It’s the perfect time of year to plant yourself on the couch with wine and nachos and binge watch Ozark, The Handmaid’s Tale, Game of Thrones, or The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It’s also the season to break out your credit card, because it’s also the hottest time of year to buy TVs. It just so happens, I’m in the market for a new TV. Not because Black Friday and Cyber Monday are almost upon us, but because of a nasty incident involving beer, a loose table leg, and a cat. But I don’t want to talk about it.
After doing a little research on new technologies, I’ve decided I now want a bigger, fancier TV with all the latest bells and whistles.
I want it so clear that Idris Alba looks like he’s standing in my living room. I want all 6’3 of him looking so lifelike that I could actually reach out…and ummm ask him his opinion on the economic ramifications of Brexit.
I want the movement in a basketball game to look like I’m actually there. I want it so real that I can smell popcorn and sweat.
I want sound so powerful my whole street can hear Leslie Jones say, “OK, I don't know if it was a race thing or a lady thing, but I'm mad as hell!"
I want it to make coffee for me in the morning and read me a story at night.
Alright, maybe that’s going a bit far, but you get the idea.
Do I want a Samsung 50-inch QLED 4K Smart TV? Or maybe I want to go bigger. How about a Sony 55-inch 4K Ultra HD Smart TV? Or maybe a standard, reasonably-priced 1080p 60Hz TV is all I really need and who cares about brand.
Here’s the problem.
First, I have a budget and second, WTF does any of this mean? I know nothing about TVs. Zero. Nada.
But pushy salespeople and all the tech speak make me avoid actual TV stores like I avoid my close-talking next-door neighbour with pink eye.
Luckily in today’s digital age, we don’t have to talk to living, breathing people to get information. Thank you, Google!
After extensive research, I’ve put together a TV shopping cheat sheet, because if you’re anything like me, you want to be at least a little knowledgeable about a product, especially when you’re about to part with a decent chunk of cash.
The TV Shopping Journey. Let’s Begin.
What confused me, right out of the starting gate, was all the types of TVs. There seems to be a lot of choices, but there really aren’t. There are just two main types: LED/LCD and OLED. In this acronym-happy industry, the letters just stand for how they get light to shine out of them.
LED TVs have a backlight system for light. Traditionally, they used compact fluorescent bulbs but today LED lights are used instead, so the terms LED and LCD are used interchangeably in TV lingo.
OLED TVs produce their own light so they can be slimmer than LED TVs. They have better black levels and contrast, and allow for a wider viewing angle. TV gurus say while OLED TVs do have a better picture than a normal LED, the difference is marginal for a lot of viewers and the considerably higher price tag is not always worth it.
A third type has recently hit the market. To make it even more confusing, it’s called QLED. These are actually just LED TVs that use a new technology where the LED lights in them shine through a material called quantum dots. It’s supposed to correct blue colour to make a purer white light for deeper and more accurate colors. Seems pretty shady naming it QLED though - so close to OLED - when it’s actually LED technology. The term was apparently coined and trademarked by one brand - so what’s up with that Samsung?
(Oh, and P.S., like Betamax back in the day - plasma is almost totally dead technology.)
Screen size, measured diagonally, is the most important aspect of a TV for most of us. Bigger is better after all, right? For TVs — and for those of you who went there — the answer is the same: not necessarily. There are other factors to take into consideration. The average living room will support a 50-inch or larger, but other things to take into consideration are how many people will be watching at the same time and how far they will be from the TV.
The standard rule is to measure the height of the screen and multiply by 3 to find the best distance to sit from the average high definition (HD) TV. For the newer Ultra High Definition (Ultra HD) TVs you only have to multiply by 1.5, so you can sit much closer. Your mom will probably still yell at you though.
That brings us to…
This is what numbers like 1080p and 4K are talking about. It is the sharpness of a TV’s picture. It is measured in pixels - the more pixels a screen has, the more detail it can show. 1080p or HD resolution, used to be the standard, but the industry has moved to 4K or Ultra HD as the new standard. Even if you’re not a math whiz - 4,000 pixels is way more than 1,080 pixels. So it makes sense that the larger number would make fine details clearer and create a crisper image. As mentioned before, you can also sit closer to larger Ultra HD TVs without much image distortion.
1080p = High Definition = HD
4K = Ultra High Definition = Ultra HD = UHD
You can still find TVs with 720p, but they are usually lower quality TVs with the smallest screen sizes. Probably just fine for TVs in the kitchen (or bathroom, if you’re THAT guy).
The bottom line – LED TVs are available in both 1080p HD and 4K Ultra HD, but OLED is 4K only.
Experts say that OLED TVs do deliver superior picture quality than typical LED TVs. Only the top-of-the-line LED TVs produce a picture that comes close to OLED and when you compare prices of the top LED models, they are comparable to OLED.
The difference between 4K and 1080p resolutions is more noticeable the bigger the screen gets and the closer you sit. So some TV gurus say 1080p is still a great picture for a lot of viewers and those who don’t want to spend a fortune.
FYI, as with all technology, it’s marching forward to 8k, although that technology is in its infancy and won’t be around any time soon.
