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How to buy a TV (winter 2019 update)

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It's sometime in the beginning of 2019, but buying a new TV is the same as ever. In other words, it's still kinda overwhelming.

Prices vary widely for TVs of the same size. TV manufacturers and salespeople use extra features, alien-sounding technologies and hyperbolic claims about picture quality to get you to spend more. And as usual, the internet is a mess of conflicting facts, opinions and unexplained jargon.

This guide is intended as an oasis in the vast desert of information about TVs. I strive to fill it with just enough easy-to-understand information to help you 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.

Disclosure: CNET may get a share of revenue from the sale of the products featured in this article.  

Which TV should I buy right now? (Updated February 2019)

If you just want to skip all the details and buy a great television, I have a few go-to choices among the TVs available in early 2018:

Best picture quality in a high-end TV 

LG B8 series OLED TV

Sarah Tew/CNET

OLED TVs are the picture quality kings, and this is the OLED TV to buy right now. Sure, it costs a bundle, but it's actually the least-expensive 2018 OLED available. The image quality difference between it and the step-up C8 isn't worth the extra money.

Best picture quality for the money

TCL 6 series Roku TV

Sarah Tew/CNET

 No TV we've ever tested offers this much picture quality for this little cash, and its Roku TV operating system is our hands-down favorite. The TCL 6 series wins the value race.

Best picture quality in a budget TV

Vizio E series

Sarah Tew/CNET

 When it comes to genuinely cheap televisions, nothing outperforms the Vizio E. This super-affordable TV is the least-expensive with full-array local dimming, and the cheapest we recommend for decent home-theater picture quality.

Best basic TV

TCL 3 and 4 series Roku TV

Sarah Tew/CNET

Just looking for a TV with "good enough" picture quality? These TCLs are our top picks, mainly because of their dirt-cheap prices and superb Roku TV streaming built-in. Choose the 1080p-resolution 3 series in 43 inches and smaller, or the 4K resolution 4 series at 49 inches and up.

For more choices, check out our constantly updated lists of the best TVs. (Those models listed above are US-only, but the advice that follows is universal. You can find the UK's best TVs here and Australia's best TVs here.)

So what about 2019 TVs?

With a few exceptions, new TVs come out in spring, so we don't expect to review the first 2019 TVs until April or so. For a taste of what's to come, check out our CES 2019 roundup.

Timely advice: Buy now or wait until later in 2019?

Once the new 2019 TVs hit store shelves they'll be at their highest prices of the year and won't come down substantially until the fall of 2019, around Black Friday and later. The good news is that prices on 2018 TVs are generally pretty low right now. Here's my advice.

If you buy a 2018 TV now, you probably won't be missing much. Most of the TVs I reviewed in 2018 didn't represent a massive improvement over their predecessors -- and I expect the same sorts of incremental improvements from 2018 to 2019. In other words, you're perfectly safe getting a 2018 TV now, and until later in 2019, the price will be much cheaper than on a 2019 model.

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High-end TVs like the Samsung Q8 experienced substantial holiday price drops.

Sarah Tew / CNET

If you want the latest and greatest, or you're afraid of buyer's remorse, wait for a 2019 TV. Everything I just said will get less relevant as 2018 TVs disappear from store shelves. So if you're the kind of person who might regret missing out in the latest TV technology or incremental improvement in image quality -- generally available on the mid- to high-end sets, as opposed to the basic ones -- by all means wait for a new 2019 TV.

If you want the best price on a 2019 TV, wait until November 2019 or later. If you're the kind of person who wants the best deal and the newest TV, you'll have to wait. Here's why.

Four (timeless) rules for buying a TV

1. Wait until the holidays for the best prices

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Best Buy

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving in the US, is best known for crazy doorbuster pricing on no-name televisions, but the fact is that just about every television gets a Black Friday price cut. And prices usually remain low through the holiday season and into the new year.

High-end sets can see reductions of 20 to 40 percent compared to pricing during the spring, when they're first released, and even cheaper sets, which don't have as much room for discounts, often see a healthy cut too. Unless you have money to burn, it's best to wait.

2. Ignore (most of) the specifications

As a rule of thumb, the main purpose of a TV's specification sheet is to bombard you with confusing terms and 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.

