I bought my beloved television half a decade ago, a (then) impressively thin 32-inch Samsung for around $500. Today, you can buy a 50-inch 4K TV for $500. The real question is: Should you buy a 4K TV at all?
This is the year that 4K TVs aren’t so much an exotic offering from a CES showroom as a sale item you’re sure to trip over on any visit to Best Buy. There are now a ton of 4K TVs on the market, and they’re finally affordable. Even 4K TV content isn’t as impossible to find as it used to be. However, depending on the size of your living room and the demands of your eyeballs, you might get more for your money—and not even notice the visual difference—with a 1080p model.
As I’ve been doing research for a new TV of my own, I’ve picked up a few tips that have made some sense out of the chaos. I’m also going to recommend a few models for different scenarios, including the inevitable situation where you realize that you don’t need a 4K TV and 1080p TVs are wonderfully cheap right now.
Bear with me. We’re in this together.
Shopping for a television is a little bit like shopping for a car. It’s expensive, and it sucks. Sales can be very enticing, especially around this time of year! Don’t settle for a shitty TV because it’s dirt cheap, though. You might get a lemon.
Depending on what you pick, a TV can be a relatively large investment. You might be tempted to spend thousands of dollars on some jacked up curved OLED screen bursting at the seams with smart features like friggin’ Android TV. At the end of the day, though, any relatively new LED LCD screen will get you from the beginning to the end of your favorite buddy comedy. Meanwhile, Plasma TVs generally make everything look better but few companies still make them. And OLED TVs do look amazing, but they will remain amazingly expensive for the foreseeable future.
So what the shit does HDR and Ultra HD and “expanding the color gamut” and all of those jargon-y salesperson words really mean? I’m going to be very honest about what to look for in a new TV, namely the ones with that very buzzworthy 4K logo on the box. When you’re trying to pick your new TV out of the sea of nicely priced LED screens on the market today, you should really focus on the basics: resolution, size, and quality.
You’ve heard it here before but looking for the highest resolution screen is not the trick to buying the best TV. What you really want is the right resolution for you and your space. You might not actually want a 4K TV, regardless of the sale price!
A television earns its 4K Ultra High Definition designation if the screen is at least 3,840-pixels-wide and 2,160-pixels-high. (4K is also known as 2160p.) That means there are four times as many pixels on the screen as a Full HD 1080p television. None of this matters if you’re going to be sitting more than about 10 feet from the screen, however, since the human eye is literally incapable of distinguishing the difference in resolution from that distance.
So, the extra pixels in a 4K TV only offer better resolution if the screen is large (think 60-inches and up) or if you sit really close to the TV (think: five feet). This makes for a difficult proposition when shopping for a new TV, since many of the cheapest 4K screens are all in the 50-inch range. At that size, it’s kind of a toss up whether the improved resolution will matter. Nevertheless, you should get out a measuring tape and check out this guide and this calculator to find out if you’d even notice the sharper picture in your living room.
The resolution question is not a new one. Back when I bought my 720p TV, I figured out that the lower resolution would look the same from where I was sitting as the more expensive 1080p options. And while 4K content is still relatively rare, it’s worth admitting that it will be the standard before long, and pretty much all new TVs will feature 4K screens.
We haven’t arrived at the total 4K takeover yet, but we’re getting closer. The market shift is creating a familiar problem, where all the TV companies want you to buy a new 4K TV so they’re phasing out the older 1080p TVs. (This happened with 720p TVs a few years ago.) That means that if you want all of the hot new features and top quality hardware, you might just have to buy a 4K TV anyways.
But set aside your dreams of owning a smart TV for a second, and focus on what’s important. Regardless of how many pixels you squeeze into the screen, picture quality can vary widely based on three factors: backlighting, refresh rate, and contrast ratio.
Let’s start with backlighting. The vast majority of the reasonably priced TVs on the market are LCD TVs that use LEDs for backlighting. They’re generally just known as LED TVs, not to be confused with the much more expensive and awesome OLED TVs. (Plasma TVs don’t need backlights, but they’re also more or less extinct.)
Many lower-priced LED TVs are edge-lit, meaning the LEDs are located on the side of the screen. Others are properly back-lit, giving the TV better local dimming features. Local dimming allows certain clusters of LEDs to light up when the picture is brighter in certain spots. This works differently depending on the type of backlighting. Local dimming on edge-lit TVs is usually limited to columns of light, while back-lit TVs can light up very specific sections of the screen, a setup known as “full-array local dimming.” The number of zones will vary by model, but full-array local dimming is what you want.
Now, let’s talk motion. A screen’s refresh rate refers to the number of times the picture updates on the screen per second. This specification is measured in Hertz and will largely determine how the TV deals with motion. Higher refresh rates mean more updates and, presumably, smoother motion.
