Choosing a TV
By Steve Morris, 26 Nov 2012, last updated 18 May 2015
Choosing the best TV isn't an easy task, especially with manufacturers using as much jargon as possible to try to pull the wool over consumers' eyes. There is no perfect TV, but if you know what to look for, you can avoid the salesman's patter and choose the kind of TV that suits you best.
We've updated our handy guide with the latest trends and developments for 2015, including 4K UHD, HDR and quantum dot technology.
Today's best buy: Sony Bravia KDL-32RE403 from AO.com (£249.00)
Design & looks
The first generation of flatscreen TVs were typically more than 10cm thick. They seemed very futuristic at the time, but by modern standards a TV that thick is considered ugly. The latest design-led TVs can be as slim as 3cm.
Manufacturers understand that most consumers know nothing about TV technology. That's why they put at least as much effort into how a TV looks when its switched off, as when you're watching it. That's because most consumers pick a TV based purely on price and style.
Design is a key differentiator between products, and the golden rule is that the more you spend, the sexier your TV will look. That's to encourage you to spend more. And while a gorgeous-looking ultraslim TV is nice to have, it doesn't mean that it will perform any better than an ugly one or a cheaper one.
In 2014, manufacturers launched a number of curved TVs, especially in larger sizes (50 inches or bigger.) They claimed that curved screens created a more immersive viewing experience. Now call us square, but at S21, we think exactly the opposite. Curved screens make a TV appear smaller, and wreck viewing angles, creating a less immersive viewing experience. Fortunately, in 2015, flat screens seem to be making a comeback.
Generally speaking, a 22 inch TV will suit a bedroom or kitchen. A 32 inch TV is just large enough for a small lounge. Most families will benefit from a 42 inch TV as their primary TV. In 2014, screen sizes of 46 - 48 inches became affordable for the first time, and in 2015, 50 inch screens look set to become popular. Anything bigger than this will require a large space and a large budget.
HD, FHD and UHD
HD (also called 720p) stands for High Definition, and is a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels. FHD (known as 1080p) stands for Full High Definition, and corresponds to 1920 x 1080 pixels. UHD (or 4K) stands for Ultra High Definition, and is 4096 x 2160 pixels.
UHD TVs started to appear in 2014, and in 2015 many mid- to high-range TVs will have UHD resolution. HD 720p will be restricted to the cheapest, smallest models.
Having said that, UHD source material is still very limited. Most TV channels are broadcast at HD, or even standard definition. Blu-Ray doesn't yet support UHD. Online services such as Netflix, Amazon and YouTube are starting to make UHD content available.
So UHD will future-proof your purchase, but isn't a must-have feature yet. In any case, unless you have a particularly large TV (48+ inches), you probably won't be able to tell the difference. For a small TV (32 inches), you might not even be able to tell the difference between 720p and 1080p.
LED vs LCD vs OLED
To understand picture quality, you need to understand the different types of display technologies.
- LED TV's (technically LED-backlit LCD displays) are by far the most popular. They're available in a wide range of sizes and have low power consumption.
- OLED TVs offer better contrast ratios, faster response times and wider viewing angles than LED TVs, but they are expensive and only LG is currently making them.
- LCD TV's are mostly obsolete. That's because they used more power than LED-backlit displays and because it was hard to make them very thin.
- Plasma TVs are largely obsolete now. They tended to be thicker than average and they used more power, but they delivered the best contrast ratios, fastest response times and widest viewing angles.
LED-backlit TVs come in two types:
- Direct LED TVs use LED lights placed directly behind the screen. High-end TVs using direct lighting with local dimming have the best picture quality, as they allow the backlighting to be increased in bright areas of the screen and dimmed in dark areas. On the other hand, direct backlighting without local dimming is used in the cheapest TVs, with the lowest picture quality.
- Edge-lit LED TVs use backlighting placed around the edges of the screen. They can be extremely thin, so they are often used for high-end "designer" TVs, as well as cheaper mid-range models. The downside is that they sometimes have poor contrast ratios and can suffer from uneven illumination across the screen. The result is that darker scenes appear muddy or cloudy.
There's one further complication. All LCD and LED screens come in three kinds, depending on what kind of LCD display technology is used:
- TN (Twisted Nematic) panels are the cheapest. They tend to have low contrast ratios and very poor viewing angles, so you have to sit directly in front of the screen, otherwise there are colour shifts and a washed-out effect. These tend to be used only in the cheapest TVs.
- IPS (In Plane Switching) is a much better type of LCD panel. They have the widest possible viewing angles, plus better contrast ratios. Most LG and Panasonic screens are of this type.
- VA (Vertical Alignment) or PVA screens are probably the best option. They have much better contrast ratios and viewing angles than TN and produce darker blacks than IPS. Most Samsung and Sony screens are of this type.
Another factor to consider is the response time. Slow response times can lead to motion blur, especially when watching sports or playing games. Cheaper TVs with a 50Hz or 100Hz refresh rate can be very poor in this regard, but any TV with a refresh rate of 200 or more should be OK. Generally speaking, VA/PVA screens are faster than IPS screens.