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 HDR, smart TV capability 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: TV marketing terms and what they mean

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Just ignore all of these marketing words.

Geoff Morrison/CNET

3. Bigger really is better

I recommend a size of at least 40 inches for a bedroom TV and at least 55 inches for a living room or main TV -- and 65 inches or larger is best.

In fact, more than any other "feature," 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. And I almost never hear people complain that their TV is too large.

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?

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Trust us, bigger is better.

CNET

4. 4K and HDR are worth getting

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 good old-fashioned HDTV.

On the other hand, 4K TVs are easy for manufacturers to produce, so they're basically standard now. Just about every TV 55 inches or larger has 4K resolution, and many smaller sets are 4K, too. Aside from the smallest sizes, 1080p and lower-resolution models are quickly becoming resigned to the bargain bin.

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Most 4K Blu-ray discs also have HDR.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Most of the 4K TVs have HDR compatibility as well. HDR delivers better contrast and color, so unlike 4K, chances are you'll actually be able to see an improvement compared with normal HDTV. How big of an improvement (if any) depends on the TV, however, and just like with 4K, you'll need to be watching actual HDR content. And just because a TV is HDR compatible doesn't mean it actually performs better, with or without an HDR source.

Streaming services Netflix and Amazon offer both 4K and HDR, but not on every title (although most original series and movies on both services are in 4K HDR). You can also rent or buy new 4K HDR movies on iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, or invest in a 4K Blu-ray player and discs to play on it. Actual 4K and/or HDR TV channels are still nonexistent in the United States, however.

Bottom line? All of the best TVs are 4K TVs with HDR. If you're shopping for a medium-size or larger TV, you'll probably end up with a 4K one anyway, and chances are it'll do HDR, too.

Further reading: Why all HDR on TVs isn't the same

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Every CNET TV review is conducted as a side-by-side comparison with up to seven other TVs.

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 along with 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.

After more than 15 years reviewing HDTVs, I feel comfortable conveying some generalizations I've observed about picture quality:

  • OLED TVs have the best picture quality available, but they're still quite expensive.
  • Nearly every TV, including Samsung's QLED, uses LED LCD technology, which (despite the "LED" similarity) is very different from OLED.
  • LED LCD TVs with local dimming often outperform those without.
  • LED LCD TVs with full-array LED backlights often outperform ones with edge-lit LED backlights.
  • The ability to produce a deep shade of black -- which translates into high contrast -- is the most important ingredient in a good picture.
  • For HDR, image brightness and local dimming are essential for the best performance.
  • 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, color gamut, video processing 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.

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: Best TVs for picture quality, regardless of price

Considerations beyond size, price and picture quality

Those are the "big three" of TV buying, but a few other things are worth knowing about. 

8K is here, but don't worry about it

A TV with 8K resolution has twice the horizontal and vertical resolution of 4K, for a whopping 7,680x4,320 and 33,177,600 total pixels. Not only is that 4 times the total pixel count of 4K, that's an incredible 16 times more pixels than 1080p.

The first TVs with 8K resolution are already available today. They're typically huge and super-expensive -- the first 8K TV in the US was Samsung's Q900 for $15,000 -- and there's nothing in 8K to watch today. Moreover, from what we've seen they don't provide much, if any, picture quality improvement compared to 4K TVs.

In the future 8K TVs will surely get cheaper and more mainstream, but it will be years before they're worth considering for all but the richest TV buyers.

Further reading: 8K TV: What you need to know

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Voice control, including Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa

The biggest new trend in gadgets, including TVs, is the ability to be controlled by voice commands. TV remotes with built-in mics and "push to talk" functionality, for example to search for TV shows and movies, are nothing new. What's new is integration between the TVs and the two big players in voice today, Google and Amazon.

TVs from Sony and LG have Google Assistant built-in, so you can use their voice remotes to not only search, but order pizza, play trivia games and music, and control lights and other Smart Home devices. Amazon Fire TV Edition sets and some of LG's 2019 TVs incorporate Alexa in the same way. Samsung TVs have Bixby built-in.

Even cooler is the ability to control certain functions on the TVs with an Alexa or Google Home speaker, without touching the remote. Amazon TVs will work with Alexa speakers, Roku sets are able to be commanded with Google Home speakers, and TVs from LG, Vizio and Sony TVs will work with both. Samsung is also adding Alexa and Google Home speaker control in 2019.

