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How to buy the best TV

LCD or OLED? HD or 4K? Our expert guide will help you find the right TV for your budget.

wall of television screens

CHOICE has been testing TVs for almost 50 years. In that time we've learned a lot about what matters, and what's marketing speak. So what should you look for when buying a TV?

What is a smart TV and what can it do

The word "smart" is getting a lot of use with TVs these days and it's constantly changing. This refers to whether it can connect to the internet and home networks, like your computer or smartphone. 

You should go for a smart TV from a top-tier brand, as the smarts in cheaper TVs tend to be poorly implemented. The most important thing is to make sure the TV has the smart functionality that you need.

A connected smart TV can:

  • Stream media from your computer to your TV over your home network.
  • Connect wirelessly using Wi-Fi Direct, where the device makes a one-to-one network connection so you can watch whatever is playing on your smartphone while it remains in your pocket.
  • Use apps like Netflix, Stan, ABC iView etc to download to your smart TV, so you can watch online content without purchasing an additional device such as Apple TV, a games console or Blu-ray player.
  • If you're a Netflix watcher, check to see if there's a dedicated Netflix button on the remote as this will allow you to jump straight to your saved shows.
  • Automatically apply security and system updates to improve the TV's features and performance.

LCD vs OLED screens - which are better? 

Walk into a tech store, and you'll be bombarded with a cornucopia of letters that determine the TV screen type.

If the TV is well made, the LCD or OLED credentials will make very little difference to the quality of the image. There are differences but for the most part they're a good deal less important than the quality of the manufacturer.

Screen resolution here are your options

When you see the term resolution when looking to buy a TV, what does it all mean and why should you care?

A TV's resolution is defined by the number of picture elements or pixels on the screen with a figure to show how many pixels across the screen and from top to bottom. So 1920 x 1080 is an indication of resolution for a TV where there are 1920 horizontal pixels and 1080 vertical pixels. Basically, the higher the resolution, the less likely you will see any dots on the screen when watching a movie. 

SD or standard definition resolution is what you would have watched in the 90s up until the early 2000s when HD started to appear.

HD or High Definition TVs

UHD (Ultra High Definition) and 4K TVs

4K TV has a resolution of 3840 x 2160 or four times the resolution of a full HD television. Retailers also call it ultra-high definition or UHD for short but as far as you should be concerned, it's the same thing.

You will benefit from 4K if you:

  • Buy a large television. The full benefit of 4K isn't really evident until you get a 55-inch screen or larger. On smaller TVs (under 50 inches) it's difficult to see the difference between HD and 4K. 
  • Subscribe to a streaming service (Netflix, Stan, Amazon Prime etc.). Each has 4K content, with more new shows and movies arriving every week.
  • Use a 4K UHD player and compatible discs. These are different to DVD and Blu-ray discs. Check the packaging before you buy.
  • Own a PS4 Pro, Xbox One X or high-end PC. The Sony PS4 supports 4K gaming while the Microsoft Xbox One X also supports 4K HDR video on Blu-ray disc.

Extra pixels may not mean a better picture

Bear in mind that paying for more pixels doesn't guarantee a better picture. More pixels may actually make it harder for the TV's picture processor to deliver a good image.

Colour accuracy, smooth transitions between colours, and blacks that don't look muddy or lose detail are far more important (see our Picture Quality section below). 

TV screen size guide

Personal preference aside, there are three important factors you need to consider for the best viewing experience: 

  1. TV screen resolution (HD or 4K)
  2. Size of your room
  3. How far you like to sit from the screen

Best screen size for a high definition (HD) TV

A 127cm (50") high-definition (HD) TV (1920 x 1080 pixels) will look fine at a viewing distance of two metres, for example.

If you want to sit closer, get a smaller TV to avoid seeing the pixels (dots) that make up the screen. A bigger TV means you'll have to sit further away.

resolution_chart

TV resolutions compared. 8K isn't really in the consumer space right now, but it will become more common in future years.

What-size-TV-should-I-buy

HD TV watching guide

Best screen size for an ultra-high definition (UHD) or 4K TV

4K TVs have a much higher resolution (i.e. more pixels on the screen) than HD. This means you can have a large TV in a small room and sit closer to the screen before seeing the individual pixels.

Generally, sitting around two metres away from the screen will give you the best viewing experience.

Want a big screen larger than 100-inches? You might consider a projector. See our projector reviews.

What-size-TV-should-I-buy-4K-distance

Optimal 4K viewing distance

How to get the best picture quality

Here's our tips for judging picture quality in-store:

  • Viewing angle: As you move sideways from the centre of the screen, some TVs will lose colour and contrast. If the picture degrades too much when you move away from the centre of the screen, look for another model.
  • Natural skin tones: Observe textures on a person in a studio setting, such as a news presenter. Watch out for overall colour contamination such as a greenish or yellow tint that can't be removed by adjusting the controls.
  • Cycle through picture mode settings: Check out dynamic, standard, normal or vivid in the store, as this may change the picture quality markedly.

