Become a TV tech expert with our 4K TV buying guide

Shopping for a new 4K TV and feeling a little lost? We’re here to help

TVs have come a long way since the days of the cathode ray tube — especially in the last few years.

With the advent of 4K TVs (and HDR), picture quality has never been crisper, brighter, or more colorful. TVs get thinner while screens get bigger, and more and more TVs integrate features and services that cut down on the need for extra devices. But all these leaps in technology have led to more complexity, and frankly, shopping for a new TV can be overwhelming. Deciphering all the tech-related acronyms is a chore, and sometimes it can be hard to catch the differences between subtle changes in phrasing and technologies. To help decipher the madness, we’ve assembled the tools you need to navigate the world of 4K TVs and make the right decision when you finally decide to pull the trigger.

Size and setup

When you’re looking into a new TV, the first thing to check is how much space you’ve got in your entertainment room. Keep in mind that TV screens are measured diagonally, so when you see a TV listed as 65 inches, that’s the diagonal measurement, not the height or width. Those dimensions can be found on a TV’s product page, and are often listed in reviews. Most living rooms will do well with a 50-inch or larger TV, though you can go as big as your entertainment center – and wallet – will allow.

If you’re going to be using a TV stand, make sure to factor the stand’s dimensions into your calculations to ensure a good fit. It’s also important to understand that more and more TVs are mounted on legs at their exterior, rather than bases at the center, which begs for even more space.

Those who are wall mounting will be happy to know that weight isn’t an issue here. There are mounts for every size and weight TV out there, and we have a wall mount buying guide to help you choose the right one. If you need help going through the actual process of mounting your TV, we can help you with that too.

Resolution

HD resolution, or Full HD 1080p, used to be the standard screen resolution, but that’s no longer the case. The industry has moved on to embrace 4K Ultra HD — which provides four times the pixel resolution as 1080p HD — as the new standard. The latest resolution delivers all the benefits one would expect from such a large increase in the pixel count; the image is crisper, fine details are clear and visible, and you can sit closer to larger TVs without notable image degradation.

Of course, some manufacturers are still cranking out 1080p or 720p displays, but they are usually the lowest quality TVs with the smallest screen sizes within a given manufacturer’s lineup. So even though 4K is still relatively new, chances are any new TV you’re looking into has 4K UHD resolution. Don’t worry about having to seek one out — they’ll come to you.

Though the quantity of 4K content is still behind the hardware that displays it, an even higher resolution is in the works: 8K. At four times the pixel resolution of 4K and 16 times the resolution of HD, 8K is another massive upgrade in picture quality. Don’t worry about whether or not you should hold out, though, as the technology is still in its earliest stages. While 8K TVs exist, they’re mainly prototypes or meant for professional use, and 8K content barely even registers on the scale. So go ahead and stay focused on 4K UHD when looking for a TV to buy.

HDR

HDR is short for high dynamic range. This technology enhances the contrast of a TV’s picture, which translates to more accurate brightness and even finer shades of color for an overall more vibrant, lifelike image from your TV. There are varying levels of HDR quality, as well as different formats like HDR10 and HDR10+, Dolby Vision, and Hybrid Log Gamma. All this may sound complicated, but the end result is essentially the same, just at varying degrees of quality and use cases. Product reviews will help you see how the HDR features on any given TV stack up against others in its price tier, including brightness levels, contrast, and overall picture quality.

If you want to go really in-depth on the subject, we also have a detailed guide to HDR that offers all the basics.

Smart TVs

Smart TVs connect directly to the internet, either via Wi-Fi or Ethernet cable (usually both), and come with built-in streaming apps like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, and others. Some even have built-in Google Chromecast features or more full-featured platforms like Roku TV or Amazon’s Fire TV Edition models. You can stream shows and movies, play games, and even surf the web (albeit in a limited capacity) on some models. Much like we said with regards to 4K UHD resolution, the vast majority of TVs now available are Smart TVs, so you won’t have to go out of your way to find one.

Smart TV features are convenient, and the integration of streaming apps and other services directly into the TV frees up space and HDMI ports. That said, you can always upgrade any TV with a streaming stick like the Amazon Fire TV Stick or Roku Stick, or set-top boxes like the Nvidia Shield, to get all of these smart TV features in a convenient package. That’s important because many smart TV interfaces leave a lot to be desired.

Refresh rate

A TV’s refresh rate refers to how many individual frames per second it can display, denoted in hertz (Hz). There are two different ways manufacturers refer to refresh rates: Native and effective.

How smoothly a TV displays motion is dependent on its native refresh rate. Generally, you want a 120Hz native refresh rate if you can get it, though we have seen some excellent 60Hz TVs out there.

A TV’s effective refresh rate refers to its digital picture processing. You’ll see this term show up on TVs touting a refresh rate above 120Hz. That may sound exciting, but we caution against relying on effective refresh rate as a meaningful indicator — in fact, it’s best to ignore anything higher than 120Hz. There is no such thing as a 240Hz TV — there’s 60Hz and 120Hz and that’s it. Anything else is marketing and after-effect processing that is prone to creating the dreaded “soap opera” effect.

Inputs

Sony A1E OLED TV Review XBR55A1E XBR65A1E XBR77A1E
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

TVs can carry a range of different inputs and outputs, and you’ll often find TVs with a colorful array of different ports on its back or side panels. The only input that you really need to concern yourself with, though (unless you have a ton of legacy gear), is HDMI. HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) is the standard way of connecting sources like streaming devices, Blu-ray players, gaming consoles, and even PCs to a TV. To future-proof your TV, look for at least 3 HDMI ports (though 4 is safer and easily attainable). If you’re going to use a soundbar or an A/V receiver with your TV, make sure it supports HDMI ARC (most new TVs do), which is a simple way to pass audio back and forth from the TV and your speaker system, while also offering other useful features.

LCD vs. LED vs. OLED vs. QLED

Wow, that’s a lot of letters! These acronyms can be confusing, so let’s whittle things down a bit.

The most important thing to know is that there are really only two types of TV display technology: LCD and OLED.

LCD screens don’t produce their own light, so they need a backlight system to light them up, thus creating an image. In earlier days, LCD TVs had compact fluorescent bulbs doing the illumination job, but today LEDs are used instead. This often leads to the terms LED and LCD being used interchangeably. Check out our LED vs LCD explainer if you want to dig a little deeper. The bottom line is an LED TV is actually just a different way to refer to an LCD TV. In a couple of years what we call an LED TV may change, but for now you can take that to the bank. With LED and LCD out of the way, next comes OLED.

Next up: OLED

OLED displays produce their own light (no need for a backlight), so they are not only much slimmer than LED TVs, but they also deliver better black levels and contrast along with a wider viewing angle than LED TVs. You can learn more about the difference between LED and OLED here.

That leaves QLED

We’ve explained that LCD and LED are essentially the same while OLED is very different. So where does that leave us with the fourth and final acronym, QLED? Turns out, QLED TVs are LCD TVs too, only the LED backlights in a QLED TV (marketed primarily by Samsung) are shone through a material called quantum dots. Quantum dots are a technology which correct blue LED color temperature to make a purer, white light. This, in turn, helps a TV deliver broader, deeper, and more accurate colors than is possible with the more basic LCD panels most LED TVs use. This puts them in very close competition with OLED, a rivalry you can read more about here.

Conclusion

Hopefully, we have demystified some of the newer terms and trends in today’s TVs. Now that you’re equipped with all the knowledge you need, might we recommend perusing our picks for the best TVs you can buy? Also be sure to check out our latest TV reviews so you can arm yourself with knowledge about the latest and greatest 4K TVs on the market.

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