The TV landscape has changed more than any other in the AV industry in recent times so, if you need two hands to count the years since you last bought one, your shopping experience will most likely be pretty different to your last.
Not only have TVs upped the picture performance game across the board (all but budget models have a 4K resolution now), there are also brand new technologies to grapple with (HDR, OLED, QLED) alongside the basic questions of screen size, TV placement, number of inputs and “does it have Netflix and BBC iPlayer?”
Daunting, eh? To try to make it less so, we’ve come up with a comprehensive checklist that should help make your TV buying experience much less painful.
Which TV screen size?
There’s more focus on bigger screens than ever before, with fewer 32in and 40in models appearing in new TV line-ups thanks to the rise of big-screen-justifying Ultra HD 4K resolution.
But while it might be tempting to think that bigger is better, the size of set that’s right for you is closely dependent on how close to the screen you’ll be sitting, and the resolution of the source material you’re watching.
Luckily, an organisation called SMPTE (which stands for the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) has published detailed guidelines on exactly how far you should sit in order to optimize the relationship of the performance of your TV and what your eyes can discern.
If you’re sitting the correct distance from your TV, you’ll see lots of detail, good edge definition and smooth, clean motion, but if you’re sitting too close to the screen, then you’re going to see more picture noise and artefacts.
On the other hand, sit too far away from the TV and you’ll struggle to pick up all the picture detail your TV has to offer.
The SMPTE rule for watching Full HD TV (1080p) is that you should be sitting a minimum of 1.5-to-2 times the diagonal size of your TV away from the screen. You can sit closer to the screen if you have a 4K TV – about one-to-1.5 times the screen size – as you’ll notice fewer artefacts thanks to the higher resolution.
The following distances are a good place to start:
- 65in - minimum 2.5m (Full HD) or 2.1m (4K)
- 50-52in - minimum 2.2m (Full HD) or 1.7m (4K)
- 46in - minimum 1.9m (Full HD) or 1.5m (4K)
- 40-42in - minimum 1.7m (Full HD) or 1.3m (4K)
- 32in - minimum 1.3m (Full HD)
4K or not 4K?
This might seem like a no-brainer at first, but should you really go for a 4K TV over a Full HD set?
The higher resolution sets – four times that of Full HD – have been adopted far quicker than 1080p was back in the day. Funny when you think only five years ago, 4K was no less new-fangled than the cronut.
Despite still costing a pretty penny (especially if you’re going for a larger screen size), 4K TVs are very much affordable and mainstream these days. You can get a 50in 4K TV for under £500 – and one that performs well, too.
How much you’ve budgeted for your new TV also comes into play. Full HD TVs tend to cost less than a 4K set, but we’d genuinely opt for Full HD only if you’re looking at screen sizes smaller than 40in.
For larger screens, the value you get from a 4K TV – superior picture performance, better features and interface – is definitely worth investing in. After all, with 4K Blu-ray players, 4K Blu-ray discs and 4K streaming now mainstream and affordable, it makes perfect sense.
What about HDR?
High Dynamic Range (HDR) is the TV buzzword that carries on buzzing, and tends to come hand-in-hand with 4K TVs.
Essentially: the higher the dynamic range (brightness and colours), the more lifelike the picture. HDR offers greater subtlety and depth of gradations of colours, plus stronger contrast.
There are various types of HDR out there, and with different TV brands backing different variants, it can be a minefield trying to find the best option.
We’ll start with HDR10 – it’s the standard HDR format that you’ll find in all HDR-compatible content, from 4K Blu-ray discs to Netflix and Amazon shows. If you’re buying a 4K HDR TV, HDR10 should come as a bare minimum.
Then there’s Dolby Vision. Unlike HDR10 – which applies the HDR values on a scene-by-scene basis (i.e. whenever the camera cuts to a new scene), Dolby Vision HDR applies this image information (called metadata) on a frame-by-frame basis. This dynamic form of HDR, when implemented properly, has the potential to improve upon the standard HDR10 presentation.
HDR10+ is a rival format to Dolby Vision. Created by Samsung, it similarly uses dynamic metadata but, whereas Dolby Vision is licensed, HDR10+ is a free, open format that any company can deploy as it sees it.
You’ll find Dolby Vision on select LG, Sony, B&O and Loewe TV sets, while Samsung, Panasonic and Philips are backing HDR10+. There’s plenty of Dolby Vision content available right now across Netflix Original shows and 4K discs, but no HDR10+ just yet. It's coming soon, though, as major movie studios and Amazon Prime Video have signed up to use the format, while 4K discs with HDR10+ is on the horizon.