Remember, most stores have the TVs at their brightest and most saturated colour settings to get your attention. When the TV is delivered it'll be in standard or normal setting and won't be as bright.

High-dynamic range (aka HDR)

According to the TV companies, this technology expands the TVs colour palette, by displaying high levels of contrast between bright and dark colour. Almost all 4K TVs support HDR, and you'll find plenty of HDR compatible movies and TV shows on disc and via streaming services.

Getting the best out of dark scenes on a regular TV

While we can't all go out and buy a 65-inch OLED TV, there are a few things you can do with your TV to see enough detail in shows that have a lot of dark scenes (think Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Stranger Things and basically any similar genre series). 

Use the TV menu to take your picture settings back to defaults

  • First try out some of the TV maker's suggestions – CinemaMovie – and see if this does the trick. 
  • Some of the latest TVs also have a 'HDR effect' mode where it attempts to enhance the dynamic range of the picture to reveal more detail in dark areas of a scene. 
  • Then check on a challenging scene on the show and pause it so you can see the changes in action. 

When you buy your TV, ask the sales person if HDR is on by default, or whether you need to activate it. Some brands require you to turn it on for each HDMI port. Once activated, it should automatically switch on and off when you switch between HDR and non-HDR video and games.

Try adjusting the settings yourself

  • You'll probably need to try a few times to get the picture right.
  • Once you change these settings you'll still need to change them back to watch other styles of TV show.
  • Play with the Brightness setting and raise the brightness level to see if you can get more detail in the scene without washing out the rest of the picture.
  • Raise the settings in small increments and keep an eye on the whole scene.
  • Next try the Backlight setting, and finally Contrast to help bring out the subject more.
  • It will probably still be hard to see a difference on an episode like The Long Night, more than on a show with more areas of dark and shade.
  • The last resort is to adjust Colour or Colour Temperature settings. You may find this doesn't help much on an episode like The Long Night because the colour range available to help bring out the subjects is limited.

What about plasma screens?

Manufacturers have stopped making plasma TVs and we don't recommend you invest in one even if you find it for a bargain. They're large, heavy, bulky and can suffer from burning (when an image becomes permanently imprinted on the screen).

How to get the best sound quality

TV speakers have improved over the years, but they rarely sound as good as a soundbar or anything like a home cinema. So if you want to stick with the speakers in your next TV, listen out for these indicators when when you go shopping in store:

Good sound

  • Balance: you don't want certain elements of the mix, such a bass, to be too prominent.
  • Clear dialogue
  • Warm, resonant, full-sounding bass.
  • Clear and punchy details for short and high-frequency sounds like gunshots.
  • A sense of separation between the left and right speakers.
  • Presence, which is the feeling that you're in the same room as the action you're seeing on screen thanks to audio. This can also make the audio feel exciting.
  • Good dynamics. This is the difference between soft and loud sounds. It helps keep audio frequencies separate so it sounds more exciting and less like a brick wall. E.g. footsteps shouldn't be the same volume as an explosion.

Bad sound

  • Unbalanced (see good point)
  • Overly boomy bass. Too much low-end can muffle or muddy up the mix.
  • Tinny, hollow, harsh or retrenched sounds. The feeling that something is missing, lacks body or sounds like it's coming down a phone line.
  • Brick-walling, where the audio sounds like it's at the same volume so it seems flat, lacking detail and nuance.
  • Hiss and distortion.
  • Case rumble. This occurs when the case shakes because of the speaker's bass. It's distracting and changes the tone of the audio and also the area we really penalize the TV in our listening test as it's not something you can fix in the TV settings.

Keep an ear out for brick-walling when you're shopping for a TV. Retailers love to put on loud, punchy audio because it has an immediate impact that sounds impressive. But loud doesn't always mean good and after a while, you'll find that movies and shows sound rather boring due to the flat audio.

Using soundbars or external speakers

Soundbars are a popular option for consumers that want to get better sound from their TV but don't have the interest, budget or time to build a full-blown home cinema. They're designed to simulate the effects of surround sound setups in a much smaller package that's generally cheaper as well. But like the move from TVs to soundbars, with few exceptions an external speaker setup and a reasonable amplifier will almost always sound better.

Configurations for both options include:

  • 2.0: Stereo surround or left and right channel.
  • 2.1: Stereo surround plus a subwoofer.
  • 5.1: Five speakers and one subwoofer to create the surround sound effect.
  • Dolby Atmos/DTS-X: Object-based surround sound which is designed to make you feel like you're in the location that's on screen. It can specifically place the objects in reference to their position on screen, which is a step up from the general surround sound in a 5.1 setup.

