TV Buying Guide 2015

Looking for honest TV advice? CNET explains the most important things to know when shopping for TVs in 2015.

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Shopping for a new television can be an overwhelming experience. Confusion plagues even the most careful shoppers, and TV manufacturers, retailers, salespeople and numerous Internet sources can create more uncertainty as they push extra features, new technologies, and add-ons in the incessant pursuit of profit.

I hope that this guide, which I created in 2002 and have updated many times since, will help you cut through the confusion with unbiased information so that you can select a new television. It won't answer every question, and when you read it, it won't tell you "the perfect TV for you" at the end. But I hope it can provide you with the basic tools you need to feel confident when you buy that new set.

And if you just want to skip all the details and just buy a great television, my overall recommendation for 2015 so far is the Vizio E series. It has very good picture quality for the money and is all most TV watchers will need.

For more choices, check out our constantly updated lists of the best TVs.

Three rules for buying a TV

1. Picture quality is not determined by the published specs

As a rule of thumb, the main purpose of a TV's specification sheet is to bombard you with confusing numbers in an attempt to get you to "step up" and buy the more expensive version. Just about the only worthwhile numbers are found under Inputs and Weight/Dimensions.

Contrast ratio is usually bunk (when it's listed at all). Refresh rate (120Hz, 240Hz, 600Hz, etc.) is complex and ultimately subjective. Seemingly related numbers like "Clear Motion Rate," "TruMotion," MotionFlow," SPS" and the rest are fake. Viewing angles for LCD and LED-backlit LCD TVs are made-up, and LED does not mean a better picture, (And while we're at it, all HDMI cables are the same.)

Rather than rely on the spec sheet to provide hints on which TV will perform better than another, our advice is to simply ignore it. The sheet can help when trying to differentiate a TV based on features, such as whether it has Smart TV or a fancy remote, but it's useless at best and outright misleading at worst when used as a tool for divining picture quality.

Further reading: Myths, Marketing, and Misdirection: HDTV edition

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

2. Bigger really is better

I recommend a size of at least 32 inches for a bedroom TV and at least 50 inches for a living room or main TV -- and 60 inches or larger is best. If you're replacing an existing TV set, those sizes might seem too big (tube televisions had a typical maximum size of 36 inches) but trust me, a big TV is a wonderful thing.

In fact, more than any other "feature" like 4K resolution, Smart TV, or higher refresh rates, stepping up in TV screen size is the best use of your money. One of the most common post-TV-purchase complaints I've heard is from people who didn't go big enough.

The upper limit will be determined by your budget, taste, and by the space where you want to put the TV. If you want to fit an existing entertainment center, make sure you have at least an inch on the sides and top of the TV cavity to allow for ventilation. Or just junk that old furniture and get a bigger TV.

Further reading: How big a TV should I buy?

Trust us, bigger is better.

3. 4K TVs are the future, but not necessary today

If you've been TV shopping in the last year, you've probably been faced with the decision "to 4K or not to 4K."

TVs with 4K resolution, also known as UHD (Ultra High Definition) TVs, have four times as many pixels as standard 1080p resolution TVs. That sounds like a big improvement, but in reality it's very difficult to tell the difference in sharpness between a 4K TV and a 1080p TV. Simply put, those pixels are too small to provide a discernible benefit unless you sit very close to a very big TV.

On the other hand, 4K LCD TVs are easy for manufacturers to produce, so they're coming down quickly in price. In the next couple of years, most TVs -- especially the big ones -- will have 4K resolution, and 1080p will go the way of 720p and standard-definition TVs. That said, 1080p TVs won't be obsolete anytime soon.

Today most of the best TVs just happen to be 4K TVs. That's not because of their resolution, but because TV makers put their best picture quality features into their 4K sets. So if you're shopping for a high-end TV, you'll probably end up with a 4K one anyway.

On the other hand if you're looking for the best value, or the best picture quality for the money, a good 1080p TVs is still your best bet. That advice may change as we test new models throughout the year, and 4K TV prices fall further, but for now it holds.

Further reading: Is now the time to buy a 4K TV?

