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Best TVs: Our top picks, plus plain-language explanations of the most important specs and features

Prices are down and quality is up. Here's what's out there and how to shop for a new TV.

Rob Schultz

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What to look for (continued)

Viewing angle: While most TVs look great when viewed head-on, not all look that great when viewed from an angle. So, if you’re planning to host Super Bowl parties or other events where people will watch from oblique angles, make sure you check into this aspect. Anti-glare coatings, as well as the type of LCDs used: IPS (In-Plane Switching), TN (Twisted Nematic), VA (Vertically Aligned), etc., can affect the image when viewed from other than purely perpendicular. 

nanosys 00064 Nanosys

Use a light source with less than a quantum dot’s specific emitting frequency, and you get a pure color directly related to the size of the quantum dot. A layer of these can tremendouslyly increase a TV’s color acuity.

Quantum dots: As noted previously, more and more vendors are using quantum dots to increase color acuity. Quantum dots are tiny re-emitters that produce nearly pure colors in strict correlation to their size. If you want super-accurate color, you want quantum dots.

Backlighting: Two basic types of backlighting are used in LED-backlit LCD TVs: array and edge lit. As previously discussed, every element in an OLED (or micro-LED) panel is its own backlight.

Array backlighting is simply a grid of LEDs placed directly behind the screen. It’s an advanced type of what was once referred to as direct backlighting. Edge lighting, as you’ve probably guessed, places the light source around the edge of the display. The photons emitted by the source are redirected by various means (tunnels, light pipes, reflective materials, et al) to the filter and LCD layers of the display. Edge lighting has generally been relegated to entry-level TVs.

array backlighting Vizio

This image from Vizio illustrates how array backlighting with local dimming can reduce light bleed in darker areas.

Array backlighting produces better blacks than edge lighting, though how much better depends on a number of factors, such as the quality of the LCDs (some leak less light than others), the algorithms used to darken the zones (the individual lights or light groups), and the material being displayed. Array backlighting can also produce significantly more brightness than edge lighting, which comes in handy for HDR.

Mini-LED is the latest development in LED/array backlighting. TCL was first to market with it, but Samsung’s latest TVs also feature the technology. Basically, the LEDs are much smaller, there are far more of them, and they’re placed much closer to the filter and LCD layers, reducing bleed and deepening blacks while simultaneously increasing brightness. It’s not quite OLED, but it’s a lot closer than normal array or edge LED backlighting.

That said, 100,000 backlights doesn’t mean 100,000 dimming zones. Vendors are free to group them as they see fit. We’ve seen anywhere from 600 zones (Samsung’s 55-inch QN90F) to several thousand in TCL’s 8 Series.

While edge lighting is on it’s way out, it does have one advantage. It generally doesn’t suffer the odd artifacts—such as blocking (obvious dark or light squares), moiré, and shimmer—that  array backlighting can produce. 

Screen uniformity: With very bright scenes, cheaper TVs will suffer cloudy areas due to either poor anti-glare coating or uneven backlighting. Poorly designed TVs might show dark areas, generally in the corners, where the backlighting doesn’t reach. These problems have been mitigated the last few years, but they’re still something you should look for—and avoid.

Motion and refresh rate: Vendors like to combine the tricks they use to smooth motion, such as flashing the backlight with the actual hardware refresh rate (the number of times per second that the entire display can be redrawn, typically 60 or 120) to come up with indicative, but confusing terms such as TruMotion, Clear Motion, and so on. 

All things being equal, you have twice as many redraws to play with on a 120Hz set as on a 60Hz set, and motion will nearly always look smoother with a higher refresh rate. Case in point: the best LED-backlit LCD sets all have 120Hz hardware refresh rates. Look for the hardware refresh rate. Or ask; it can be hard to find.

Bit depth: Most TVs these days are 10-bit (10 bits of each color, aka Deep Color), which means they’re capable of rendering just over one billion colors. There are still 8-bit (True Color) sets available, and these produce more than 16 million colors. That sounds like a lot, but you’ll still see banding. A panel with 10-bit color just about eliminates that problem.

Ports and connectivity: At a minimum, your TV should have three or four HDMI ports for connecting disc players, media streamers, and outboard audio gear (via ARC or—better yet—eARC). You can also connect legacy composite and component video equipment using adapters.

