How to buy the right TV

By Prasid Banerjee | Updated 9 Sept 2016
How to buy the right TV
  • The TV market is difficult to fathom today, and the choices are many. Here's how to make the right decision.

For many, especially in India, a TV is the first piece of consumer technology they come in contact with. While TV tech hasn't evolved as fast as many other things, buying a TV today is still a pretty tough decision. There's a lot to consider, from price, to resolution, to size, to the interface that a television runs on.

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So, how do you decide which TV you should buy today? Here are some things to keep in mind when buying a television.

Resolution

DON'T buy an HD-ready TV.

That said, when it comes to resolution, bigger isn't always better. Manufacturers today, are pushing 4K TVs to the market, with 1080p TVs taking the second tier, while HDTVs are more or less on their way out. What you should consider first and foremost, though, is what screen size you're looking to buy.

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In our experience, 4K matters only when you're buying a TV that is 50 inch or above. For 42 inch and other televisions, 1080p is all you need to spend on. The resolution of the TV determines the number of pixels on the screen. So, a 4K TV has 8 million pixels, while HDTVs have only 2 million. The number of pixels determine the level of detail a TV can display.

Another rule of thumb is how long you want your TV to last. Unlike smartphones, we don't go buying TVs every year. 4K content is sparse at the moment, but in say the next two years, it should be available more easily. Hence, if you're looking for a TV that'll last you for 5 years or more, a 4K TV is worth buying. You may not get to use its top resolution right now, but your TV will be future proof.

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We don't recommend buying an HD ready TV anymore, unless you're in a real pinch and have a very small room. In general, 1080p (Full HD) are the only TV you should consider in this day and age. Incidentally, that brings us to the next point.

Tip 1: The difference between HD and FHD is much more easy to discern than FHD and UHD. So, buy an UHD TV only if you can afford it and if you want your TV to be future proof.

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Tip 2: Many budget 4K TVs do not upscale content. If you're buying a 4K television, ensure that the TV can upscale content you're playing on it. Upscaling isn't always the answer, but if done right, it can be useful.

Screen Size

As mentioned above, a 4K TV makes sense if it is 50 inch or above. However, a 50 inch TV isn't suited to every living room or bedroom. The minimum viewing distance is very important because the picture can look really bad if you're too close. If you see pixels on the screen, you're sitting too close to the TV.

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The viewing distance determines your field of view. So, to get the most immersive experience from your TV, the right viewing distance is very important. Also, sitting too close to your TV can affect your eyes.

The recommended viewing distance lies somewhere between 1.5-2.5 times the screen size, depending on your personal preference. The following list will help,

Screen Size Viewing Distance
32 inch 4-6 feet
40 inch 5-8 feet
42 inch 5.2-8.75 feet
50 inch 6-10 feet
55 inch 7-11.5 feet
65 inch 8-14 feet

Before spending on a big screen TV, be sure you have the minimum viewing distance needed for it. If your room is too small for a 65-inch TV, it's better to spend on a 50-incher.

Tip: You can sit closer to a UHD TV, than you can with a FHD TV. Hence, UHD TVs allow more wiggle room when it comes to deciding viewing distance. However, we wouldn't recommend going more than 1.5-2 feet of the above mentioned number.

Contrast Ratio

A high contrast ratio is desirable for a good television. However, do not go by the manufacturer's claimed contrast ratio. In the TV market, the claimed contrast ratio is similar to a car's claimed top speed. They can't be achieved, even if the TV truly supports it. Unfortunately, the true contrast ratio can be determined only by proper tests, so TV reviews are your best friends here.

Consequently, if the numbers don't make sense to you. Go to a store, take control of a TV, tune the settings to your liking, and trust your eyes.

The contrast ratio denotes the different between the deepest blacks and the whitest whites. It goes down as the brightness rises, but higher the conteast ratio, better details a TV will produce.

Tip: Have a high quality movie that you're used to watching. Take this to a store and tell them to play it on the TV you're going to buy. This should give you a good idea of the contrast ratio on the TV.

Refresh Rate

When you're done deciding the screen size and resolution you want to buy, your next move is to check the refresh rate on the TV you're choosing. Refresh rate is the number of times an image is displayed on the screen per second. So, a refresh rate of 60 hertz means an image is displayed 60 times per second. For this, faster refresh rates are better. Refresh rates slower than 60 Hz can make your picture look jittery or blurry at times.

However, while you shouldn't buy anything below 60 hertz, you don't always need to go for a 120 Hz TV either. If there's one available in your budget, then definitely go for it, but for most, 60 hertz is enough. Higher refresh rates are especially important for those who intend to use the TV for gaming.

To understand the impact of refresh rates, imagine a Flip Book. The slower you flip the pages, more unnatural the simulation looks. A slower refresh rate on your TV can generate a similar effect, although not as drastically as on a Flip Book.

