Whether you brave the rows of seemingly identical black boxes at Best Buy or read 100 reviews on Amazon to figure out if the Panasonic really is better than the LG, buying a TV sucks. We’re here to make things a little brighter and sharper. We’re going to help you separate marketing BS from what’s really worth spending your money on. So if you’re shopping for a new TV in 2015, here’s what you should keep in mind.
KNOW THYSELF, AND THY SPACE
You shouldn’t buy a 55-inch flatscreen for a space that will only really support a 42-incher. That much is obvious. But it’s not as simple as buying the biggest TV that your room will accommodate. Don’t forget to consider how far you’ll be sitting from the screen. Sit just a few feet away and that big display feels like an IMAX screen. Sit far across the room from a 32-inch TV and you’ll wish you’d bought bigger. Says The New York Times: “A good rule of thumb is to take the diagonal measurement of the display and multiply it by 1.5. That number will tell you how many inches you should be sitting from the screen.”
THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT QUALITY
Reviewers or salespeople might lose you when they travel on stat-filled tangents about frame rate, refresh rate, motion blur, viewing angle (more on that stuff later). If you just want to buy a television that you’ll love, then forget all that and pay attention to which TVs have the blackest blacks and the truest colors.
Contrast is what you’re really going to notice when you plug in the new set and the hues jump out at you. CNET makes it clear: “It is easily the most important factor in overall picture quality.” The problem is, the metrics that TVs makers provide to measure contrast aren’t particular helpful or comparable to one another. So pay attention to what online reviews say about it, and most importantly, get a look at the sets in real life if you possibly can.
FORGET ABOUT PLASMA
In previous years, you had a tough decision to make about what kind of TV to get. Not anymore: The war is over, and plasma lost. Yes, lots of the experts swooned over plasma, which relied upon small cells filled with ionized gases to produce color. They called it superior because it provided accurate colors that popped, great deep blacks, and allowed for a wide range of viewing angles—meaning you could stand off to the side and Saul Goodman’s mug would still look crystal clear. However, manufacturers could never entirely surmount tech troubles that dogged the TVs, such as screen burn-in, and LED LCDs simply won the marketplace. As a result, most of the last few holdout manufacturers gave up plasma in 2014—only LG still makes a lot of them. If you buy a new TV this year, it’s probably going to be an LED. And that’s fine.
OLED ISN’T WORTH THE PRICE YET
OLED stands for organic light-emitting diode and its currently the top of the line in TV tech. And, damn, OLED sets are fantastic. They offer deeper blacks and higher contrast than ordinary LED LCDs because the pixels can be turned off completely. And they are really, really expensive. If you’re not ready to drop a few thousand on your new set, then forget about it.
As you read through specs on TVs, you’ll be hit with a lot of jargon that can make your eyes glaze over. Here are the most important terms and what they mean to your purchase.
• Local dimming: Selectively dimming a part of the picture to make the darks look darker. LED LCD manufacturers have been developing different local dimming methods for year to combat the fact that these sets, despite their ubiquity, lack the contrast of plasma and OLED TVs. Darker blacks mean better contrast which means a better picture, so if you’re buying an LED (which you probably are), look for this feature.
• Refresh rate: Basically, it means how often your set can refresh the picture (remember, television is a set of still images). 60 Hz, or 60 frames per second, was the standard. More advanced sets can do 120 or 240. When retailers talk about “speed,” this is what they mean. This is less important for people who love movies and TV shows, which are made with a lower frame rate, and more important for people who love video games and sports, which feature frenetic visuals that could cause motion blur in a slower TV. Speaking of which:
• Motion blur: Once particular problem for LED LCDs where moving objects appear streaked or blurred. Newer TVs have ways to correct for this, often taking advantage of the high frame rate to create fake frames (seriously) that make the motion appear smoother. This, however, leads to the dreaded “soap opera effect” when you watch movies on a TV and they look a little too real. Thankfully, you can turn those effects off, so it’s not a feature to really get excited about when buying.
THE BLEEDING EDGE TECH YOU DON’T NEED
Electronics companies tried to make 3D TVs happen again, and again it failed to launch. Curved displays are the hot stuff of tech shows like CES because, well, gadget shows need a hot new thing, not because they make the home viewing experience any better. As for Smart TVs—based on your previous experiences trying to navigate TV menus, do you really expect television manufacturers to have the user interface and operating system nailed down yet? Pass.
TO 4K OR NOT TO 4K
It’s a tricky question. With its stunning 3840 x 2160 picture quality, four times better than 1080p, 4K will become the standard. Displays are finally coming down in price from their outrageous beginnings, and can upscale today’s 1080p movies and TV shows. But there’s still not a lot of actual content in 4K that will make your purchase feel worthwhile.
Wired brings up a bigger point: A TV isn’t just a display anymore. It’s a little more like you’re buying a phone; you’ve got to consider the OS and what it does and doesn’t allow, too. Now that we’re all streaming “House of Cards,” “Game of Thrones,” and most of the other things we (binge-)watch, what matters is making sure your big-ticket TV has licensing deals in place to bring you Netflix and HBO Go. At the moment, this is still totally up in the air.
If you find an affordable 4K TV, buy it. Just don’t get locked in.
ABOUT BRANDS, OR: WHY YOU SHOULD GO AHEAD AND GET A VIZIO
There’s a reason that the folks at The Wirecutter, who spend all their days obsessing over the finer points of consumer electronics, recommend a Vizio as the best affordable option in multiple TV categories. Of the satisfactory brands, it’s the cheapest. There you go. We’ve gone over some of the finer points of TV tech, but the truth is that many if not most shoppers are seeking the least expensive TV that’ll do what they need and not make them feel like they bought a clunker. You could spend more for a great TV, like a Sony. You could spend less for something by a mystery brand. But chances are you’ll end up in the sweet spot of totally acceptable televisions made by the likes of Panasonic, LG, Samsung, and other familiar names. Of these, Vizios are usually the cheapest.
Let’s be clear, though: For all the features and stats that brands brag about to make themselves stand out from the pack, TVs are not a business in which there’s an enormous difference between the best and bottom. Say you’re not a cinephile and you just want a big display that won’t break the bank. Even an off-brand will do 95 percent of what that pricier Samsung will do, and you might not even notice that 5 percent.
THE BEST TIME TO BUY
If you’re TV-hungry now, then you probably can’t wait until Black Friday to brave the deranged crowd in search of deranged deals on displays. The good news is, that darkest of American observances isn’t the only time to get a decent price. Consumer Reports recommends shopping for TVs not only in November and December but also January and March—January because everybody else is too deep in holiday credit card debt to make another big purchase, and March because that’s just before the new models come in.
Lucky you—a brand-new set to watch March Madness, and for a steal.