Here’s everything you need to know the next time you shop for a new TV
Spoiler: It’s full of buzzwords.
It’s never been more complicated to figure out just what you’re buying when you shop for a new TV. Acronyms abound, as do buzzwords, and many of the companies all have new technologies that are the same but use different names.
In the past, you could almost use pricing segments to figure out what the best TVs were, even if you knew nothing about the technologies involved. That’s no longer possible, as new brands try to take market share away from the big three – Sony, Samsung, and LG.
With 2021’s ranges about to be unveiled at CES, let’s take a look at the terminology and specifications that you should be paying attention to, and those that are just noise.
Currently, all TVs on the market use one of two types of technology in their screens, LED-LCD and OLED. Depending on the manufacturer, LED-LCD could be called by many names, like QLED, NanoCell, or even Mini-LED. OLED is simply OLED, sometimes with other technologies added.
Most TVs on the market use a form of this type of technology, where a LED backlight shines through an LCD layer, to create the image you see. More expensive sets often use a quantum-dot film over the LCD, which improves the color range, accuracy, and vibrancy of the panel, calling it QLED.
While they’re cheaper to manufacture, they come with some drawbacks. Relying on transmissive light from the backlight means it’s hard to reproduce black areas on the content, and you might see light bleed around the edges of the screen. Manufacturers have come up with multiple ways to increase black performance, including local dimming areas, and using larger numbers of smaller LEDs to make up the backlight.
Expect more TVs using Mini-LED to arrive on the market, which use tiny LEDs to create a more uniform backlight across the whole panel, allowing for more control over local dimming and peak brightness. This might be the best fit for price and performance until OLED becomes cheaper, or Micro-LED takes over.
OLED is a very different technology, where the light comes from inside each pixel, so there is no need for a backlight. That means that TVs can be made thinner, and they have “perfect” black areas as they can turn off the pixels completely. The flipside to this is that they can suffer from something called “black crush”, where detail in dark shadows is lost.
Early OLED TV sets had issues with burn-in, where displaying static images on the screen had them permanently etch onto the screen. Rtings did a 9000-hour test with six LG C7 OLED sets and the only TVs that showed burn-in issues were displaying content with static lower-thirds, like sports programming and news channels. That’s an OLED model from 2017 though, and the technology has improved since then.
There should be no real reason that a new OLED will experience burn-in, as manufacturers have also employed tech to mitigate the effects. Those include pixel-shifting, where static content is moved slightly on the screen, with the aim that the same pixels aren’t always under stress, pixel refresher routines that run every so many hours, and reducing brightness on areas of the screen that show static content.
Brightness, viewing angles, and uniformity
Okay, this bit is important, and it’s all to do with things you already know. After all, who knows your living room better than you?
It’s vital for your best viewing experience that you match your TV’s panel with your usage habits, and also the room you’ll be watching it in. Got a room with high ambient light levels? You’ll probably want an LCD, or the newer, QLED models. That’s because LCD based panels can be up to twice the brightness of OLED, making it easier to see in bright environments.
The flip is also true, if you watch TV at night in a dark room mostly, OLED is probably your best bet if you can afford it, as the image quality will be superior. OLED also has better viewing angles than LCD-based TVs, so if you like to have a big group watching TV, or have a huge room, OLED is also your best bet.
None of the current LCD technologies have found a way around this completely. LG’s NanoCell is based on IPS panels, which have wide viewing angles, but suffer from a lack of contrast ratio. TVs like Samsung’s QLED line use VA panels, which suffer from small viewing angles, but the quantum-dot film used, combined with the high contrast ratios of VA mean you get a great picture in the “sweet spot”.
High Dynamic Range (HDR)
High Dynamic Range content is going to be the future of all content, bringing more detail across the spectrum from the darkest darks to the brightest lights. It’s measured in stops, which comes from the video gear that’s used to film the content. Standard Dynamic Range screens have about six stops of range, while new HDR panels can have up to twenty stops.
That increased range means better details in the shadows, highlights that don’t just “blow out” in whiteness, and an overall richer image. The specifications also include higher peak brightness, and a wider color gamut, which also add to the richness of the image on screen. Basically, it all adds up to an image that looks closer to what your eyes see, with some tweaks for cinematic effect.
You’ll want a TV with HDR, especially if you do any gaming on it. The current-gen of consoles, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, both heavily take advantage of HDR content, both in-game and through the various streaming services that they can play.
Now for some confusion. There are multiple HDR “standards”, and none of them are really standard, yet. They all have big names behind them, and it’s too early to tell which version of HDR will become the eventual standard.
That’s not to say you can’t say which is more supported right now, and we’ll go into that a little.
- HDR10: This is the oldest, and most common HDR version right now. Almost every TV on the market will support it, and most new computer monitors as well. If you can see a “High Dynamic Range” sticker on the box, it’ll likely be HDR10 compatible
- Dolby Vision: The next-best supported HDR version, it uses dynamic metadata to give the most accurate image quality in every frame.
