How to buy the best TV
Whether you want Netflix's latest streaming shows, the footy in HD sports or even a movie blockbuster on a 4K Blu-ray, here's how to find the right TV for you.
How to buy an LCD or OLED TV
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:
- The resolution of your TV's screen (HD or 4K)
- The size of your room
- How far you generally like to sit from the screen
Best screen size for a high definition (HD) TV
HD viewing distance.
- 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, you'll need to 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.
- Standard definition video can look average or poor on an HD screen, as it was not designed for giant TVs. This issue is more obvious if you have a large TV in a small room as you'll be close enough to notice imperfections.
Best screen size for an ultra-high definition TV (UHD aka 4K)
4K viewing distance.
- 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.
- 4K content will look good on most large screens.
- But you will still need to sit around two metres away from the screen (minimum) to get the most out of 4K.
4K TV has a resolution of 3840 x 2160, which packs 8.3 million pixels into a screen. That's four times more pixels than in a full HD television. Retailers also call it ultra-high definition or UHD for short.
While it isn't a necessity, you will benefit from 4K if:
- You're buying a large television. The full benefit of 4K isn't really evident until you get around a 50-inch screen or larger. On smaller TVs (under 40 inches) it's difficult to see the difference between HD and 4K.
- You subscribe to a streaming service (Netflix, Stan, Amazon Prime etc.). Each has thrown support behind 4K, with plenty of new and upcoming content in UHD.
- You have a 4K UHD player and compatible discs. These are different to DVD and Blu-ray discs. Check the packaging before you buy.
- You own a PS4 Pro, Xbox One X or high-end PC. These support 4K gaming with the Microsoft Xbox One X also supporting 4K HDR video on Blu-ray disc.
If you want to get the most out of your 4K TV and player, make sure you buy 4K UltraHD discs such as the one pictured here. These will not work in a standard DVD or Blu-ray player.
If you have a 4K TV, you'll want to watch movies and TV shows that have been optimised for 4K. Content that hasn't been optimised will still work on your 4K TV, but it won't look any better.
More pixels don't make 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 How do I pick a TV with good picture quality? 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.
A connected smart TV has many advantages, including:
- Streaming media from your computer to your TV over your home network. Most smart TVs use DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance protocol) to connect.
- Some smart TVs also let you connect via other protocols such as the Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL), which makes a direct connection with your smartphone, and 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.
- Apps (Netflix, Stan, ABC iView etc.) can be downloaded 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.
- Security and system updates can be downloaded to improve the TV's features and performance.
How to choose the best smart TV
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.
Ask the salesperson what apps are available and to show you the onscreen menus. Ideally, these features will be easy to use and understand. 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.
Smart TVs that connect the whole home
The latest Smart TVs not only deliver access to online services but can also control other devices in your home and deliver information on anything from the weather to your banking details. Stronger links with voice assistant technology from Google and Amazon mean that TVs can also become the hub of your Smart Home.
These simple, in-store steps can help you separate top TVs from terrible models:
- View from all angles: As you move sideways from the centre of the screen, most TVs will lose some colour and contrast. Stand in the middle of the screen at your normal viewing distance and then take a few steps sideways. If the picture degrades too much, keep moving till you find a screen that does a better job.
- Look for natural skin tones: Observe textures on a person in a studio setting, such as a news presenter. Beware overall colour contamination such as a greenish or yellow tint that can't be removed by adjusting the controls.
- Cycle through all the 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.
65cm TV example
Walk into a tech store, and you'll be bombarded with a cornucopia of letters that determine the TV screen type.
LCD vs OLED – which is better?
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.
- An LCD (liquid-crystal display) screen needs a light source behind it, which will either be CCFL (cold cathode fluorescent lamp) or LED (light-emitting diode) technology.
- CCFL technology still exists but it's older and is being replaced by LEDs. LED-lit TVs cost more at the outset, but are cheaper to run because the lights have a relatively lower power usage.
- Some manufacturers and retailers will have you believe that LED is a completely different technology to LCD, but it's just a marketing ploy.
- OLED (organic light emitting diode) TVs can produce very good colour and contrast – better than most LED equivalents.
- They're still relatively expensive, but dropping in price as the technology has been available in the market for several years.
- While several brands sell OLED TVs, the actual panels are manufactured by LG across the board. This means the technology is the same. It all comes down to how each manufacturer utilises it.
- OLED TVs also use LEDs, but unlike LCD TVs, which must be backlit, OLEDs have millions of LEDs with the lighting component integrated into the pixel.
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).
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.