Ah, the television. Affectionately known as the telly, the squawk box, the boob tube, or any number of goofy nicknames, the glowing screen-and-speaker contraption has long been the centerpiece of living rooms across the world. With the relatively recent proliferation of on-demand streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu, we rely on our TVs more than ever (despite a downtick in live TV ratings).
After all, the average American watches more than five hours of TV per day. And whether you’re looking for the absolute best TVs on the market, a high-performance cheap-seat model, or something in that lovely Goldilocks Zone in between, you don’t want to waste your time staring at a fuzzy screen or fumbling through frustrating menus, right? As such, we’ve put together a guide to all the top TV brands — past and present — so, when the time comes to upgrade, you’ll know where to start your search.
At a glance
|Sony||Heavyweight||X1 Extreme processor|
Note: Our categories, by and large, represent the U.S. TV market. Some companies (like Sony) are less prevalent worldwide, while others (TCL) sell more sets in the Chinese market. Further, for this guide, we avoided putting a great deal of stock in a TV’s operating system considering the popularity and accessibility of streaming sticks and set-top boxes.
These are the big boys. The brands which occupy premium real estate on both physical and digital shelves everywhere.
South Korea’s Samsung is the de facto market leader in the world television space, leading competitors like LG and Sony by a wide margin in terms of overall sales. That’s partly a result of the company’s size (Samsung ranked 15th on the 2018 Fortune 500, placing it as the second most valuable electronics company, behind Apple), but mostly it’s because Samsung makes great TVs with a focus on accessibility.
Operating system: Tizen
Technically, it’s called Samsung Smart TV Powered by Tizen, but let’s just go with Tizen. Tizen, similar to LG’s WebOS (see below), places all your apps in a row along the bottom of the Smart Hub (read: home screen). It’s got all the popular streaming apps as part of a 2,000+ app library, and a neat feature which activates when you select an app, showing you popular sub-categories (like Netflix shows, or Spotify playlists) for that app.
QLED, Samsung’s own LCD technology, uses quantum dots to enhance performance by producing purer light than LEDs are capable of on their own.
Perhaps most impressive is how Tizen works with the Samsung app family, including SmartThings, Smart Connect, and Smart View (which will be getting rolled into the SmartThings app soon anyway). You can use those to mirror content from your phone — even iPhones — to your TV, or send TV playback directly to your phone (only on Samsung phones). If you’ve got compatible smart home devices, you can also use the TV as a control hub.
Also, Samsung’s newer models — QLED and otherwise — offer some cool features like importing app logins from your phone to save time and the Samsung One Connect box, built to simplify messy cable nests behind TVs (and to enable cleaner wall-mounting).
Calling card: QLED
Samsung has so far avoided producing OLED displays like those of LG. So, instead of striking a deal to use LG’s panels, Samsung branded its own LCD tech QLED. For a detailed breakdown, check out our QLED versus OLED comparison, but the general gist is this: QLED uses quantum dots to enhance performance by producing purer light than LEDs are capable of on their own. In practice, QLED televisions are brighter than less expensive LCD TVs, and unlike OLED, can be more affordably built into large displays (100 inches and beyond). For what it’s worth, Samsung is currently working on Quantum Dot-OLED hybrid tech, though we won’t see the fruits of that fusion for quite some time.
Another South Korean company, LG may not be as massive as Samsung, but thanks to its OLED display technology, it has minimal competition when it comes to top-of-the-line picture performance.
Operating system: WebOS
WebOS — currently in its fourth iteration, WebOS 3.5 — works similar to Samsung’s Tizen, arranging apps horizontally at the bottom of the screen, but with some added panache. LG’s Magic Motion Remote can be used traditionally with navigational buttons, but it also works like a Wiimote, allowing you to move the cursor by pointing the remote at the screen and waving it around.
LG recently debuted an open-source webOS platform to encourage developers to work together and create more apps for the operating system. As with Tizen, webOS allows users to screen share (using Miracast), though that ability is limited to Android devices and Windows computers. The most recent update added VR capability to webOS, in case you’ve got any 360-degree videos or photos you’d like to view.
Calling card: OLED
OLED — Organic LED — is the premier display technology today. OLED panels are capable of reaching black levels never before seen, with better contrast across the board, and because the pixels themselves light up, OLED televisions boast quicker response times (and less lag) than other types of displays. To see how OLED stacks up against regular old LCD, take a look at our head-to-head comparison.
