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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.

smart tv product hub Rob Schultz
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What to look for (continued)

Backlighting: There are two basic types of backlighting used in LED-backlit LCD TVs: array and edge lit. As previously discussed, every element in an OLED (or mLED) 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 other layers of the display. 

array backlighting Vizio

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

Array backlighting generally produces better blacks than edge lighting, though this depends highly on other 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.

Edge lighting tends to bleed more light around, yes, the edges. But it generally doesn’t suffer the odd artifacts, such as blocking (obvious dark or light squares), that poorly implemented array backlighting can. 

High-quality array backlighting is what you want, but edge lighting is fine for any video without a lot of bright spots on dark backgrounds. And that’s actually the vast majority of material.

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

The truth is, all things being equal, you have twice as many redraws to play with on a 120Hz set as on a 60Hz set, and the motion will nearly always look smoother with a fast refresh rate. The best LED-backlit LCD sets all have 120Hz refresh rates.

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). Alternatively, most 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 or DTS HD Master Audio.

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 antennas, and you’ll find one on any TV that features a tuner. Vizio was making “displays” for a couple of years that didn’t have tuners, but this year’s P-Series has re-acquired them.

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, etc) 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. Using HDMI ARC, optical, or analog audio outputs is preferable for video content. 

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. But to give credit where credit is due, all of those operating systems are based on a Linux kernel.

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, 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 supporting the biggest streaming services (e.g., Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and YouTube). Smart TVs based on Android TV and Roku tend to have the broadest ecosystems. If there’s something special you’re looking for—HBO Now or Showtime Now, 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. Most TVs lack this simple, but very handy feature, (LG has a strong guide, too), which is particularly valuable for cord cutters who take advantage of over-the-air television broadcasts.

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.

Everything else: There are a few other factors you’ll want to consider, ranging from remote controls to I/O breakout boxes for ports; from bezel thickness to how the TV will looked mounted on the wall. But those concerns are meaningless if you don’t have a good image. Shop image first, and then worry about the bells and whistles.

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.

That said, LG’s Magic Remote and WebOS interface are the gold standard. Honorable mentions go to Roku, Samsung, and Hisense. That said, I’ve yet to run across anything I couldn’t live with, and there are always third-party universal remotes if you want something more stylish, efficient, or versatile.

How to judge TV picture quality

While I’ve just described the features you should look for in a TV, as I said before, the factors that matter the most are accurate color, contrast, blacks, good peak brightness, backlighting that doesn’t bleed or create halos around things, and high-quality image processing. High-quality image processing means seeing minimal moiré and shimmer during pans, and observing  minimal judder (jerkiness) during action shots. In a digital world, processing is very important. You’ll also appreciate a 120Hz refresh rate if you can afford it.

A major problem when shopping (unless you’re just going by online reviews and opinions) is that most of the on-TV demos you'll see running in the stores 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 need to bring your own material on a USB stick. 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 a lack of 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 allows you to took for uneven coatings and dark spots where the backlight coverage is spotty. You’ll see that in the corners most often.

white IDG

Use the 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 aerial cityscapes, fine patterns, and forest scenes are handy for spotting shimmer and moiré, and quick pans over large patterns are good for spotting jerky motion.

During your evaluations, be aware that there is no perfect TV. Even the best will exhibit some of the defects I’ve told you to look for. It’s the severity that counts.

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

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