I t’s a strange time to be shopping for a television. The technology is halfway through its evolution from high-definition past to ultra high-definition future (more on that later). For some shoppers, the best strategy may be to wait and see how it all shakes out. But there are also plenty of good reasons to spring for a new set now. Maybe you just upgraded from a cramped apartment to a spacious new home, and your peewee TV seems lost in the living room. Or maybe you’d like a screen in the kitchen to watch those cooking shows. Then again, maybe your 5-year-old set just gave up the ghost and now you have an excuse to get something modern. Our advice is to ignore all the hoopla and focus on finding something that truly fits your needs.
Sometimes the widely hyped “next big thing” in TV tech turns out to be a painful waste of money, which is why a lot of 3D glasses are hibernating in drawers right now. But you rarely regret investing in screen size. If you have the room for it, a mega-television inspires maximum awe for your dollar and showcases your favorite movies, TV shows, and games in all of their high-def glory.
As you’d expect, bigger TVs take a bigger bite out of your budget, especially when the screen gets into the stratosphere of 65 inches and larger. But prices have in fact been falling. You can still spend upward of $3,000 for a loaded flagship model from a major brand, but you’ll also find 60-inch sets with top-notch picture quality starting at about $900. In our latest TV Ratings, which include at least 40 sets with screens 60 inches or larger, more than half cost $1,500 or less.
Of course, “big” is relative. In some rooms, a 70-inch set looks impressive; in others, it just seems menacingly large. But thin-bezel designs and super-slim depths common in many new models make them far less imposing.
When it comes to the right TV size, there are no hard-and-fast rules; personal preference and even visual acuity come into the picture, so to speak. But there are general guidelines. To figure out the size that’s best for you, use one of the many online calculators or apply the following simple guidelines.
With a 1080p set, pretty much standard for high-def resolution right now, measure the distance in feet between your couch and where you’d like to place the TV. Then divide that number by 1.5 and multiply the result by 12 to determine the size of the optimal set in inches (measured diagonally). If you’re going to sit 8 feet from the set, for example, you should shop for a model that’s no bigger than 60 inches.
With UHD TVs, which have higher-resolution screens with more densely packed pixels, you can go even larger.
The goal is to create a comfortable, immersive viewing experience. You don’t want to be so close that you can’t see the whole picture or so far back that you miss the high-def detail you just paid for. Ideally, that Discovery Channel documentary on lions should fill your field of vision.
In terms of screen technology, the decision pretty much has been made for you, which may come as a relief to confused consumers. Manufacturers no longer make plasma sets, and OLED TVs, which combine the deep blacks and unlimited viewing angles of plasma sets with the thinness and energy efficiency of LCD TVs, are prohibitively pricey.
So the average buyer will almost certainly be purchasing an LCD set. Just don’t confuse so-called LED TVs with OLED sets; LED TVs are just LCDs with LED backlights. The downside to LCDs, however, is that many models have fairly narrow viewing angles, so the picture can look washed out or hazy if you’re seated too far to the side of a room instead of directly in front of the screen. Don’t rely on the manufacturer’s viewing-angle claims of 170° or better. Consult our Ratings and spot-check TVs while in a store by stepping off to each side and viewing from above and below the center of the screen to assess the picture quality from various positions.
Giant-screen TVs are great for a living room or basement home theater, but you probably don’t want to shoehorn a 65-inch set into a bedroom or tiny apartment. You can find plenty of TVs at 32 inches and smaller without skimping on features or picture quality.
Start by thinking about what content you’ll be watching. If you’re looking for a bedroom TV for talk shows or nightly reruns of “Seinfeld,” a basic set may do. But if you plan to stream movies and TV shows from Amazon Prime or Netflix, a smart TV with built-in Internet access may be a better choice. Don’t pay too much more for that access, though, because you can add a streaming media player for as little as $35 if your TV has an extra HDMI input.
