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?
Personal preference aside, there are three important factors you need to consider for the best viewing experience:
- TV screen resolution (HD or 4K)
- Size of your room
- 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.
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.
Optimal 4K viewing distance
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.
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 resolutions compared. 8K isn't really in the consumer space right now, but is included as an example of future tech.
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.
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.
- Read our guide to spotting dodgy TV screen quality in stores.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.