All TVs must have a refresh rate of at least 60Hz, since that’s what the broadcast standard. However, you’ll see 4K TVs with “effective refresh rates” of 120Hz, 240Hz, or higher. That’s because various manufacturer use computer tricks to cut down on motion blur. These tricks produce the so-called soap opera effect that makes some content be too smooth. So be sure to find the TV’s “actual refresh rate.” (CNET even made a handy guide for the 2015 models.) Realistically speaking, you should look for a TV with an actual refresh rate of 120Hz.
Here’s where the somewhat scientific measurements for screen quality become pseudo-scientific. The term contrast ratio refers to the different between the blackest black and the whitest white on the screen. Since this affects every color in between, the screen’s contrast ratio plays a major role in picture quality. So the very best TVs will produce really dark blacks and super bright whites but—here’s the rub—there’s no real standard for measuring contrast ratio.
This is why you might see your new TV in person before you buy it. While certain factors like full-array local dimming will improve the screen’s contrast ratio, there’s no silver bullet to perfect settings. Definitely don’t trust anything the manufacturer says, and be mindful that the TVs setup at Best Buy might not be calibrated properly. If you’re eager for a very technical explanation of how contrast ratio works, try this video. Otherwise, use your eyes.
All those semi-confusing words about specifications aside, I need to reiterate my original point. Just because a TV has 4K resolution doesn’t mean it’s a good TV. Resolution is one of many specs, and if you’re sitting about 10-feet away from the TV like a normal person, you might not even notice the difference.
There’s another wrinkle worth considering as well. If you plan on streaming movies and shows to your TV over wifi, you’re going to need a pretty fast wifi connection for 4K content. Netflix, for instance, requires 25Mbps. That kind of speed is pretty standard if you’re hardwired into an ethernet connection, but wifi tends to be slower. Even if your connection is fast enough for 4K streaming, however, the image quality might still be degraded. You can tweak the settings, but you’ll still need to buy or download the Ultra HD file to ensure you’re getting the quality you paid for.
Let me circle back to my own quest for a new TV for a quick second. I’m considering buying something in the 50-inch range to put in my small living room. The couch is around 10-feet away from where I want to mount the TV, so it’s really a toss up in terms of how much I’d enjoy the benefits of 4K. Nevertheless, I’m planning on moving into a bigger space soon, so that calculus could soon change.
I’ve also figured out that there are a few things I don’t care about. I don’t care about sound. TVs are so slim now, none of them have good speakers. Getting a soundbar or some other setup seems like a must. I don’t care about high dynamic range (HDR) or 3D or OLED or curved screens or Android TV because those features tend to appear on TVs that cost more than I want to spend. Also, smart TV features are sort of silly anyways, since set top boxes are so good and so cheap.
Those qualifications narrow the search nicely. I compiled a list of about 15 models ranging in price from $500 to $1,300. Realistically, I don’t want to spend more than $700. And I’m thinking very seriously of ditching the 4K idea altogether in favor of a cheaper and possibly more feature-rich 1080p. Here are my top three picks.
Yes, VIZIO. The cheap brand your dad bought you to take to college ten years ago is now making some really terrific TVs, and the M-Series is especially terrific. This 4K screen features full-array local dimming, and VIZIO even reveals that you get 32 dimmable zones. The actual refresh rate is 120Hz for models 60-inches and larger. And the inclusion of basic apps like Netflix are a bonus, though I’ll probably still use a couple set-top boxes thanks to the TV’s luxurious offering of five HDMI ports.
Amazon will sell me a 55-inch M-Series for just $800. It’s $850 plus shipping for non-Prime members. (The 60-inch isn’t worth the extra money to me.) Best Buy has the same 55-inch TV on sale for $700.
There’s something terribly tempting about LG’s cheapest line of 4K TVs. They seem to be on sale everywhere and slightly nicer on the outside. While the price is nice, I’m a little wary of this model. LG is famous for its absurd curved OLED screens, so it seems like they might be banking on the brand and offering a crumby budget edition. The spec sheet for LG’s entry-level 4K TV is impressive enough, though. I just need to spend more time looking at it.
That’s not a 4K TV! But it is a really good 1080p TV with everything I want for a really great price. The effective refresh rate is 120Hz, though all of Samsung’s 2015 have an actual refresh rate of half the advertised number. It’s properly backlit, has wifi, four HDMI ports, and a nice clean design. Plus I guess I feel kind of loyal to Samsung since I’ve loved my old 720p TV so much.
Amazon Prime price on a 55-inch model is a cool $700, right now, though I might settle for a 50-inch. Best Buy is offering a comparable 4K model for an enticing $800 sale price. I’d want to see them side-by-side before making a decision.
I’ve seen all of the TVs listed above in person, but I need to see them again before I buy one. In fact, I plan on loitering around these things for a solid hour before I part with the better part of a grand. At the end of the day, this new TV will become one of my most expensive and most used gadgets. I want to do this right.
But do you want to know what I’m really thinking? I’m leaning towards the VIZIO M-Series. The local dimming stuff is really cool, and I like how VIZIO seems more transparent about how its technology works than other manufacturers. Again, I need to spend a little more time staring at screens before I decide to buy one, and you should, too.
GIF by Sam Woolley