If it seems as though televisions have gotten very complicated very fast, it’s not just you. Sometimes smart technology can make us feel, well, dumb. You must contend with a number of abbreviations — LCD, OLED, HDR, HDMI and more — and widely varying price points.
What does it all mean, and why can’t we just go buy a TV? To break it down, we talked to technology experts, a deals guru and an interior design expert — because you shouldn’t need a degree in TV to binge-watch “Stranger Things.”
LCD vs. OLED
Despite the letters that swim before your eyes at the big-box stores, there are basically only two options for TVs: LCD (liquid crystal display) and OLED (organic light-emitting diode).
LCDs (sometimes called “QLED” or “LED LCD”), which illuminate pixels using a central lamp, are generally the most cost-effective. Their picture is improving as manufacturers step up the quality with advances such as quantum dots, which add color and brightness. OLEDs, which use organic material allowing each pixel to light up individually, will always have the better picture — and a higher price to match.
For someone who wants the ultimate movie or sports experience, with brighter brights and darker darks, OLEDs are best. “I have both types of TVs at home,” says Jason Sigritz of Columbus, Ohio, an in-home adviser for Best Buy, “and I catch myself always wanting to watch the OLED.”
“Generally, you can comfortably sit as close as around 100 percent the diagonal measurement of your 4K TV,” says Will Greenwald, PCMag’s home entertainment editor and senior electronics analyst for TVs. “If you’re sitting five feet away, a 55-inch TV is good. Eight feet, maybe 65-inch.” On a media cabinet or console, go for a TV that is slightly smaller than the unit. “For example, a 65-inch TV feels a bit large for a 57-inch console, but looks much more balanced on an 80-inch console,” says Alessandra Wood, vice president of style at Modsy, an interior home design service in San Francisco. For bedrooms, “43 inches is large enough to see from bed but small enough to sit on a dresser without taking up too much space,” she says.
Most TVs sold today that are larger than 40 inches have 4K resolution, which means four times the old standard of 1,080 pixels, or 3,840 by 2,160 pixels, Greenwald says. That’s four times the detail of just a few years ago.
That doesn’t mean all the content you want to watch will be available in 4K, but a 4K TV will “significantly improve” picture quality, Sigritz says. “With a 4K TV, whatever you’re watching — Blu-ray, DVD, streaming content or cable/satellite broadcast — will be much sharper, clearer and better than a standard HD TV due to upscaling technology.”
TVs with 8K resolution are just starting to enter the market, with a resolution four times the number of pixels of 4K (yes, the math is confusing). “They’re strictly for early adopters,” he warns, “and there is no 8K content available for consumers to watch on them yet.” They will be a viable option around 2022.
HDR, or high dynamic range, means the TV can show a wider range of color than older models, “to provide a picture that’s more lifelike,” says Sigritz, who recommends looking for an HDR TV for the best viewing experience. “It’s like we had that eight-pack of crayons and we went up to the 24-pack of crayons.”
Netflix, Amazon Prime and other streaming services are making sure that when they offer 4K content, it’s also in HDR. This is usually called HDR10, which is what movie studios and TV companies have agreed on for the HDR standard. Note, though, that different companies offer enhancements on HDR: Dolby Vision is one (used by Sony, LG and Vizio) and HDR10+ is another (used by Samsung and Panasonic). Although standard HDR sets the light vs. dark for a whole movie, for example, Dolby and HDR10+ allow the light to change by scene — dark scenes are darker and light scenes are lighter, as directors intended — making it more lifelike.
The ideal refresh rate — or rate at which the picture refreshes — depends on the type of content you want to watch, Sigritz says. At the standard rate, the picture is refreshed 60 times per second, or 60 Hertz (Hz). “We want a TV that has 120 Hz as our minimum,” he says. “So that when a football goes flying across the screen, or there’s a car chase in a movie, it’s not blurry and fuzzy.” Some manufacturers are even offering 240 Hz, which is the clearest with motion.
We used to have four or five spaghetti-like cords that would hook up each device, Sigritz says. Now, with HDMI cords, each device has only one cord, “but we want to make sure that we have enough for all of our devices,” he says. Think about how many devices you want to attach to your TV and then count the HDMI ports. Hookup options include: sound bar, streaming box, game system, Blu-ray device, cable box.
Best Buy breaks TVs into three categories: standard, premium and elite, with a standard being a 4K HDR and elite being one of the OLED offerings. “Basically, you can get a great deal for under $1,000, and if you’re willing to really splurge on style and performance, you can expect to spend around $3,000,” PCMag’s Greenwald says. David Dritsas, an electronics retail expert for Chicago-based Brad’s Deals, says there are many good 4K TVs in the $500 range.
When to buy
The best time of year to buy a new TV is the holiday season, from Black Friday through December, Dritsas says. Do your research on the TV you want and the price before looking for sales so you’ll know a good deal when you see it. Another good time is late February and March, he says, because “TV manufacturers start to release new products and discount older models.” The best way to know whether a TV is a good deal? “Look at the picture in person,” he says.
Best Buy’s Sigritz agrees, because not all 4K HDRs are the same. “A 4K TV is kind of like having a V6 engine in your car, but all that means is you have a V6 engine,” he says. “There’s tons of different types, and some are better than others.”
TVs come with tiny speakers, causing well-known phenomenon: We turn up the volume for a quiet scene and then race to find the remote when an explosion blasts. The solution is a sound bar. As TVs got smaller and thinner, it’s almost as if they eventually got so thin that “the speakers fell out and became a sound bar,” Sigritz says. Sound bars bring the dialogue forward, and many will have a subwoofer to help the viewer experience an exciting scene without having to turn up the volume so high the neighbors complain.
“Consider a sound bar or speaker system to supplement your TV audio if you want an immersive viewing experience,” Greenwald says.
Many manufacturers will offer deals when you buy the TV and sound bar at the same time.
Hanging the TV
In general, you want to make sure that the midline of the TV is at your eye line when sitting, Wood advises, unless you’re hanging it above a mantel; in that situation, hang it as you would a piece of art with an even border of wall space around it. For a clean look, make sure there’s an outlet and a cable jack behind the TV. If you need help hanging, many electronics stores offer such services.
Sigritz’s tip: Use a television mount larger than necessary in case you buy a larger TV down the road.
Lastly, a note about keeping others out of your business. “Privacy is always a concern for connected electronics,” Greenwald says. “If you’re watching streaming content, it’s likely being tracked in some way.” How that information is used varies widely, he adds, so have the same awareness as you would any other electronic media consumption, whether you’re using your phone, tablet, computer or game system.
Privacy on connected electronics starts with having a secure password on your WiFi home network.