Buying a TV? Here’s What You Need to Know

Buying a TV? Here’s What You Need to Know
Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo
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Missed Black Friday/Cyber Monday and the Boxing Day sales, but find yourself needing (or wanting) a new TV?

This guide will go over the important TV specs you should know about before you start your search. By the end of it, you will have all the tools to choose the best TV for the start of footy season, to watch the Winter Olympics or to binge until your heart’s content.

Choosing the right size

When people buy a TV, they tend to focus on the size of the screen. Should they go with 42, 50, 55, 65 inches or larger? It’s an important consideration, but first, think about what will fit in your space. Bigger is usually — but not always — better. Buying an 80-inch TV for a small studio apartment is the equivalent of buying a front-row movie theatre ticket.

Based on guidelines set by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, you should strive for a sitting distance that makes the TV fill at least 30 degrees of your field of vision. For a more movie-like experience, the THX recommends 40 degrees or a minimum of 36 degrees.

But what even is 30 degrees and how do you measure such a thing? Let’s simplify things with a basic rule of thumb: if you’re buying a 1080p TV, the size-to-distance ratio should be about 2x; you can sit closer to 4K TVs without suffering from eye strain so that ratio drops to 1.5x for UHD sets. Some quick and easy maths here: If you’re eyeing a 65-inch 4K TV then your couch should be about eight feet away (65*1.5=97.5 inches, or just over 2.44 m). I threw together a chart (see below) because nobody should force someone to do maths if they don’t have to (and here’s a nifty calculator you can use).

Image: Phillip TracyImage: Phillip Tracy

Now, take out a measuring tape, because you don’t want a TV that doesn’t fit your wall or entertainment centre. Oh right: now is the time to decide whether you want to place your TV on furniture or on the wall using a VESA mount. Wall mounts give you more flexibility and save space but can make ports less accessible, can be tricky to install, and aren’t allowed in some apartments.

Planting a TV on a credenza is easy enough so long as the surface is larger than the width of the legs. One thing to note here: the “size” of a TV — 42, 50, or 55 inches — is the diagonal measurement of the screen, not the entire width of the product. Measure your furniture then check the TV spec to make sure it fits with a few inches of extra space on each side.

Image: Best BuyImage: Best Buy

Some TVs come with adjustable stands. Take this Sony TV, for example. As you can see in the above image, the width of the legs in one position is 73.4 inches apart (the entire width of the TV), but when installed toward the centre of the TV, they are only 24 inches apart, which helps this large set fit on smaller surfaces.

Resolution: 1080p, 4K, or 8K?

The easiest recommendation is also one of the most important. If you’re going to buy a new TV for sport, get one with 4K resolution. Unless you really need to future-proof, 8K TVs are too expensive, and not enough content is being captured at that resolution to benefit from the extra pixels. My advice could change in a few years, but for now, the cheapest 8K options cost about three-four grand and don’t bring considerable image quality upgrades over 4K.

You should also steer clear of 1080p TVs, which are quickly becoming obsolete and don’t cost much less than 4K models.

Image: RokuImage: Roku

Not everything in broadcast or streamed in 4K. But this doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from owning a 4K TV. That’s because 4K, or UHD, TVs must upscale content, or increase the pixel count, to get a lower-resolution 1080p feed to fit on a much higher-res panel.

How good that upscaling looks depends entirely on the TV. This technique is complicated and requires significant processing; in general, more expensive TVs are better at upscaling content, and flagship models get things to look pretty close to native 4K.

High refresh rates

A bright, vivid picture is ruined when fast-moving objects appear choppy. This is why you should buy a TV with a fast refresh rate. Was it that, exactly? A TV’s refresh rate describes how many times per second an individual frame or image can be updated, or refreshed, on the screen.

Refresh rates are expressed in hertz and almost every TV either has a 60Hz or 120Hz rate — that is, they can show 60 or 120 frames every second. The higher the number, the better the TV can keep up with fast-moving objects, like a tennis ball. While crucial when watching sports, high refresh rates are also great for gamers who favour first-person shooters or racing games.

Unfortunately, TV brands have a habit of stretching the truth, and that is certainly the case with the refresh rates advertised on the box. One sneaky approach is to artificially double the refresh rates by adding an extra flicker between each frame. This way, refresh rates of 240Hz can be advertised as “effective refresh rates,” a red flag term that indicates non-native refresh rates.

For now, native 4K TV refresh rates are only 60Hz and 120Hz so ignore anything above those numbers. You should also keep an eye out for marketing terms posing as effective refresh rates, like TruMotion (LG), Motion Rate (Hisense), Clear Motion Rate (Samsung), and Motion Flow XR (Sony).

Inputs and HDMI versions

Every TV comes with HDMI inputs, but they don’t all have the same amount and type. Consider how many devices you’ll need to connect to your TV. These could include game consoles, streaming boxes, computers, soundbars, or Blu-ray players.

Side inputs are more easily accessible than those in the back.  (Photo: Wes Davis/Gizmodo)Side inputs are more easily accessible than those in the back. (Photo: Wes Davis/Gizmodo)

Now, add up how many of those need to be continuously plugged in and that should give you a rough idea of how many HDMI inputs your TV should provide. I would recommend buying a TV with at least four HDMI inputs to avoid unplugging a device to use another. If you’re going to use a soundbar or A/V receiver to enhance your TV’s speakers, make sure to plug those audio systems into an HDMI ARC port, a feature that lets you use a single HDMI port for high-quality input and output audio.

