Everything you need to know before buying your next television
Buying a new television can be a minefield. Acronyms are the order of the day, served up with a side of competing technologies and an extra helping of wondering if your purchase will keep you future-proofed for a year — or a decade.
After the shift from standard definition to HD, and that brief detour to 3D still being paid off in monthly installments, the ever-widening rollout of Ultra HD, HDR, QLED and Dolby Vision is surely filling consumers with dread.
Thankfully, GearBrain is here to explain the latest TV jargon — so you understand what to look for before your next television purchase.
Resolution and image quality
A quick recap. High Definition, or HD, arrived over a decade ago, starting with a resolution of 720p. Full HD quickly took over, pushing the pixel count up to 1080p. (There was also 1080i, but don't need to worry about that now.)
Full HD still exists — what many broadcasters use to show off their content. Some channels also continue to run in standard definition, as does your DVD player. Blu-ray films are Full HD, as is most content available through online services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Go and iTunes.
Next up? Ultra HD, often shortened to UHD and known as 4K. Some refer to this resolution as 2160p, but very few manufacturers and streaming services use this in marketing material, so it's not a number you need to remember.
Ultra HD content has been available through streaming services like Netflix and Amazon for a couple of years now, but broadcasters have been slower on the uptake. The industry worked itself into a chicken-and-egg problem where broadcasters held off for consumers to buy UHD televisions — while consumers waited on the UHD content before they bought a new TV.
Thankfully, with 4K TV prices falling, and content available through Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and streaming services (for a small additional fee to your monthly subscription), broadcast Ultra HD is expected to hit the US in 2018. Apple's new 4K movie service via the new Apple TV will also help drive demand.
In short, if your next television is going to be your household's main screen, you should absolutely buy one which supports Ultra HD.
But wait, as a TV commercial might say, there's more.
HDR (high dynamic range) is the cherry on top of the Ultra HD cake, but not all UHD screens support it. (Follow?) But here's why it's appealing: HDR offers a wider range of colors, brighter whites and deeper blacks. If a television carries the Ultra HD Premium label, a standard set up by the UHD Alliance, then you know you are getting 4K and true HDR. LG's Super UHD screens and those in Samsung's SUHD range all carry the Ultra HD Premium certificate, for example.
And be aware: Some cheaper manufacturers cheat the system by claiming their screens offer HDR, but in fact are using software to crank up the brightness and saturation in an 'HDR mode' instead of having the processing power to produce true HDR pictures.
Televisions with an 8-bit display often pull this trick, while those with a 10-bit panel can rightly claim to offer true HDR. There isn't much content out there to truly test a 10-bit panel, but this is something worth future-proofing your purchase with when you're in the market. Pay a little extra for 10-bit now and you'll be able to see the best picture quality for years to come.
Finally, there is Dolby Vision. A strain of HDR, Dolby Vision is currently seen as the best of the best when it comes to TV picture quality. Put simply, content with Dolby Vision baked-in will send instructions to the TV screen for every frame of footage. These instructions adjust the screen's brightness, contrast and color performance to make each frame look its absolute best. There is very little Dolby Vision content out there for now, with the 'Minimalism' Netflix series the only example I have seen so far — and that's available with a 4K Netflix subscription.
So, Ultra HD is a must, HDR of any kind is better, a television with a 10-bit panel and able to show HDR 10 footage is better still, and a Dolby Vision-capable screen is the best you can get.
What is OLED?
Regarded by many as the very best in television technology, OLED stands for Organic Light Emitting Diode and produces deeper blacks and more vibrant colors than a regular LED screen. This isn't quality related to resolution, as above, but instead is technology used by the display panel itself.
OLED panels are incredibly thin, as they don't require a backlight system, making them look stunning. However, the prices are high and have only recently fallen below the $2,000 barrier for a 55-inch screen. You can easily spend more than double that if you want something bigger.
But, as OLED becomes slightly more affordable it could soon be usurped by another new technology (and yet another new acronym, for those keeping count). This time it's QLED, which stands for Quantum Dot Light Emitting Diode and is the latest marketing buzzword to be used by Samsung. To rival OLED, quantum dot arrived on the scene in early 2017 and boasts brighter, more vivid colors and deeper blacks — just like OLED, but more so.
If you have your heart set on a Samsung, then QLED will give you the best if you want to spend whatever it takes. But if other brands float your boat, their equally expensive OLED offerings will likely impress you just as much.
What about 3D?
All the rage just a few years ago, 3D has fallen by the wayside and is unlikely to make a comeback any time soon. It turns out, people just don't like wearing plastic glasses to watch TV — or recharging the glasses used with active 3D screens.
3D has become so unpopular that Samsung dropped it from its televisions in 2016, the same year saw Netflix ceased offering 3D movies.
Do curved screens really make a difference?
Manufacturers (especially Samsung) will tell you how curved screens are better as they require less movement from your eyes and less refocusing as content at a screen's edge is the same distance from the viewer as content in the middle.
That might well be true — assuming you sit right in the middle and watch TV on your own. But in reality this claim just doesn't translate into a better viewing experience. Perhaps our brains are wired to prefer curved objects to flat ones. And yes, curved TVs look cool when they are switched off. But the different glare takes some getting used to, with viewing angles reduced. In our opinion, it isn't worth restricting your options in pursuit of a curved TV.
This one is relatively simple: The more HDMI ports the better. Make sure there's an Ethernet port too, for more stable Ultra HD streaming than what's possible over Wi-Fi.
You will also want to include an optical audio output for hooking up a sound system (although HDMI is also an option with many systems), and a USB port for playing content off a thumb stick or portable hard drive.
Additionally, make sure one of the HDMI ports supports ARC. This stands for Audio Return Channel and is a way of connecting a sound bar so that devices plugged into the TV (games console, streaming box etc) send their audio to the sound system and their picture to the TV screen. When many sound bars only have two HDMI inputs, this can be a very helpful feature.
Smart TV apps
We live in a world where televisions are so complex they have their own operating systems. Samsung runs on Tizen, Sony runs on Android and LG uses webOS. All three do basically the same thing, giving you access to streaming services like Netflix (with a subscription), YouTube, media stored on USB drives, and a basic web browser.
The ideal situation here is to find a TV with all of the streaming apps you want. But if that isn't possible, then don't worry. Buy the one which offers the best pictures quality (Ultra HD, HDR, HDR 10 and Dolby Vision, in ascending order) for your budget, then pick up a streaming box. Apple, Amazon and Roku all offer good candidates at a range of prices.