60Hz rendering

30 Hz rendering

Tip: If your TV says something like "Effective Refresh Rate: 60Hz", stay away from it. A TV with effective refresh rate of 60Hz will most likely have a real refresh rate of 30 Hz. Effective refresh rate refers to techniques manufacturers use for improving refresh rates, and most often they don't work. You need the native refresh rate to be 120 or 60 Hz.

Viewing Angles

This is one thing you'll have to go to the store for. While most manufacturers will promise 176 degree viewing angles, many TVs still lack them. This is all the more important if you're buying budget TVs, and we really recommend checking the viewing angles for yourself, either in stores, or in reviews. Wider the sweet spot for viewing, better it is for when you have friends over.

Tip: Make sure the retailer at the store has taken the TV off its retail mode. In this mode, the brightness etc. are cranked up, and that affects viewing angles. It's best to control the TV yourself, change settings and then check the viewing angles.

Ports

Regular TV watching is dying, and HDMIs and USBs are in. It's important to have the most number of ports possible on your TV. If your TV has only two HDMI ports, then a set-top-box and game console is all you'll be able to connect. Go for the most number of ports you can get, depending on how many devices you aim to connect to the TV.

Further, if you're buying a 4K television, check whether the TV you're buying has HDMI 2.0 ports. You'll need both HDMI 2.0 ports and cables in order to play 4K over HDMI. Also, we do not recommend piracy, but for pirates looking to play 4K via a hard drive, it's important to have USB 3.0 support on both ends.

Smart TV

It seems every TV in the market is a Smart TV nowadays. We consider a TV smart, if it has a functioning operating system running on it. There are three big OSs right now - Samsung's Tizen, Google's Android TV and LG's WebOS. In addition, Panasonic runs its TVs on Firefox OS, while Micromax, Vu etc. try to fork regular Android to form OSs. LeEco's eUI 5-powered TVs are examples of Android forks.

The latter is the worst of the lot, while Android TV, Tizen and WebOS are meant specifically for televisions, and are better. That said, TV OSs still need improvement, and app support is sparse on all of them. In our tests, we've found that Android TV has the most apps, but is slow. On the other hand, Tizen is fast, but with no app support.

While the interface on high-end TVs are sure to evolve soon, it's a different story for budget TVs. When buying on a budget, we'd recommend going for a "dumb" TV over a smart TV, if you can save some money doing so. You can use that extra cash to buy a Chromecast 2, and add smart features to your TV.

LCD, LED and OLED

The panel type is important, but mostly, there are two types of panels in the market right now: LCD and OLED. LED panels are basically LCD panels that use Light Emmitting Diodes (LCDs) to light up the display.

For most, these LED LCDs are all that you will be able to afford. In India, only LG uses OLED panels right now, and they're extremely expensive. However, when money isn't a problem, an OLED TV is what you should go for. LG's OLED TVs are by far the best in the market right now, in terms of picture quality. In OLED technology, each pixel is an organic LED, which can be controlled individually. Hence, OLED TVs can theoretically produce absolute black and the whitest whites, with a contrast ratio of infinity. While the contrast ratio isn't infinity in practice, it's still better than anything else.

When you're buying a LED TV, looks for the terms "local dimming" or "active dimming". This technology dims the LEDs at a particular point of the screen, in order to create better blacks. Local dimming allows better contrast than otherwise.

Also, a full array backlit LED TV is better than buying Edge-lit LEDS. Although the difference has been brought down significantly, when buying online, without trying out a TV, full-array is the safer choice. Local dimmin used to be limited to full array LED TVs once upon a time.

Further, Sony and Samsung use terms like Triluminous Display and Quantum Dots respectively. Both these technologies use a nanocrystal layer between the panel and the LED array to provide a wider colour gamut. This does create better colours, but Samsung tends to apply its own algorithms to oversaturate colours, producing more artificial picture than Sony's TVs. The choice between the two will of course depend on your own preference.

HDR and Dolby Vision

Like OLEDs, HDR TVs are also obscenely expensive right now. Also, HDR content is even more sparse than regular 4K content. The only thing readily available in India right now, is Netflix's top-tier subscription, which allows 4K streaming for some shows. Even for that, you need a stable 24Mbps connection, minimum.

When money isn't a concern, you should definitely look for HDR support on your TV. HDR video ensures the deepest blacks to the whitest whites, thereby improving the overall contrast and picture quality. Unlike many other forms of video, HDR is actually easily discernible too, which is why it is a breakthrough technology for TV makers. Sony, Samsung and LG, all offer HDR compatibility in their top-end TVs right now.

There's another form of HDR known as Dolby Vision. This is Dolby's own take on HDR, meaning it's tougher to pass, and you need Dolby's specialised chip to watch such video. LG's Signature OLED TV supports both HDR and Dolby Vision right now, although, most TVs in India have only HDR support.

Tip: It is worth noting that unlike 4K, your TV can't upscale to HDR. So, if a sales rep tells you a TV can do so, they're lying. Content has to be shot in HDR for it to be watched in HDR.

 

Prasid Banerjee
Trying to explain technology to my parents. Failing miserably.
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