TV Buying Guide: tips on how to buy the one you want

By: Ted Kritsonis

December 16, 2014

woman-shopping-for-a-tvBuying a TV can be equally exciting and frustrating, mainly because you like that you’re getting something new, but unsure which one you should actually go with. It’s a familiar pattern, especially with the confusing array of choices and features hurled at you as a consumer. We wade through the noise and offer some helpful advice on how to buy the TV you’re actually looking for.

Specs might indicate there’s a pecking order, and that you should always aim for as high as you can on the totem pole. That’s not necessarily true, and what might be good for someone else may not be ideal for your needs and wants. So, with that said, here’s a breakdown for your approach.

Specs don’t tell the whole story
You might seem impressed when you read terms like 240Hz, Smart TV and various other acronyms that sound sophisticated, but these may not be practical for your needs. For example, 60Hz, 120Hz and 240Hz refers to the refresh rate of what’s playing on the screen. If you’re not an avid gamer, 120Hz is perfectly fine. If you already have, or plan to have, a Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast or other streaming box, a TV’s smart Internet-connected features will probably sit idly most of the time. With the notable exception of LG’s webOS, smart TV interfaces and features are mediocre and cumbersome.

If you have no desire to watch anything in 3D, do a little research or ask a salesperson if there’s a version of the same TV without that feature. Some manufacturers wouldn’t, but others would, and the difference could certainly save you some money.

Also, don’t be taken in so much with the fancy names given to the picture quality of each manufacturer. Your eyes can tell when something looks off, and you should sometimes trust your instincts. All of the top brands make excellent TVs, and some, like Sharp, Sony and Vizio have been consistently good across their respective lineups for years. Samsung and LG offer a wider variety, sometimes two or three variants of the same model.

If you’re putting your TV in a brighter room, avoiding a glossy screen is usually best to keep reflections at bay. In darker settings, glossy screens tend to be better at showing deeper blacks and shadows.

Picture quality is the hardest part of TV buying because the setup in a store isn’t a true representation of your own home setup. Not to mention it’s very subjective. What may look good in your eyes may not in someone else’s.

Young couple in consumer electronics store

Size matters
More often than not, you’re probably going bigger when buying a new TV, and the challenge is in knowing how far you should go with that. You may have had a 42-inch in the living room for the past several years, and figure going as high as 60-or-65-inches would be too much. The physical difference may not be as distinct as you might think. Part of the reason for that is because the bezels around the actual screens have continued to get shorter over the years, making a current 65-inch TV almost look like it has the same footprint as a 52-inch from five years ago.

The size you go with also matters when it comes to placement. Are you standing it up on an entertainment unit or mounting it on a wall? Heavier TVs on condo walls that have metal studs may require extra support. Houses have wooden studs, and those are far more capable of handling the weight of both the TV and wall mount. Make sure you’ve assessed the height, weight and width of the TV in relation to where you want to put it. Then measure the viewing distance. A 70-inch at a viewing distance of just six feet might not make sense, but a 65-inch at 8-10 feet certainly works.

Of course, price is going to be a factor, but if you can go bigger without having to splurge much more for it, it’s probably worth doing. You likely don’t want to be one of those consumers lamenting not having gone bigger once you’ve set up your new TV.

Deciphering the technologies
LCD, LED, OLED, 4K — the different acronyms and standards can be downright maddening to understand, so here’s the gist. LCD, LED and 4K are all really the same technology. The difference between what is marketed as an “LCD TV” and “LED TV” is that the latter has more dynamic backlighting, meaning that the back panel lighting up the screen has rows of LED lights that flicker and dim according to what you’re watching. It improves the colour saturation and black levels, and is generally more energy-efficient.

4K Ultra HD is essentially the same technology on the backend, except the screen resolution is four times that of 1080p HD. That’s over eight million pixels compared to two million. It does translate into a better quality image, though the effect is more pronounced on bigger TVs. If you’re thinking of going the 4K route, bear in mind there is little 4K content available right now (though that should ramp up in 2015). Also, don’t confuse 4K with Ultra HD — they mean the exact same thing.

OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) is a unique technology wherein pixels emit their own light, negating the need for a backlight panel. This allows them to be as thinner than picture frames, and considerably lighter than a same-size LED. The fact each pixel can act independently translates into the best contrast ratio any TV technology can produce. We find this to be the most engaging and engrossing picture quality, but sadly, they are only made in a few sizes and are still very expensive. 4K OLEDs are some of the best TVs ever produced, assuming you have over $10,000 to buy one.

Other nuances to consider
It may seem like a useless tidbit to think about but the location of the ports and connections on the back of the TV may be crucial. If you’re mounting it on a wall, and would prefer that the ports face to your right rather than your left for the sake of reducing wire clutter, you probably wouldn’t consider buying a TV that has them coming out the other side.

Speaking of cables, don’t assume that the cost of an HDMI cable is commensurate with its performance. We’ve seen little difference between cables that are $10 and others that sell for $100. Your priority should be cable length, not whether it’s as good as the one that costs much more. Also, keep in mind that 4K Ultra HD TVs require HDMI 2.0 cables, not the standard 1.3 or 1.4 for 1080p and 3D.

Calibration is also something you should look into. You can try doing it yourself, or have someone do it for you. This can only be done once the TV is in your home and set up, and it can make a considerable difference.

Sound quality is also something you can only really ascertain once the TV is set up. You don’t have to go all out on 5.1-surround sound system if you don’t want to. A good soundbar placed under the TV (or above, if you prefer to mount it that way) can really enhance a TV’s audio capabilities.

And last, but not least, is your budget. If you really want that $4,000 TV, but have a budget for something half that price, save up and wait another 6-12 months to get something that may be better at that time, and closer to the cost of what you wanted. You want a TV that will last you for years, so you should feel good about your purchase.


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