How to improve audio and save money

A home cinema can be expensive, but it doesn't have to break the bank. Technology and codecs (e.g. Dolby and DTS) don't change all that often, and much of the same tech that was around a decade or more ago is still in use today.

Say you only want to set up a 5.1 surround sound system. In this case you won't need a high-end Atmos/DTS-X enabled amplifier. A second-hand unit from five or even ten years ago will work and sound just as good unless you're a hardcore audiophile.

Just bear in mind that you won't be able to play 4K video through the amplifier unless it's a recent model. However, you can run one cable into your TV and another into your receiver to split the signal and send 4K video directly to the TV.

Key features to look for

Connecting devices

Blu-ray/DVD players, media players (e.g. Apple TV) and AV receivers or computers all need to be connected in one way or another. You'll need to decide the connection type (usually HDMI, an all-digital connection for both sound and video in the one cable) and count the number of connections you'll need.

New TVs typically only use HDMI. If you want to connect older equipment, you'll need to buy converters that support classic connectors such as component and S-video (the kind of ports you can find on your VHS player). Converters are available in most electronics stores and online. Simply search for, or ask about, the conversion you require (e.g. component to HDMI converter).

Recording shows and movies

Many TVs will now record shows. However, most TVs will only do it for the program they're tuned to. Very few TVs have two tuners, allowing you to record one channel while you watch another. If you think one tuner is going to be enough for you it could help reduce the number of boxes (and remote controls) in your TV room. 

Audio quality

Speaker performance is often overlooked when buying a television. While sound from the latest thin TVs is improving, you'll generally get a better sound by adding a soundbar. We've introduced a listening panel to our testing to get a better idea of the overall sound quality a TV can deliver.

Wall-mount or table top: which is best? 

  • Sitting the TV on a table top is easier, but make sure it's stable and preferably secured to the base, so small children can't pull it over.
  • Accessing connections and keeping cords hidden can be a headache if you're wall-mounting.
  • Often viewers are sitting below the set when it's wall-mounted, which can be an uncomfortable and inferior viewing experience.

Remote control

Make sure the more commonly used buttons (volume, channel selector, standby and mute) can be located at a glance. If you have young children or an absentminded partner and your remote is likely to go missing, choose a TV with easily accessible controls on the TV itself.

Model number

The TV's model number tells you what year it was made – if you know how to decipher each brand's product code. Having this information up your sleeve means you can look for the latest model, or drive a hard bargain on an older model. Read more in our article How to bag a bargain TV.

Passing fads and marketing gimmicks

Is it worth getting a 3D TV?

No, 3D is as dead as disco. 3D seemed like the next big thing following Avatar's release in the cinemas over a decade ago. However despite TV companies trying to make it a big deal, TV viewers weren't taking the bait and no new models support 3D.

Most 2016 and some 2017 TV models are 3D-compatible. If you're looking for a 3D TV we suggest you look for a passive system (rather than active) because the glasses are lighter, cheaper and they work just as well. However, we don't think you should be making a buying decision based on 3D; rather, look for the best picture for normal HD video.

Does refresh rate (Hz) matter?

Not so much a passing fad as a marketing gimmick, the refresher rate (Hz) is the number of times in a second that the screen is refreshed. Supposedly the higher the number (often expressed in Hz) the smoother the image, particularly with sports.

Unfortunately, this is not entirely true and manufacturers have taken to making up new ways to measure Hz, which just gives them big numbers to put on the box. Ignore the Hz figures and look at the image on the screen.

Is a curved TV screen better?

Some manufacturers claim a curved TV screen correlates to the shape of the human eye, while others simply admit it looks impressive.

What are Freeview and Freeview Plus?

Freeview is simply the brand behind free-to-air TV (i.e. ABC, SBS, Network 9, Channel 10 and so on). It integrates the EPG (electronic program guide), or onscreen program guide, which should be easy to navigate and read.

Most TVs also support Freeview Plus. This adds support for catch-up TV apps such as iView and 7plus, so you watch what you want when you want. 

However, for all this to work you need your smart TV connected to the internet through your home network, as the catch-up TV is delivered to you via streaming video.

How to clean a TV screen

If you don't touch the screen and leave fingerprints behind, there's really no need for anything but the occasional dusting. But there are a few tips to keep your TV in good condition.

Firstly, don't clean the TV while it's on. Turn it off and let it cool down, otherwise you'll have evaporation issues that will leave more streaks than you're removing.

Each week:

  • Wipe dust off the bezel and surrounds with a dry microfibre cloth.
  • Gently buff fingerprints and dust off the screen with a damp microfibre cloth (don't spray water directly on the screen) or an LCD screen cleaning solution.
  • Definitely don't use multipurpose cleaners or anything containing bleach or ammonia, and don't use anything sharp or pointy

Also, check the settings to make sure your TV is set to download firmware updates automatically. If not, turn it on as this is an important security feature. It's worth wiping down the remote with a soft damp cloth once a month as well.

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