A little note about content. You know how when you watch an older show like Seinfeld it looks — for lack of a better word — mushy? Even on an HD TV, the picture quality looks pretty terrible. That’s because it wasn’t filmed in a high-definition format. Today, you’ll hear people talk about 4K content or TV shows and movies filmed in 4K resolution. A few years ago, 4K TV technology was wasted, because the content filmed in 4K was limited. Not anymore. Now there is a lot of 4K content, like the stuff found on Netflix. The content is quickly catching up with the technology.
This number is measured in Hertz (Hz) and refers to how many times per second a picture is refreshed or updated on a TV screen.
The standard used to be 60Hz, but is quickly being replaced by 120Hz. Faster is better when it comes to this spec, because a higher refresh rate reduces motion blur of moving objects. Now one would assume that’s especially great for sports, but experts warn that while you may hear refresh rates above 120Hz, it’s best to ignore them.
There’s tons of info out there on this subject if you’d like to learn more, but personally my head spun with terms like motion blur, frame interpolation, and black frame insertion. In a nutshell, TV experts basically agreed that a higher number than 120Hz is simply marketing at this point.
This stands for High Dynamic Range and refers to a TV’s ability to deliver more colours, enhance contrast, and increase brightness for more life-like images. Almost all mid-range and high-end TVs have HDR now and TV gurus say it’s a good thing.
There are varying levels of HDR quality, as well as different formats like HDR10 and HDR10+, Dolby Vision, and Hybrid Log Gamma. Sounds scary and complicated, but the end result is essentially the same, just at varying degrees of quality and uses. This is where going to a real store and looking at different TV pictures is valuable.
This refers to the difference between the brightest a TV can be and the darkest. More than colour, resolution, or other aspects of picture quality, contrast makes the most difference in picture quality. But manufacturers rarely state contrast ratio numbers anymore and if they do, they often aren’t accurate, so it’s best to read reviews from real people or go by what you see on the screen rather than the number.
It’s still a mystery to me why this is supposedly the most important thing impacting picture quality, yet there is no industry standard to report it to the consumer.
You know that colourful array of holes and stuff, aka inputs and outputs, on the back or side panels of a TV? The HDMI input is the only one of any real concern for the average buyer. It is the standard for connecting sources like streaming devices, gaming consoles, and computers. Experts suggest to look for at least 3 HDMI ports; 4 ports are usually only found on larger, more expensive TVs. Unless you have a lot of gaming consoles, 2-3 ports are probably enough. AND you can buy and add external HDMI ports if you find you need more.
TVs that connect directly to the internet, either by Wi-Fi or Ethernet cable or both, are called Smart TVs. They come with built-in streaming apps like Netflix and Hulu and some even have built-in Google Chromecast features or platforms like Roku TV. You can stream shows and movies, play games, and even surf the web on some models.
Smart TVs are easy to find these days. While these features are convenient, you can get all of the Smart TV features that aren’t in the TV itself with a streaming stick like the Amazon Fire TV stick or Roku stick.
In case you’re not into tech, these sticks are little gadgets that you pop in your TV that can stream TV shows, movies, and music from Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Spotify, and more.
Streaming is a method of transmitting or receiving data like video, over a computer network. It allows playback while new data is being received, so you can watch things live.
Netflix is the original major streaming service for home televisions. A streaming service is an on-demand online entertainment source…
Hold on. Time out. I need to tap the brakes on this article or it’s going to be a Game-of-Thrones-sized book.
Sound is an important consideration because speakers have always been the weak spot in TV technology. As TVs get better, sound has not improved much. It’s been squeezed by thinner and thinner TVs. While separate speakers or a soundbar are not necessary, they can greatly enhance the TV viewing experience.
If you’re like me and are limited on space, a sound bar that has a built-in subwoofer makes sense. A subwoofer is usually a big black box, separate from the speaker itself, that allows for lower frequencies like bass. It’s the thing that puts the super creepy sounds in a horror flick or adds the power to explosions in superhero movies. In other words, it’s the thing that pisses off your neighbours.
The Bottom Line
The two most important factors in a TV’s picture are:
contrast ratio - how bright and dark a TV can get
colour accuracy - how closely colours look like real life
A TV with a greater contrast ratio can look more natural and seem more lifelike even with a lower resolution. So if you are on a budget, a 1080p resolution TV with excellent contrast and colour can beat a 4K resolution TV with average contrast and colour.
Now however, it does seem only budget or small TVs are still being made with a 1080p resolution. So even if you don't want or care about 4k, you may still need to buy 4k if you want the other picture quality features usually only found in higher-end TVs. The good thing for consumers is that these have dropped in price over the last few years.
As you can see, there is a dizzying amount of information out there on TV buying. Picture quality has never been better, screens are bigger, TVs are thinner, and there are more and more extra devices out there.
Here’s a great article to further explain how to choose - 4K vs 1080p 5 reasons to upgrade and 5 reasons to keep the old.
And when you’re actually ready to buy - this is a nifty price comparison tool. When you decide on a particular TV, it’ll find you the lowest price in any store. And it’s free. Check them out here - Shopbrain.
So yes, TV shopping can be stressful, but hopefully this article has demystified some of the terms and trends, so you are better equipped on your TV shopping journey.
Good luck. Remember to stretch and stay hydrated.