And finally, HLG (Hybrid Log Gamma) is an HDR format developed specifically for broadcasting by the BBC and Japan's NHK. All the big TV brands – Samsung, Sony, LG, Panasonic and Philips – have adopted its support across the majority of their 2018 4K TV ranges.
So new buyers should be safe in the knowledge that when BBC’s 4K HLG trials – and more regular 4K HDR broadcasts further down the line – arrive, they won’t be left out.
What connections will I need?
Connections don’t differ on TVs as much as they used to, with most sporting at least three (often four) HDMI inputs – enough for a Blu-ray player, set-top box, games console and media streamer, say.
4K TVs will have at least one HDMI port that’s 2.0- and HDCP 2.2-certified for native 4K and HDR content, but we’d check compatibility if you plan to plug in several 4K sources.
Planning to boost your TV’s sound with a soundbar or soundbase? You’ll need to plug it into the TV’s HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) input – this takes the audio signal directly from TV to soundbar. Alternatively, make sure your TV has optical digital or analogue outputs for the connection.
While some TVs feature composite inputs, most – even at the budget end – have phased out legacy connections such as SCART. So those clinging on to old video cassette recorders, for example, should be aware of that.
What type of screen?
Whether you punt for an LCD, QLED or OLED TV may depend on how big you want your screen. OLED panels aren’t available in TVs smaller than 55in, and the baby screen for Samsung’s QLEDs is 49in. Looking for a smaller telly (maybe for a second room)? Standard LCD's your guy.
LCD TVs (which require a backlight usually made up of white LEDs to show a picture on the LCD panel) are available in a wide variety of screen sizes and, thanks in part to the technology's low cost of production, at affordable prices.
OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) is a panel technology that uses self-emissive particles – so there's no need for a backlight. This allows OLED TVs to be unbelievably slim, while also offering convincing pitch-dark blacks, strong contrast and superb viewing angles. LG, Sony, Panasonic and Philips are the big brands with OLED TVs in their line-ups.
QLED (Quantum-dot Light-Emitting Diode) is Samsung’s response to OLED. A QLED TV is an LCD TV but with a quantum dot coating over the backlight. However, the quantum dots (tiny semiconductor particles) in current QLEDs do not emit their own light. So QLED TVs, like conventional LCDs, rely on a backlight. The advantages of a QLED TV? You tend to get brilliantly bright, sharp and crisply detailed images.
Edge-lit or full-array backlight?
If you’re opting for an LCD TV, the LED backlighting comes in two flavours: edge lighting or direct backlighting.
The former is the most common and cheapest to produce. TVs are ‘edge-lit’ by a row of LEDs bordering and facing the centre of the screen, which disperse light across the screen. The benefit? Thinner TVs. The drawback? Often inconsistent contrast, with the edges of pictures brighter than the centre.
Alternatively, you can have direct backlighting (or ‘full-array’), which sees LED lights uniformly placed behind the whole screen.
In theory, full direct backlighting typically improves local dimming (i.e contrast control - simultaneously keeping the dark parts of a picture dark, and the brightest parts bright). The one downside is that this method usually means a slightly thicker TV.
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Smart TV apps
TV smarts are even more common than 4K screens now, with almost every new model boasting built-in wi-fi and an ethernet connection, and hosting at least Netflix and BBC iPlayer apps. Most add Amazon Prime Video and the rest of the UK catch-up services (ITV Hub, All4 and My5) to that list, too.
Netflix and Amazon have a growing content of 4K HDR content available, so it’s always worth checking the TV you buy supports it.
And as the BBC continues its 4K HDR trials through its iPlayer service, we’d check for 4K and HLG support through a TV’s iPlayer app too. Remember, just because a TV’s hardware supports a certain technology, that doesn’t necessarily mean all its software does.
You’ve bought your new TV. Now what?
Congratulations! You've clearly followed our expert advice and chosen well. But before you give yourself over to Netflix until the sun comes up, there are still a handful of steps left once you’ve given your new TV a new home.
First, you’ll probably want to know how to set up your TV and get the best picture, right?
Then, we’d recommend looking at ways you can improve your TV’s typically flimsy sound – whether that’s by adding a soundbar, soundbase or a fully-fledged 5.1 speaker package - and choosing a source (4K Blu-ray player, Sky Q box) if you haven't already.
To give you a nudge in the right direction, we’ve put together some complete systems that will guide you on your way to enjoying your new TV as part of a home entertainment system:
- 4 of the best TV systems
- Best home cinema system with a soundbar
- Best home cinema system with a speaker package
- Best TV and home cinema systems for watching sport