Watching new TV models roll out year after year used to be about as exciting as viewing reruns: no surprises. But the snoozefest turned into a thriller over the past couple of years, as manufacturers started introducing a lineup of new technologies that can dramatically improve picture quality. Now that those high-tech features are showing up in more and more of the models lining store shelves, the only problem is that you might feel like you need an engineering degree just to shop for a new TV.
Wander into the television section of an electronics store and you’ll be asked whether you’re looking for a 4K (also known as Ultra HD or UHD) set, an OLED (or organic LED) set, or a good old-fashioned HD model. Oh, and would you like some high dynamic range (HDR) to go with your smart TV?
To help you navigate the new obstacle course of acronyms and other unknowns, we’ve pared down the decision process to just six essential questions:
- Is Bigger Better?
- Is a "Smart TV" a Smart Move?
- Should I Consider a Curved TV?
- Is an OLED TV Worth the Price?
- Is "4K" a Must-Have?
- Would I Like a 3D Television?
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(In the interest of keeping things simple, we’re going to assume that you’re shopping for your home’s main TV—one that might go in a living room or den.) Pick the answers that are right for you and you’ll save time and trouble, whether you’re shopping for a new TV at an electronics store or hunting for bargains online.
Once you’re ready to shop, be sure to refer to our TV buying guide and Ratings of more than 180 sets. Our Ratings are the ultimate indication of picture quality and will also act as a roadmap, guiding you along the surest and swiftest path to your next TV set.
Is Bigger Better?
Yes, if . . . You want to maximize the excitement of every big game and blockbuster movie. Sets with screens as large as 65 inches are now common in both stores and living rooms, and prices for those larger sets, once prohibitively high, have fallen: You can pay as little as $900 for a 65-inch 1080p (or standard HD) set. If you are going for a really big TV, you should consider buying a 4K model—with a regular HD set, you may see individual pixels, especially if you’re sitting close to the screen. (Learn more about 4K programming.)
Not if . . . You’re going to be sitting close to the screen. Avoid buying a monster set if your sofa is just 6 to 8 feet away—otherwise you may have to pan your head back and forth to take in the whole scene. Besides, picture quality is the single most important characteristic of a television (well, maybe next to the price). And getting a large TV doesn’t guarantee great performance—in fact, a bigger screen size might even exaggerate flaws in the picture quality.
Is a Smart TV a Smart Move?
Yes, if . . . You want the most convenient way to watch movies from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon. If that’s the case, a smart TV, which connects to your WiFi network, is an ideal solution. You don’t need to buy any additional doodads; you’ll use just one remote control for doing typical TV stuff like adjusting the volume, switching from cable to streaming services, or checking out program guides. These days it’s easy to find an affordable smart TV: Research firm Gap Intelligence says that about two-thirds of all sets currently being sold have internet capability.
Not if . . . You’re looking for the most flexible way to stream programming to a TV. Instead of buying a smart TV, you can simply add a streaming media player, such as an Apple TV or Roku to any set—you can even keep your current model if you like it. Prices start as low as $35 for a smaller stick-styled player. Some streaming players offer more content and variety than you’d get from a smart TV, and the interface may be easier to navigate. Additionally, streaming players tend to get updated with new and better features more frequently than smart TV platforms do.
Should I Consider a Curved TV?
Yes, if . . . You like the way the TV looks and most viewers will be watching from the sweet spot, directly in front of the screen. Curved screens have been around for a few years, and many people find them a refreshing alternative to flat screens. (You can wall-mount a curved screen TV, but some homeowners find the look to be unappealing.) In any case, a curved screen makes sense if you like to see your television as a piece of sculpture.
Not if . . . You’re expecting it to deliver a better picture. Curved screens are often pitched as delivering a more immersive viewing experience, but our testing shows that curved screens don’t actually improve image quality. In fact, we’ve found that they can introduce a slight geometric distortion for those viewing the set at an angle.
Is an OLED TV Worth the High Price?
Yes, if . . . You want the best picture quality available and have the budget to indulge your fine taste. For the past two years, OLEDs have been at the top of our TV Ratings in the larger screen sizes. These 4K sets offer rich, deep blacks that make most LCD-based sets pale by comparison. Plus, unlike LCD TVs, OLEDs have virtually unlimited viewing angles. That means everyone in the room gets a great picture. So far, only a single manufacturer—LG—offers them, and prices remain high.
Not if . . . You can’t see dropping $4,000 or more on a TV—or if you’ll be placing it in a very well-lit room or one that gets a lot of natural light. LED LCD sets tend to be brighter than OLEDs, so they’re easier to watch in high-glare settings.
Is 4K a Must-Have?
Yes, if . . . You like the idea of a state-of-the-art TV or want to future-proof your purchase. A 4K (or UHD) television has four times as many pixels—the little dots that make up a TV’s picture—as a regular HD set. When a 4K TV plays UHD video, the images will appear a bit sharper, and the edges of any object on the screen will seem smoother. That will be most apparent if you’re watching a big TV—say, 65 inches or more—or sitting particularly close to a smaller set. Nowadays, most good, high-end TVs are 4K models, so if you’re looking for a well-rated set with great picture quality, it will probably be a 4K.
Not if . . . You’re looking to save money or are buying a smaller set. A 4K TV can cost hundreds more than a comparable 1080p (regular HD) television, though the difference in price is narrowing. And most people don’t even see the extra detail in a 4K image if they’re sitting a few feet back from a 40- or 50-inch screen. There’s also still not much 4K content available—though it’s rapidly increasing.
Would I Like a 3D Television?
Yes, if . . . You’re a fan of the 3D genre. Hollywood is still making 3D movies, and a 3D TV—plus a few sets of special glasses—can bring that in-your-face experience into your home. But only a handful of manufacturers, including LG and Sony, now offer 3D as a feature, and only in selected sets. Though there are a decent number of 3D Blu-ray movies for sale, streaming services have pared back their 3D offerings over the past few years. Still, if you buy a 3D-capable television, you’ll be able to stream some 3D movies from services such as Netflix and Vudu.
Not if . . . You’re like most consumers, who think 3D has been more of a bother than a benefit. These days, 3D television is being used as a cautionary tale in the tech industry about pushing out product features that consumers don’t want. When Consumer Reports recently conducted research into what consumers want in a TV, people did want to know whether a television had 3D—but only to avoid buying it in case that feature makes the price higher. Several major TV brands, including Samsung and Vizio, have dropped their 3D models because of a lack of demand. None of that means that you won’t like a 3D television, but it does suggest two things: Most people don’t like wearing funny 3D glasses, and they don’t believe 3D adds much to the cinematic experience.
Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the September 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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