These days, HDMI 2.1—with its greater bandwidth, gaming features such as variable refresh rate, and eARC support that can deliver uncompressed surround sound in all its formats—are what you should look for. Gaming consoles can use the 120Hz modes of HDMI 2.1, so at least one port supporting that standard is recommended for gamers. 

Alternatively, many sets still offer optical digital and RCA/analog outputs for connecting older audio equipment, although those connections don’t have the bandwidth required for high-resolution audio such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio. If the TV you want doesn’t offer legacy connections, there are HDMI-to-legacy adapters available for very little cash.

You’ll also need USB ports if you want to connect a keyboard or mouse or play downloaded media from USB drives. Coax is required for an over-the-air antenna, and you’ll find one on any TV that features an integrated tuner. Vizio was making “displays” for a couple of years that didn’t have tuners, but the company added them back when cord-cutting gained traction. If you’re buying a used TV, be aware of that.

lg oled55e8pua rear inputs LG

Pay attention to the type and number of ports. This is only one of two port areas on an LG TV. Many TVs offer ports nearer the side as well, for the sake of easy access.

As nearly all TVs are “smart” (using internet connectivity for browsing, streaming, gaming, and so on), you need a network connection. The majority have both hardwired ethernet and Wi-Fi, but it pays to check.

Bluetooth can be used for peripherals and remotes, but implementations vary. Note that even low-latency Bluetooth has a lag of 40 milliseconds, so while you can connect Bluetooth speakers and/or headphones, you’ll notice a time lapse between lip movements and words. HDMI ARC/eARC, optical, or analog audio outputs are preferable for listening along with video. 

Apps and IQ: Just how “smart” your TV is depends greatly on which operating system it uses. Sony, and some Hisense models, use Android TV; LG uses WebOS, although it also offers the Roku OS to compete with budget-builder TCL; Samsung uses its own proprietary OS. (To give credit where credit is due, all of those operating systems are based on Linux.)

Most of the recent TV operating systems support one or another of the popular digital assistants: Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Samsung Bixby, and so on. If they don’t recognize speech natively (via a mic in the remote), you can usually control them with a smart speaker (Amazon Echo, Google Home, or the like). 

The number and type of apps available varies wildly from one smart TV to the next, with some providing just the essentials for local and networked media playback and browsing, with others support the biggest streaming services (e.g., Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube TV, et al). Smart TVs based on Android TV and Roku tend to have the broadest ecosystems. If there’s something special you’re looking for—HBO Max or Showtime, for instance—make sure it’s there to be had.

At least one IDG employee found Sony’s integrated channel guide to be a key attraction. Some TVs lack this simple, but very handy feature (LG has a strong guide, too). Channel guides are particularly useful for cord-cutters who take advantage of over-the-air television broadcasts.

Remote and interface

While picture quality is king of the shopping criteria, the synergy and efficiency of the remote and user interface (how quickly they get you from point A to point B) can have a great impact on how much you enjoy your TV.

All the operating systems are attractive, but after having lived with them all non-stop for the last few years, I can honestly say that Roku gets my vote as easiest, followed by LG’s WebOS, Android TV, and then Samsung’s Smart Hub. And I rate Roku number one despite Roku not supporting Bluetooth audio gear in favor of their own proprietary stuff—a marketing-driven decision I truly despise. 

magic remote LG

LG’s Magic Remote and interface use a free-moving cursor (the pink plectrum) so you don’t need to step through lists to select things. It’s an absolute joy to use.

As far as the remotes on their own, LG’s Magic Remote is the gold standard, with an honorable mention to the Roku remote. I love the look and feel of Samsung’s One Remote and its clever rocker channel and volume buttons, but too many common functions are off-loaded to the onscreen interface. It requires a lot more clicks than the others.

Then there are always third-party universal remotes if you want something more stylish, efficient, or versatile.

Energy consumption: You know those yellow stickers on the TVs that estimate yearly power consumption? Unless you adjust your set to ECO mode or something similar (which hardly anyone does, because you won’t get the best picture quality), those stats are pure fantasy. Note that 4K UHD sets use more power than 1080p sets, and 8K UHD sets use more power than 4K UHD sets, though not as much more as you might think.  