You can get 1080p on even the smallest screen sizes, but it’s not necessary. Many viewers will be just as happy with a 720p model. At normal viewing distances, you won’t notice the dip in detail and resolution. (But if the TV is doubling as a computer monitor, go with the higher resolution. It will produce clearer, easier-to-read text and more detailed images.)
The viewing angle is just as important with a small TV as a large one, especially when the set isn’t placed directly in front of your bed, chair, or sofa. Most of the smaller models we’ve tested have fairly narrow angles, but there are a few standouts that will let you get a clear view of Jimmy Fallon’s hijinks even if you’re sacked out on the side of the room.
Relatively few TVs this size have 120Hz refresh rates, but don’t sweat it. Here again, it’s hard to detect a difference at normal viewing distances.
Many small TVs will let you down in audio quality. Few in our Ratings do a bang-up job there. But if the dialog is intelligible, even so-so sound from the built-in speakers may be sufficient for newscasts and sitcoms. If you watch a lot of concerts, movies, or action-oriented fare, you may want to consider adding a sound bar speaker. Many of them have Bluetooth, so they can be used to play music from a phone or tablet as well.
Don’t forget about the TV’s connections, too. Smaller sets generally have only one or two HDMI inputs, the most common way to connect Blu-ray players, cable boxes, game systems, and other devices. Make sure your set has enough for all of the high-def sources you use. If it doesn’t, you may need to spend another $30 to $80 on a separate HDMI switcher. You may also want to think about a USB slot for playing songs and displaying photos stored on a flash drive, or a headphone jack for listening to late-night programs when your partner is trying to sleep.
What you get is a good deal: Expect to pay about $230 to $300 for a basic 32-inch set from a major brand and as little as $160 from a lesser-known manufacturer. A smaller set can be had for even less.
You can get a great set of any size without spending a fortune, especially if you forgo some of the bells and whistles that drive up the price. In fact, the secret to choosing a budget TV isn’t deciding what you want, but what you’re willing to give up. Here are a few suggestions:
Stay in the second dimension. Three years ago, 3D was the rage. Now? Not so much. In fact, some manufacturers, including Vizio, don’t even offer 3D-capable sets. Unless you’re a die-hard 3D-movie fan, skip that feature—and the 3D Blu-ray player. That will save you money on 3D glasses, too.
Be fine with flat. Curved screens are another specious trend. Some people find them visually attractive. But our testing shows they do little to enhance picture quality. And when mounted, they don’t sit flat against the wall.
Don’t pay a premium for pixels. Prices for UHD sets continue to drop, but we think most budget-conscious buyers would be just as happy with a 1080p TV. For one thing, when watching from normal distances viewers often have a hard time seeing the greater picture detail that UHD sets provide. You won’t find a lot of native 4K content, either. Many things about UHD sets are still being finalized—read “Before You Buy a UHD TV, Read This”—and they still command a hefty premium over regular HD TVs, although prices will almost certainly fall soon. For now, a top-performing 1080p set is still a smart choice for most people unless you’re buying a huge TV and have a huge budget.
Skip the ‘smart’ set. If you want to keep your spending in check, prioritize picture quality over Internet connectivity. We like smart TVs that can stream video, but that can add $100 or more to the price. By contrast, a streaming media player provides similar functionality at a cost of about $35 to $100.
Save on speed. Some sets have refresh rates of 120Hz to 240Hz, which can help reduce blurring motion during fast scenes. But for many viewers, especially those who don’t watch a lot of sports, a regular 60Hz set is good enough. Our tests have found that some 120Hz models perform no better than 60Hz sets. If you decide you simply can’t live without a fast refresh rate, check the motion-blur test scores in our Ratings and find a model judged at least Good overall.
Count your inputs. Many budget TVs have only one or two HDMI inputs, which can be a major drawback if you have a lot of gear to connect, such as a cable box, Blu-ray player, streaming media player, and game console. We recommend that you choose a model with at least three HDMI inputs unless you’ll be connecting your devices to a home-theater receiver.
—James K. Willcox
This article also appeared in the November 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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