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How to buy a TV: Fall 2021 update

Buying a new TV can be a confusing process. Our guide makes it as easy as possible.

At long last, we've returned to the rituals of fall -- the kids are back to in-person learning, NFL stadiums are at full capacity and families gather in living rooms to root for their favorite teams. In the tech world, fall signals the start of TV bargain hunting. 

TVs are usually announced in January and go on sale in the spring. This means that major price drops don't start until later in the year in the lead-up to Black Friday and Cyber Monday, when discounts are often at their largest. If you've already picked out the TV you want, now is the time to start scrutinizing prices as we head into the holiday shopping season. 

If you haven't looked for a new TV in a while, however, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the alien-sounding technologies and the unexplained jargon. Fear not, dear reader.

Think of this guide as an oasis in the vast desert of information about TVs. We strive to provide you with 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 we hope it can provide you with the basic tools you need to feel confident when you buy that new set.

Read more: Best TV for 2021

Which TV should I buy right now?

If you just want to skip all the details and buy a great television, we have a few go-to choices among the TVs available in the fall of 2021.

David Katzmaier/CNET

The C1 costs a bundle, but if you can afford it, its amazing image quality is worth the money. The key to that picture quality is OLED technology, which outperforms other types of TVs. It's more expensive than entry-level OLED TVs but has better features, and still costs less than higher-end models like the G1. The only real advantage to the G1 over the C1 is its slim styling, but the C1 is pretty slim itself and comes in a wider array of sizes.

Sizes: 48-, 55-, 65-, 77-, 83-inch.

Read our LG C1 series OLED TV review.

 

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David Katzmaier/CNET

No TV we've ever tested offers this much picture quality for this little cash. Although it's not as good as OLED, the TCL 6-Series still has excellent picture quality thanks to mini-LED tech and well-implemented full-array local dimming, which helps it run circles around just about any other TV at this price. The Roku TV operating system is also our hands-down favorite. This TV came out in 2020 but it's still our favorite for the money in fall 2021.

Sizes: 55-, 65-, 75-inch.

Read our TCL 6-Series (2020 Roku TV) review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Roku is our favorite platform for live TV streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, and it's even better baked into the TV. This TCL 4-Series can't beat any of the models above on image quality -- its 4K resolution and HDR performance don't do much to help the picture -- but it's perfectly fine for most people, especially at this price. 

Sizes: 43-, 50-, 55-, 65-, 75-, 85-inch. (The prices shown below are for the 43-inch size.)

Read our TCL 4-series Roku TV (2021) review.

 

For more choices, check out our constantly updated list of the best TVs in 2021.

Timely advice: Fall is the best time to buy a new TV

The TV buying season is cyclical. Every year new models are introduced in January and start hitting store shelves in March and April. TV prices go down as the year progresses until Black Friday and Cyber Monday in November, when they typically hit bottom. Those sales are best known for crazy, doorbuster pricing on no-name televisions, but the fact is that just about every TV gets a Black Friday price cut. Those sales are just around the corner and now is typically the time when manufacturers start lowering their prices. 

Read moreShould you buy a new TV now, or wait?

There is a chance that this year's discounts will not be nearly as steep as they've been in the past. Pandemic-related manufacturing disruptions have caused across-the-board price hikes throughout the consumer electronics market. It's possible that TV prices will stay higher this year, even with Black Friday pricing. Conversely, manufacturers could end up discounting units enough during the holidays that the price increases turn out to be negligible. Either way, we will be watching the sales prices as they roll in and will update our buying advice accordingly. 

Regardless, if you're a TV enthusiast who insists on the latest features or someone who just needs a TV upgrade, now is still the best time of the year to start looking for deals. 

Read more: Walmart vs. Best Buy vs. Target vs. Costco: What's the best store for buying a TV?

Looking for more advice? Here you go.

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Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

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 close to useless when used as a tool for divining picture quality.

Bigger really is better

We recommend a size of at least 43 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 we've heard is from people who didn't go big enough. And we 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.

Read more: How big a TV should I buy?

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Trust us, bigger is better.