Seen side by side, a 4K TV (left) and a 1080-pixel TV (right). Sarah Tew/CNET

Picture quality p's and q's

I consider the best picture quality for the money a sort of holy grail in the quest for a new TV. It's still consistently the no. 1 thing TV shoppers cite as important to their buying decision. If you don't place as high a priority on PQ, you'll get the best value by simply sorting a list of TVs by price and the screen size you want, choosing the cheapest from a brand you trust, and calling it a day. Or at least skip to the next section of this guide.

Unfortunately, picture quality is also the most difficult thing to judge for yourself without actually buying the TV and taking it home (and even then it might be tough!). It's dependent on numerous factors, including source quality, room lighting, and picture settings, that can affect the "true" potential of the TV itself.

In CNET TV reviews, we control for these variables in an attempt to provide a level playing field for direct comparison of the TVs' pictures. Even after these controls, and calibrating all of the TVs to a standard, we observe considerable differences in quality from model to model -- I definitely disagree with the sentiment that "all HDTVs look the same." Check out more on how we test TVs here.

After more than 10 years reviewing HDTVs, I feel comfortable conveying some generalizations I've observed about picture quality:

  • A good picture is one that reproduces the incoming source as closely as possible without "improving" color, smoothness or other characteristics.
  • OLED TVs, based on my review of the LG 55EC9300, have the best picture quality available. But chances are you can't afford one, so now that plasma is dead you'll need to buy an LED LCD TV.
  • LED LCD TVs with local dimming often outperform those without.
  • Screen uniformity is a problem for LCD TVs, but some are much better than others.
  • The ability to produce a deep shade of black -- which translates into high contrast -- is the most important ingredient in a good picture.
  • Color saturation, which is directly influenced by contrast/black level, is second-most important, followed by color accuracy.
  • In a bright room, matte screens are the best overall at reducing reflections. The best glossy screens preserve black levels well.
  • Less important factors include resolution, video processing (120Hz, 240Hz, etc.), maximum light output and display resolution (4K vs. 1080p).
  • Many people don't realize they're watching the Soap Opera Effect and might like their TV's picture quality better if they turned it off.
  • Poor picture settings on a good TV will usually look worse than calibrated picture settings on a crappy TV.

These are generalizations only, so it's common enough to find TVs that violate them. Many LED LCDs have excellent uniformity, models with local dimming can look worse than those without, wildly inaccurate color can look worse even if its saturation is correct, and a TV with deep black levels can still perform worse overall than one with brighter blacks.

In sum, picture quality is more complex than just counting pixels or reading a spec sheet, and your best bet is to read reviews, such as those at CNET. Hopefully you can also get the chance to see a good TV in person along with someone who can explain why it's good.

Further reading: Geoff Morrison's HDTV and home-theater resource center and info-tacular!

Extras beyond picture quality

On one level, I don't consider any of these extras necessary or even all that important. On the other hand, they're often found on TVs that have better picture quality and cost more money (funny how that works, isn't it?), so it's worthwhile to know about them anyway.

Smart TV
Since you can connect a $40 Amazon Fire TV Stick, $50 Roku Streaming Stick, $99 Apple TV or Roku 3, $150 Blu-ray player, $200-$500 game console, or any number of other devices to make any TV "Smart" -- in the sense that you get access to Netflix, Amazon Instant, and the rest -- the "apps" on TVs are often redundant. That's why I want my dumb TV (or failing that, a Roku TV). All things being equal, I recommend an app-free model over its more expensive Smart brother. Things are rarely equal, however, and your next TV will likely have Smart apps whether you use them or not.

Further reading: Smart TV or media streamer?

Sarah Tew/CNET

Curved TVs
In my review of the first mainstream curved LCD TV, Samsung's UNHU9000, I called the curve "a flat-out gimmick." And that was after living with one in my house for a month. The curve detracted more than it added to picture quality, and in the end seemed like more of an aesthetic choice than anything else. No matter what, I don't think it's worth the extra money.

Further reading: Trouble with the curve: What you need to know about curved TVs

Sarah Tew/CNET

3D
Every "3D TV" is also perfectly capable of playing 2D content, too, so we prefer to think of 3D as an extra feature as opposed to a separate type of television. It's also largely unnecessary, and few TV makers even talk about it anymore (and some, like Vizio, have dropped it entirely). Lack of content is king; most people with 3D TVs never use the 3D feature.