Sony, standing as the last great Japanese TV manufacturer in the US (sorry, Panasonic, Toshiba, and JVC), doesn’t market as many proprietary technologies as Samsung or LG, but they have all the tech they need to create awe-inspiring TVs.
Operating system: Android TV
Android TV — versions of which run on many other devices, like the Amazon Fire TV family — isn’t quite as slick as webOS, but it’s arguably more powerful. Unlike webOS and Tizen, the Android TV home screen is laden with apps and suggestions, and you can scroll down for even more.
Sony is the only company other than LG to offer OLED televisions.
Further, it’s got built-in support for Google Assistant (via a microphone in the remote or in your phone) and Chromecast, for both video and audio. Plus, as with Tizen, Google Smart Lock can automatically sync logins from your mobile device to your TV.
And, if that’s not enough, you can download the Logitech Harmony app to control your smart home devices from the couch. Our only gripe with Android TV is that its implementation feels sluggish and unresponsive at times.
Calling card: X1 Extreme processor
Sony is the only company other than LG to offer OLED televisions, thanks to a deal between the two companies allowing Sony to build TVs with LG panels. Thanks to the new X1 Extreme processor, Sony’s Bravia flagship series offers some of the best contrast we’ve ever seen. Another cool touch: Sony’s latest OLED TVs use Acoustic Surface technology, which turns the screen itself into a speaker using vibrations and adds a small subwoofer at the TV’s rear.
Among the brands in the “heavyweights” category, Vizio offers the most affordable TVs. Don’t take that as a sign of lower quality, though; Vizio’s 2020 lineup features some absurdly thin bezels designs, panels with Dolby Vision HDR support, and powerful local dimming for excellent contrast.
Operating system: SmartCast
Before 2017, all of Vizio’s Smart TVs ran a system that required users to download an application on their smartphone or tablet, which would be used to cast any content to the screen. In a nutshell, they were designed for mirroring. These days, they’ve split the difference by loading them with most of the leading streaming services — Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, etc. — to boot, while those after more niche offerings still need to stream the content from a companion device to their television.
Calling card: Quantum
As with Samsung, Vizio is hanging its proverbial hat on quantum dot-powered panels. The 2019 lineup boasted vastly improved brightness levels — top-line models can reach nearly 3,000 nits peak! — and similarly improved local dimming capabilities, with some displays utilizing up to 480 individual dimming zones, and 2020 is taking this a step further.
For what it’s worth, 2020 Vizio televisions also support voice control via both Alexa and Google Assistant; Google Assistant is a little more powerful, as it can search through apps for programs, while Alexa is a little more limited. (They do have universal text search, though, a la Roku.)
They may not be household names just yet, but these brands are on the rise, heading for the “heavyweights” division in a few short years.
TCL was barely a blip on the radars of seasoned TV reviewers half a decade ago. Today, it’s the fastest-growing brand out there, offering up 4K and HDR-capable models at preposterously low prices.
Operating system: Roku
TCL isn’t the only company making Roku TVs — Insignia, Sharp, and Hitachi do the same, among other manufacturers — but it has been the most successful so far. We love Roku here at Digital Trends; from the affordable Roku Express to the 4K-bearing Roku Ultra, the platform’s vast selection (5,000+) of channels and its snappy cross-app search function are second to none. Roku’s user interface is a little less slick than webOS or Tizen, but we think it works better, and it’s more straightforward.
Calling card: Value
If you’re on a tight budget, but you still want some buttery 4K goodness up in your TV (not to mention HDR), TCL is the way to go. They’re affordable and are equipped with the latest version of Roku OS, featuring a dedicated Dolby Access channel to show off HDR-laden trailers.
Chinese manufacturer Hisense has been on a tear lately, licensing Sharp’s brand name (and buying its North American factory outright), buying Toshiba’s business, and making TVs under all three names for the U.S. market. Sharp later complained about the quality of Hisense’s production, but eventually dropped the lawsuit.
Operating system: Various
Hisense is unique in that it doesn’t have a singular operating system tied to its line of televisions. Some of its TVs use Android TV, like Sony, some of its TVs use Roku OS, like TCL, and some use VIDAA U, a slick-looking software which you can learn more about here.