Everything else: There are a few other factors you’ll want to consider, ranging from I/O breakout boxes, to bezel thickness, to the stand and what it will fit on, to how the TV looks mounted on the wall. But you should shop image first, and then worry about the bells and whistles.

Tips for testing TV picture quality

While I’ve described the features you should look for in a TV, as I said before, image quality is the biggest part of the equation, and that you largely judge with your eyes. That said, there are some handy, cheap, color- and brightness-measuring apps for smartphones these days. Even if they’re not 100-percent accurate, you can compare the results to spot differences.

The questions you should be asking yourself when you judge are:

  • How accurate is the color? Are reds orangish? Is there too much yellow in the green?
  • Is there good contrast between light and dark when next to each other?
  • Do details in dark areas stand out?
  • Are the blacks black, or charcoal gray?
  • How bright are the brightest spots?
  • Is there banding in subtle color transitions, such as sky shots?
  • Is there bleeding from the backlight in dark areas?
  • Is there blooming around bright objects on dark backgrounds? (Some is normal and is created by the fluid in your eyes)
  • Are motion scenes jerky? (Judder)
  • While being panned or moved, do detailed areas shimmer or create ugly patterns? (Shimmer, moiré)
  • Are there cloudy areas on a white screen?

I’m sorry to say it, but even the best TVs will have issues—just fewer of them and less severe. The closest I’ve seen to perfect processing came courtesy of Samsung’s Q900 8K UHD smart TV. As I’ve already said, having all those extra pixels and subpixels to play with apparently helps. 

Again, you’ll also appreciate a 120Hz hardware refresh rate if you can afford it, as well as a faster processor. Vendors are loathe to discuss CPU details, though the better it is, the fancier or higher-ranking the name will be. You can safely assume that the more expensive the TV from a given vendor, the better the image processing will be.

One issue you’ll run into when shopping (unless you’re just going by online reviews and opinions) is that most of the on-TV demos you’ll see running are designed to make that particular TV look good. Or, at the very least—not make it look bad. To accurately assess a TV’s capabilities, you might bring your own material on a USB stick. (It’s what I do.) What material is that? 

For your convenience, we’ve placed several screens for you to download below (right-click on each rectangle and save it as a picture).

Use pure red, green, and blue to test color accuracy.

red IDG

Reds should not appear orangish, or pinkish.

green IDG

Look for too much yellow in the greens.

blue IDG

LED backlights are heavily skewed towards the blue range of the spectrum, so most TVs will do well on this test. This image should not be tinged with any green. 

Blues are nearly always pretty accurate, but look for greens with too much yellow, and reds that are orangish rather than pure red. The black with a dark gray rectangle will reveal light leakage. (The gray is to keep the TV from shutting off the backlight completely.)

black and gray IDG

The dark gray rectangle in the center of this otherwise black image should force the TV to keep its backlight on, so you can pick out light leakage. 

The white image (it’s there, right-click) allows you to look for uneven coatings and dark spots where the backlight coverage is spotty. You’ll most often see that in the corners.

white IDG

Use this solid white image to look for cloudiness or dark areas in corners. You will see some with nearly all LED-backlit LCD TVs, but it should be minimal.

You can search the web for 4K UHD HDR demos, and finding suitable ones, load them on your USB stick. Sony’s Contrast Demos are particularly useful to test blacks and backlighting. Beyond that, highly detailed scenes such as cityscapes, fine patterns, and forest scenes are handy for spotting shimmer and moiré. Quick pans over large patterns and car chases can be good for spotting jerky motion.

YouTube is also a good source for HDR, 4K UHD, and even 8K UHD content to test TVs with. It’s often highly compressed, but generally indicative. There are even “zone counters” for counting the number of zones in the array backlighting. Watch the small white block move along the edge of a black screen and each time it dims (or brightens—your choice) it has traveled over a new zone.

If you really want to go to town, you can buy the Spears & Munsil test disc, though obviously that will require an Ultra HD Blu-ray disc player.

For an even deeper dive into TV terminology, don’t miss our four-part series: TV tech terms demystified

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