You'll also come across stuff like Samsung's Digital Noise Filter, LG's Triple XD Engine and Sony's Bravia Engine. These are not technical terms, but brand names for the image processing that goes on inside each TV, smoothing out digital noise and upscaling to HD. These are all fairly similar in what they do, so don't be misled into believing that one of these is significantly better than the others.
Quantum dot and HDR
Sony has made TVs with quantum dot technology for several years, under its Triluminos brand, but in 2015, quantum dot technology is being adopted by other manufacturers too.
Quantum dots are semiconductor nanocrystals that are small enough to exhibit quantum behaviour. You probably already knew that. But what do they do in a TV? Simply, quantum dots enhance the colour and brightness of LED-backlit TVs. Quantum dots are going to be big in 2015, and that's a very good thing.
Also new for 2015 is HDR (High Dynamic Range.) We've already seen HDR in digital cameras, and we like the way that it magically makes dark images come alive by drawing out hidden detail in the darker parts of the image and stopping bright areas from becoming too bright and losing their texture. Well, HDR is going to do the same for your TV screen.
HDR is appearing initially on premium TVs that benefit from the brightness of quantum dot technology and local-dimming direct backlighting. Combined with UHD, these will be the best TVs available for the foreseeable future, perhaps until OLED technology becomes mainstream.
Smart TV is another key differentiator that manufacturers are keen to push. That's because Smart TV is much easier to understand than picture quality. It's also a nice feature to have, of course - perhaps an essential one. Smart TV uses Wi-Fi or ethernet cables to connect to the internet, and you can use it to stream movies. You can also use it to access sites like facebook, twitter and youtube, play games and make Skype calls.
Android Smart TV is appearing in 2015 on Sony, Sharp and Philips TVs. This will provide a very familiar user interface to anyone who has used an Android smartphone.
LG uses its own WebOS 2.0 system, and Samsung has adopted the open-source Tizen operating system.
When choosing a Smart TV, look out for quad-core or faster processors, in order to avoid slow responses and hiccups.
3D or not 3D?
3D hasn't quite taken off in the way that many thought it would, but it's a standard feature now in high-end TVs and quite common in the mid range too. You can save money by opting for a TV without this feature, but if you do choose a 3D TV, you'll need to understand the difference between active 3D and passive 3D.
Simply speaking, active 3D uses glasses that flicker in sync with the TV screen. The glasses are expensive, heavy and some people find them uncomfortable. Active 3D is favoured by Samsung and Sony. Passive glasses are cheap and lightweight and are favoured by LG.
If you thought that picture quality was hard to understand, audio quality is just as bad. Read our explanation of audio jargon to learn more.
The good news is that despite the complexity, all modern TVs are essentially the same in that they have stereo speakers, support Dolby Digital and have some kind of virtual 3D surround option. The bad news is that you can't fit decent speakers in a slimline television, so all TVs are pretty rubbish when it comes to audio quality. You'll get fair mid-frequency performance, but all low- and high- frequencies will be lost, leaving films sounding flat, with dialogue sometimes hard to follow.
Any TV you buy will benefit from some kind of extra audio equipment - either a soundbar with virtual 3D sound, or a full 5.1 home cinema system.
All modern TVs come with a built-in Freeview tuner, but look for one that has Freeview HD so you can make the most of your HD Ready TV. Freesat HD is rarer, except in the more expensive sets.
Connectivity may sound boring, but it's important to choose a TV that will connect to all your other audio-visual equipment, otherwise you'll end up feeling foolish.
Any kind of smart TV will include either Wi-Fi or an ethernet connection. What you choose will depend on how you have the internet set up in your house, but remember that if you move house this may change, so it's wise to pick a TV with both options available.
We'd recommend a minimum of 3 HDMI ports, so you can plug in a set-top box, a DVD/Blu-Ray player and a games console. You'll also need to check that there are enough SCART, component, composite, digital audio connections, etc to accommodate whatever equipment you use at home.
Features like DLNA support, USB connections, microSD card slots and smartphone screen mirroring are useful to have.
Don't assume that if you spend more you'll get a better TV. You'll probably get a thinner TV with more features like Smart TV and 3D, but it won't necessarily be better. Read our reviews of individual TVs for the best advice.
Got a question? This is the place to ask it!
Please don't ask a question that has already been asked. Duplicates will be removed.
How does the energy usage table work for televisions?
Asked by John barnett
on 23rd Feb 2017
Reply by S21
on 24th Feb 2017
Televisions are rated from D (least efficient) to A and even A+, A++, or A+++ (most efficient). The rating system doesn't take account of screen size, so a 50-inch A-rated TV will use more energy than a 40-inch A-rated TV. Generally speaking, 4K (UHD) screens consume more power than HD (1080p) screens because they have more pixels.
Please do not use swear words or offensive language, and please, no advertising!
Comment by Alison
on 14th Feb 2017
Now I kno.
Comment by sandy
on 23rd Jan 2016
this was very helpful to me. i was looking at samsung ue40ju6400
not sure now. might go for lg 40uf770v.
Comment by wig
on 14th Nov 2015
Found the above write up very helpful as I'm thinking of buying the UE40JU6400 the only thing that worries me is the colour fading if not central.