Calling card: Variety
Okay, maybe this is something of a cop-out, but Hisense doesn’t have one particular technology or aspect of its TVs to point to and say “this is our signature,” though it’s working on that task as we speak. What Hisense does offer is a vast selection of televisions utilizing a wide range of technologies and operating systems, all at great prices (not necessarily TCL-level prices, but great prices nonetheless). If you can afford to splurge for a top-tier TV, you probably don’t need to consider Hisense, but in the midrange, there’s a lot to like here.
With over half a century of skin in the game, it’s weird to consider Panasonic an up-and-comer. It’s seen better days, particularly when plasma TVs were the hottest thing going and Panasonic was the leader of that bunch. But, boy, have times changed. With the fall of plasma, the company has packed up its American dream and taken it back to Europe and Asia, where scores of consumers are enjoying some of the best OLED sets available.
Operating System: My Home Screen
Up against the titans of the industry, Panasonic’s smart TV operating system comes up a bit flat. It doesn’t touch anything running LG’s WebOS, Android TV, Roku, and even Samsung’s Tizen in overall functionality. It works, but it’s extremely basic. The app selection isn’t exactly thin — you have all the majors like Netflix and YouTube, some IPTV apps, and an assortment of fringe niche offerings — but you’ll probably be looking to grab a streaming device for more particular needs, especially with juggernaut newcomer Disney+ being out of reach.
Calling card: Panel supremacy
Panasonic doesn’t bring much disruption to an ever-changing industry with its latest 4K OLED sets save for one important trait: Picture quality. Just as it was back in the day, you will not be disappointed with the clarity, color accuracy, brightness, and vibrancy of a Panasonic TV. The panels themselves come from LG, just as most commercial OLED sets do at present, but you’ll see a big difference with Panasonic’s new HCX PRO Intelligent processor. LG and Sony sets are just as amazing, but Panasonic has its own dreamy flair that could eventually restore its name as one of the top TV brands in the world.
Remember these? These are the TV brands many of us grew up with, but they’re no longer leading the pack.
For most of the 20th century, Toshiba was the preeminent name in Japanese television manufacturing, having produced the first Japanese transistor TV in 1959.
As mentioned above in the Hisense section, Hisense spent more than $110 million to buy 95% of Toshiba’s TV business in 2017. The real nail in the coffin came back in 2015, though, when (after years of flagging sales and a de-prioritization of the sector) Toshiba gave up on making TVs for the U.S. market. Reportedly, the decision came after years of trying to compete with an expanding global market by lowering prices and costs without sacrificing quality.
The decision to invest in Canon’s SED technology in the mid-aughts turned out poorly as well. For a company that once reigned as one of the leaders in the CRT (cathode-ray tube) and rear-projection TV manufacturing, it’s a shame, but Toshiba is still chugging along just fine, making other appliances and electronic control systems.
For all the more seasoned folks reading, RCA was once the most respected bastion in American television development, having deployed the first-ever TV test pattern in 1939 (!) and pioneered the first color TV standard, NTSC (so named after the National Television System Committee) in 1953.
By the mid-1980s, RCA had been lapped by Japanese manufacturers and was no longer the powerhouse many remembered. A massive $6 billion-plus deal in 1985 saw the entire company sold to General Electric, then, in 1988, GE turned around and sold the rights to GE and RCA-branded televisions to French company Thomson. Thomson later sold the GE rights to TCL in 2004 and the RCA rights to Korea’s ON Corporation, which currently makes RCA-branded TVs.
Magnavox may never have been the most dominant name in the American TV game, but it was a prominent player for some years following the technology’s proliferation.
In 1974, Philips acquired Magnavox’s consumer electronics division, later introducing (and selling televisions under the “Philips Magnavox” brand name to try and bolster sales in the U.S. Eventually, Philips sold those rights to Funai, which now makes TVs under both the Philips and Magnavox brands. Magnavox (the company) is still a subsidiary of Philips.
JVC began making televisions in 1953 as part of the Panasonic Corporation, and for decades was one of the most recognizable TV brands out there. Few companies sold more CRT sets over the back half of the 20th century.
Around the turn of the millennium, JVC started seeing dwindling sales in its TV division. By 2008, the company was forced to merge with Kenwood, before closing several of its TV plants (or, in some cases, phasing TV production out in favor of other products) over the next few years.
In 2011, JVC Kenwood ceased television production altogether and licensed the brand name out to Taiwanese manufacturer AmTRAN for the North American market. When that license expired, the next deal went to China’s Shenzhen MTC, which currently makes TVs under the JVC brand in the U.S. and elsewhere. JVC still makes some of the best projectors on the market, though.
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