- HDR10+: This is Samsung’s spin on HDR10, which also adds dynamic metadata to change the content in every frame. Unlike Dolby Vision, Samsung has made it open, and royalty-free, in the hope that it will find wider market adoption
- Hybrid Log-Gamma (HLG): Created for broadcast use by the BBC and NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, HLG sends both HDR and SDR signals at the same time, so it displays SDR if you have a normal TV, and HDR if your TV can support it.
If you’re looking for a new TV right now, our recommendation is to look for something with Dolby Vision in the specs list. Netflix uses this for almost all of its new content, the Xbox Series X and Series S will support it in 2021, and it has the weight of Dolby behind it.
Other features you might want
Image quality has really improved across all price points recently, with even $600 TV sets able to be compared to ones that cost twice the price. You can’t even assume that paying more will get you better image quality, and in some rare cases, you’ll get less image quality.
What you do get on more expensive TV sets is extra features, that you may want depending on what you watch or do on your TV.
The image quality of any TV is largely affected by the internal image processor. Good ones can turn 720p content into presentable images on a 4K screen, bad ones make things like 24p cinematic content juddery, or make motion in sports look bad. Most cheap TV sets will have some issues here, compared to premium brands like Sony who always perform well in this area.
If you’re a movie buff, you’ll want a set with black frame insertion (BFI), to make motion look smoother while you’re watching your favorite movies.
Connectivity is usually improved once you start climbing into the midrange prices. Almost every TV will have HDMI 2.0 ports now, but you might get fewer on a cheaper TV, important if you want to connect multiple devices.
More expensive TVs should come with the newer HDMI 2.1 standard, and you should make sure they do. Not only is it going to mean your TV will be compatible with other devices for longer, but you’ll get the most out of your next-gen consoles, like the PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X.
Speaking of consoles, you’ll want to make sure your TV panel has a 120 Hz native refresh rate. We bolded this because manufacturers love to fudge the refresh rate figures, with terms like “Motion Rate” which increases the frame rate internally, even though the content is still played on a lower refresh rate panel.
TVs for gaming use also come with variable frame rate tech, in the form of G-Sync or FreeSync. Essentially they sync the frame rate of your TV with the FPS that your source is putting out, making it seem smoother to your eyes.
Audio (or the lack thereof)
With a few worthy exceptions, like LG’s OLED models which use the whole screen as a speaker, the speakers inside any TV are there to be “just enough.” When you’re shopping for a TV, unless you already have a surround-sound setup or soundbar, make sure you budget to add external audio to your purchase.
Even $100 spent here instead of on a more expensive TV will pay dividends immediately. You don’t need Dolby Atmos, or eARC, or anything fancy, just know that almost any soundbar will sound better than the internal speakers.
Your new year’s resolution should be 4K
It’s getting harder and harder to find a TV that’s not 4K or without HDR support, but what about the new 8K TVs? Do you really need that increased pixel count yet?
The answer to that, at least currently, is no. Sure, 8K is a more impressive tech and should correspond to a better image for you to watch. The thing is, just like when 4K TVs first came out, there is almost no content that’s created in 8K, and even the most powerful graphics cards can’t reliably play games at 8K. Movies are still mostly filmed in 4K or lower, and we’re a few years off from the first fully-8K movies.
Even when 8K content is available, buying an 8K TV might not be worth it to some people. The only real benefit to 8K is that you can sit closer to your TV, and still get crisp images that don’t show pixels, like how the high resolution on your smartphone screen means you have to really look to see individual pixels.
Oh, and one last point about content. With Netflix recommending 25Mbps internet speeds for 4K content, imagine the hefty internet speeds you’ll need for 8K, when it’s four times the pixel count, so around four times the data. Now think about your poor data cap, and the jump to 8K starts to make even less sense.
One last thing…
As with almost any electronic device, read the reviews, and watch some YouTube videos. RTINGS is probably the best source of independent, in-depth, fully-tested reviews, and is always our first stop when working on TV content.
While TV showrooms are still a good place to see how your new TV will look (and how the remote looks and feels), they employ some shady tactics to favor some units over others. Only go there after you’ve read a few online reviews and have a shortlist of TVs that you want to see in person. If the display model doesn’t match up with what RTINGS or others have said, it’s possible that the display settings aren’t optimal. Because of that, the only specification that you can really judge in the showroom is the viewing angle.
Just remember, only you know your living room enough to know if that new TV will work for your viewing habits.
- Move over GoT, The Mandalorian was the most-pirated TV show of 2020
- The Apple TV app is coming to Google’s new Chromecast in early 2021
- HBO Max finally makes its way to Amazon Fire TV devices
- Just like my employment, these streaming services may be “not economically viable”
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