Sarah Tew/CNET

4K and HDR are available on most TVs

TVs with 4K resolution, also known as 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 50 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.

Read moreBest 75-inch TVs

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Many new streaming services offer 4K HDR TV shows and movies.

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 including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus and HBO Max offer both 4K and HDR, but not on every title (although most original series and movies on both services are in 4K HDR). Actual 4K or HDR TV channels are largely nonexistent in the US, but certain events like the Tokyo Olympics and NFL Thursday Night Football on Fox are in 4K HDR.

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.

Read more: 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

We 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 nearly 20 years reviewing TVs, we feel comfortable conveying some generalizations we'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. LCD also has other tech, like quantum dots and mini-LED, that help improve its image quality.
  • 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 color gamut, video processing and display resolution.
  • 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.

Read moreBest TVs for Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5

Considerations beyond size, price and picture quality

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

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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 four times the total pixel count of 4K, that's an incredible 16 times more pixels than 1080p.

A few TVs with 8K resolution are available today, but we don't recommend them. They're expensive -- the cheapest in the US is a 65-inch TCL for $2,100 -- 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.

Read more: What you need to know about 8K TV

Voice control, including Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa

Another big trend in gadgets, including TVs, is the ability to be controlled by voice commands. Many TV remotes have built-in mics and "push to talk" functionality, for example to search for TV shows and movies, and many work with one or both of the two major voice assistants, Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. A handful of newer TVs even have built-in mics that allow them to respond to a "Hey, Google" or "Alexa" wake word, much like a Google Nest or Echo speaker. And numerous models work with existing Alexa or Google speakers too.

Voice control makes some tasks easier than using buttons on a remote. You can not only search for TV shows and movies, but order pizza, play trivia games and music, and control lights and other smart home devices. Other activities, however, are still easier using the remote.

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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 available on many 2020 and 2021 TVs, but for now it's mainly useful for gamers who have a PlayStation5 or Xbox Series X and want to maximize their graphics capabilities. And yes, you should just buy the cheap HDMI cables.

Read more: Best HDMI cables for your new 4K and HDR TV

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Newer TVs with HDMI 2.1 often have "4K/120Hz" labels near the applicable inputs.

David Katzmaier/CNET

Smart TV

Since you can connect an inexpensive Roku or Amazon Fire TV 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. 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 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 less than $50, and often the experience will be much better than on the TV.

Read more: Best streaming device in 2021

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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 for antenna TV shows.

Read more: Cord cutter's guide to the best indoor antennas

Remote controls

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We prefer simple TV remotes without a lot of buttons.

David Katzmaier/CNET

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 so you can ditch those extra remotes. We prefer smaller, simple remotes with just a few buttons that consign most of the action to the screen.

Read more: Best universal remotes

High-end styling, hidden wiring

Since TVs are basically furniture, manufacturers have concentrated on making their sets look nicer. 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 TVs have channels behind the TV for hiding wires.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Frequently asked questions

What's the best TV brand?

We don't have a favorite brand; instead we try to judge the TVs I test on their individual merits, largely ignoring brand cachet or reputation. We don't test TVs over the long term, but from what we 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 we prefer over competitors, but these can change on a fairly regular basis.

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

What's the best TV for gaming? What about sports?

Trick question! We 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.

The exception, as mentioned above, is for gamers with next-generation consoles like PS5 and Xbox Series X who want features like 4K/120Hz and variable refresh rate. Those are only found on newer, more expensive TVs.

Read more: Best TVs for gaming with low input lag

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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 deeper, or perhaps bring in a professional to help, check out our picture settings tips and professional calibration explainer.

What accessories should I buy?

Let me reiterate: All HDMI cables are the same. If you want better audio, we recommend starting with a soundbar or investing in a home theater system. And if the built-in smart TV system on your set isn't up to par, check out a streaming device.

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 whether you use HDMI or go wireless

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're sadly missed.

OK, so what about projectors?

Unlike dinosaur rear-projectors, we think front-projectors are really cool. Here's our favorite home theater projectors and portable projectors.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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 Plus?

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 Plus.

Where can I find the latest TV reviews again?

Right here.