Photo: Wes Davis/GizmodoPhoto: Wes Davis/Gizmodo

This leads us to the unnecessarily confusing process of determining whether your TV has the right HDMI ports. The latest version is HDMI 2.1, but just because a TV says it supports the standard doesn’t mean it supports every feature. In fact, TV makers can claim HDMI 2.1 support so long as their product contains a single HDMI 2.1 feature. Silly, right? Anyway, the spec to look for is the ability to output 4K video at 120Hz. If you own a current-gen console (PS5, Xbox Series X), be sure to read the fine print to ensure the TV you’re considering comes with full HDMI 2.1 support.

What to know about HDR

HDR stands for high-dynamic range, and it delivers brighter highlights, better contrast, and more vivid, realistic colours than panels without the feature. Once again, though, there are some caveats. First, there are many flavours of HDR, and to make things more confusing, these are often combined. Also, to benefit from this feature, you need both an HDR TV and HDR source material.

Image: ViewSonicImage: ViewSonic

We’ll briefly go over the different types of HDR so you can buy a TV that will make you feel as if you’re at SoFi Stadium. HDR10 is a good starting point that now comes standard on every modern TV. It is a significant improvement over SDR (standard definition), but has its limitations. This is where HDR10+, Dolby Vision, and HLG come in. HDR10+ and Dolby Vision are direct rivals — the former is championed by Samsung and the latter has wider support. The two share similar capabilities but some services, like Netflix and Apple TV, support only Dolby Vision (for now).

Hybrid Log-Gamma, or HLG, is only supported by select TVs and was created by the UK’s BBC and Japan’s NHK to enhance SDR broadcast images. This, along with the nascent Advanced HDR by Technicolor standard, aren’t must-have features for your Super Bowl viewing, but you should strongly consider a TV with Dolby Vision or HDR10+ (on top of standard HDR10).

OLED vs. QLED vs. miniLED

The Winter Olympics might be over by the time display technologies can be thoroughly explained, but don’t worry, we’ll keep things simple.

Today, most flagship TVs use either OLED or QLED technology — each of which has its own pros and cons. OLED is widely considered the current leader because these emissive panels don’t use a backlight; instead, each tiny pixel in an OLED screen creates light depending on how much electric current runs through it. In dark scenes, you can cut off current entirely to create perfect black levels, and as a result, OLED screens have “infinite” contrast ratios (the difference between the brightest and darkest a TV can be).

Sony's Bravia XR A80J is our favourite OLED TV. (Photo: Wes Davis/Gizmodo)Sony’s Bravia XR A80J is our favourite OLED TV. (Photo: Wes Davis/Gizmodo)

Along with rich blacks, OLED TVs exhibit vivid colours and don’t suffer from blooming, or when bright spots bleed into dark areas. Unfortunately, OLED panels are susceptible to burn-in, or when an image is permanently retained on the screen. Modern methods ensure burn-in on OLED TVs remains a rare occurrence, but there is always a chance it could ruin your TV (as it did to my first OLED TV). OLED panels are currently made by LG and found in LG, Sony, and Vizion TVs, however, Samsung recently unveiled an enhanced version of OLED called QD-OLED, which is set to rival LG’s forthcoming OLED Evo and OLED EX.

Samsung’s QLED is similar to a standard backlit LED TV but adds a quantum dot layer that enhances the brightness and colours of a picture. While less exciting tech, QLED panels get considerably brighter and don’t suffer from burn-in. Still, if you want the very best picture quality, OLED is generally the way to go.

Image: TCLImage: TCL

Also worth considering are miniLED panels, a relative newcomer to the fight for the best picture quality. The technology became more widely known when Apple used a miniLED display for its latest iPad Pro. As the name suggests, miniLED TVs consist of tiny LEDs (from hundreds of LEDs in a traditional backlit panel to tens of thousands) in 100 or more dimming zones that allow for better control of brightness, dark levels, and contrast. And while they don’t quite meet OLED on picture quality alone, some miniLED TVs get twice as bright as comparable OLED options. As is the case with each of these panel types, there are downsides. Where OLED can suffer from burn-in, miniLED TVs can show blooming.

Unless you’re filthy rich, you can forget about microLED (for now). While some consider microLED TVs the future of television, current models are targeted at the 1 per cent — we’re talking tens of thousands of dollars expensive.

Pick the right OS

Choosing between operating systems is usually a question of Windows versus macOS or perhaps iOS versus Android, but TVs come with their own software, and choosing the right one is crucial. After all, a smart TV’s OS is the portal you navigate to access streaming apps, picture settings, and inputs.

Image: GoogleImage: Google

You shouldn’t have any problems finding your favourite streaming apps on any of these common operating systems, but I recommend doing some quick Google searches of your favourite apps to see which OSes support them. If you love a certain TV but it’s missing apps, don’t worry; you can always connect a Roku Streaming Stick, Chromecast with Google TV, or Apple TV 4K.

Time to buy

To summarise, the best mainstream TVs on the market today have OLED, QLED, or mini-LED panels; 120Hz refresh rates; support for multiple HDR versions; and at least one HDMI 2.1 port with support for 4K, 120Hz video output.

I encourage you to use these tips to find the perfect TV for your needs. As a starting point, some of today’s top models include the Sony A80J, LG C1, and Samsung QN90A Neo — flagship TVs from household names that cost around $3,000 for a 55-inch set. More budget-friendly “value” brands sell TVs, like the TCL 6 Series or Hisense U8G, with many of the same features but at a much lower price.