Further reading: CNET's guide to 3D TV: What you (still) need to know

Remote controls
If you aren't planning to use a universal model or the remote that came with your cable box, pay attention to the TV's included clicker. It's nice when it can command other gear directly via infrared, as opposed to simply controlling gear via HDMI, and I prefer TVs to include medium-size remotes with well-differentiated, backlit buttons. Fancy remotes with touchpads and gesture controls are nice, but a good universal model will almost always work better, consigning your included remote, no matter how fancy, to ignominy in a drawer.

Further reading: Best universal remotes

Sarah Tew/CNET

Connectivity
This one has gotten easier as important inputs have dwindled to one kind: HDMI. Just count the number of devices you'll want to connect, and make sure your TV has at least that many HDMI ports (or one or two extra if you'll be expanding). USB inputs and/or an SD card slot are nice for displaying photos, too. You only need to worry about the analog ports if you have an older device to connect; the Nintendo Wii is the classic HDMI-free offender.

We consider both HDMI 2.0, HDCP 2.2 and HEVC decoding necessities on a 4K TV, but again nearly every new 4K TV has them.

Further reading: Why all HDMI cables are the same; 4K HDMI cables (are nonsense)

Thin styling
For better or for worse, a TV is a piece of furniture, and the big screens can dominate a room even when turned off. That's why TV makers have concentrated on making their sets thinner and less intrusive. The best examples have frames so thin they look like almost all picture, and when seen from the side or hung on a wall, the thin cabinets almost disappear. Unfortunately, thin LED-backlit LCDs can also introduce uniformity problems in my experience.

Frequently asked questions

On the off chance that I didn't cover what you wanted to know above, here are a few other questions I've heard from TV shoppers over the years.

What's the best TV for gaming? What about sports?
Trick question! I believe the best TVs for watching pretty much anything are the TVs with the best black level, color, and other standard performance characteristics (not to mention the biggest screen). Motion resolution isn't a major concern since most blurring on TV sporting events is inherent in the source, and input lag, which we measure for every TV review, can often be defeated by specialized gaming modes common on most TVs.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What about all those picture settings? Should I buy a calibration?
Properly adjusting the picture is very important to getting the most out of your TV. To avoid being intimidated by all the options, check out my picture settings database and FAQ along with the articles HDTV settings explained and what is HDTV calibration? for advice on whether it's right for you. DIY-ers can check out try one of these Blu-ray setup discs for your HDTV or even try a calibration by eye.

What accessories should I buy?
Let me reiterate: All HDMI cables are the same. If you don't have a universal remote already, you should get one. Our list of best home video and best home audio gear has other good suggestions.

How long will my new TV last?
The short answer is "it should last a very long time." Here's the longer version.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Can I use my TV as a computer monitor?
Yes you can, and it should work very well. Here are a few tips.

How do I set it up?
Geoff Morrison has you covered again.

How come you never mention rear-projection or plasma TV?
Because rear-projection TVs are no longer on sale as of 2012, and the last plasma TVs were manufactured in 2014. They'll be missed.

OK, so what about front-projection?
Unlike dinosaur rear-projectors, I think front-projectors are really cool, and we've begun reviewing them again. And yes, your TV is too tiny.

What about new technologies like OLED, SUHD, Quantum Dots, HDR and so on?
They're all relatively expensive, and some have more value than others.

OLED is a type of big-screen display technology, separate from LED LCD, that can produce the best picture quality yet and allow even thinner panels. Currently only LG is producing it in big screen sizes for the mass market, and it's still very expensive. We're looking forward to reviewing the company's 2015 OLED TVs, both curved and flat.

SUHD, first introduced at CES, is Samsung's line of 2015 LCD TVs that use Quantum Dots and are said to improve color and other areas. They're intended to challenge the picture quality supremacy of OLED, but that's a tough row to hoe.

For more info on those dots, and the rest, check out our look at New TV Tech for 2015: Improving the LCD.

Where can I find the latest TV reviews?
All of our latest TV reviews, as well as news and other great articles like the ones linked above, can be found at CNET.com/televisions.

Thanks for reading, see ya soon! Sarah Tew/CNET

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