooftop antenna for its extra reach. To determine which channels are available near you and how strong their signals are, check the FCC DTV Reception Map