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Many TVs can be controlled hands-free with Google Home and Alexa speakers.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

HDMI connections

TV connectivity has gotten less complex 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 are nice for displaying photos, but hardly necessary. 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. And of course you'll need an antenna input (standard on nearly every TV) if you're cutting the cord and want free over-the-air TV.

Nearly every new 4K TV has enough robust HDMI connections (version 2.0, 2.0a or 2.0b, with HDCP copy protection) to work with a range of the latest 4K and HDR gear. The latest HDMI 2.1 standard is coming out on some TVs in 2019, but it's not worth worrying about for most buyers. And yes, you should just buy the cheap HDMI cables.

Further reading: Best HDMI cables for your new 4K and HDR TV

Smart TV

Since you can connect an inexpensive HDMI stick or box to make any TV "smart" -- in the sense that you get access to Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube and the rest -- the "apps" on TVs are often redundant. That's why I want my dumb TV (or failing that, a Roku TV). Even so, your next TV will likely have smart apps whether you use them or not.

One advantage of built-in apps is that they're likely 4K and/or HDR if your TV supports those formats, whereas the cheapest external streamers are not. On the other hand you can get a great 4K HDR streamer for $60, and often the experience will be much better than on the TV.

Further reading: Smart TV or media streamer?

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Roku TVs are cord-cutter-friendly, with scads of streaming apps and great antenna support.

Sarah Tew/CNET

TV antenna tuner

If you're planning on cutting the cable TV cord, or you have already, you might want to make sure the TV you get has a built-in over-the-air tuner. It will allow you to watch free local TV broadcasts, usually in higher quality than cable, satellite or streaming.

Some new TVs like Roku TVs and Amazon Fire TV Edition sets are particularly tuner-friendly, with full grid-style program guides and, in Roku's case, a guide that points to streaming shows

Further reading: Cord cutter's guide to the best indoor antennas

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 (especially cool is Samsung's new system), 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 to ignominy in a drawer.

Further reading: Best universal remotes

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A good universal remote can easily retire the one included with your TV.

Sarah Tew/CNET

High-end styling, hidden wiring

Since TVs are basically furniture, manufacturers have concentrated on making their sets look nicer. One of the most extreme examples is LG's "wallpaper OLED," which is so thin it basically blends into the wall. Many TVs today look like almost all picture from the front, and when seen from the side or hung on a wall, the thin cabinets almost disappear. Other innovations include channels to hide wiring and, in the case of high-end Samsung TVs, a separate input box to further combat clutter.

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Some of Samsung's QLED TVs have an external input box to make hiding wires easier.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Frequently asked questions

What's the best TV brand?
I don't have a favorite brand; instead I try to judge the TVs I test on their individual merits, largely ignoring brand cachet or reputation. I don't test TVs over the long term, but from what I know all of the major brands are more or less equally reliable. Some brands do perform more consistently better than others in my tests, or deliver remotes, smart TV systems or designs I prefer over competitors, but these can change on a fairly regular basis.

Another way to answer that question is to check out my current list of best TVs.

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 improved by specialized gaming modes common on most TVs.

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Input lag is measured for every TV we review.

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. That said, simply selecting the "Movie," "Cinema" or "Calibrated" preset will get you the most accurate picture on most TVs. If you want to go further, 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.

Can I use my TV as a computer monitor?
Yes you can, and it should work very well, especially if it has 4K resolution. 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 we've reviewed a few. And yes, your TV is too tiny.

What happened to 3D TV?
Once a futuristic add-on filled with promise -- remember "Avatar"? -- 3D TV is now basically dead. The last two major brands to support 3D, Sony and LG, dropped support entirely in 2017, joining Samsung, Vizio and most other brands. All of the TV makers we asked cited lack of interest from consumers.

Which HDR format is better, HDR10 or Dolby Vision? What about HLG, and HDR10+?
Neither one has proven better in our tests yet, and it mostly depends on the TV. For more info, check out our guide to HDR formats and an in-depth look at HDR10+.

Where can I find the latest TV reviews?
Right here.

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Sarah Tew/CNET