Call us biased, but we believe our TV reviews are the best on the planet. Here's how we nail the details.
Did you know CNET reviews TVs by comparing them directly in a side-by-side lineup, after each has been measured and evaluated with specialized equipment and software? Did you know the main instrument used to measure those televisions costs about $28,000? Did you know CNET TV reviews include gaming, 4K high dynamic range performance, off-angle and bright room evaluations, in addition to testing smart TV features, voice commands and more?
Yes, we're biased, but we consider CNET's TV reviews the best in the business. We've been doing it for more than two decades and we've honed the process to serve the ultimate goal: helping you figure out which TV to buy. We have a proven set of tools and procedures designed to arrive at unbiased results using video-quality evaluation tools, objective testing criteria and trained experts. Here's how we do it.
The most important piece of test equipment is an experienced eye. Test patterns and the latest gear are no substitute for a knowledgeable evaluator with a background in reviewing similar types of TVs. CNET's head of TV reviews, David Katzmaier, has extensive experience reviewing and calibrating displays.
CNET's main TV lab is a large room where we set up comparison lineups. There are curtains over the windows to block out light -- or admit it for daytime viewing tests -- and a large curtain divides the space from the rest of the lab. Light control is a big deal for TV testing. We perform most measurements in complete darkness, as is the industry standard, to isolate the TV's output from ambient light. The walls are painted dark gray and the floor and ceiling are dark as well, to minimize contamination from light and maximize background contrast.
Our primary mechanical test device is a Konica Minolta CS-2000 spectroradiometer (which costs about $28,000), one of the most-accurate devices of its kind. It measures luminance and color from any type of display, including OLED, LCD and LED-based flat panels.
Here's a list of our other test equipment and hardware:
Here's a list of the reference and test software we use:
CNET TV reviews are based on one reviewer's hands-on experience with a single sample of one model and size. While our experiences are usually representative, we can't always be sure of that since performance can vary from sample to sample -- particularly if newer samples receive updated firmware, or if manufacturers make changes without updating the model name. We typically review models as quickly as possible, so we often receive early versions of firmware that are sometimes corrected later. However, we never review preproduction samples. All of the samples used in CNET TV reviews represent, as far as we can tell, shipping models.
CNET obtains most of its review samples directly from manufacturers, typically by an editor asking a public relations representative for the desired model. This, unfortunately, can lead to manufacturers sending non-representative samples, or even tampering with the units before they're sent, to help ensure better reviews. If we spot a blatant case of tampering, we'll note it in the review, but we can't always prove it (and in case you're wondering, no, we've never spotted a case of tampering that we could prove enough to mention in a review). If a manufacturer can't ship a sample or doesn't want us to review a particular set, we sometimes buy the model in question ourselves.
We strive to consistently test all TVs we review using the procedure below. In cases where not all of the tests are followed, we'll note the missing items in the review.
Aside from the bright-room portion of the test (see below), CNET TV reviews take place in a completely darkened environment. We realize that most people don't always watch TV in the dark, but we use a dark environment for a number of reasons. Most importantly, darkness eliminates the variable of light striking the TV's screen, which can skew the appearance of the image. It makes differences in image quality easier to spot, especially perceived black-level performance, which is severely affected by ambient light. Darkness also allows viewers at home to more easily match the reviewer's experiences. Finally, darkness is the environment we find most satisfying for watching high-quality material on a high-performance TV.
Measurement: As of the 2022 model year, we no longer calibrate the TVs we review. The main reason is that buyers are unlikely to pay for a professional calibration, so the measurements we take of the raw, uncalibrated picture settings provide a more representative comparison. There are a couple of other reasons for the change as well. First off, 4K and HDR material is becoming more common, and we never calibrated for HDR in the first place. We've also found that over the years, the most accurate preset picture modes have improved.
Once the TV is warmed up, we perform a series of measurements using the spectroradiometer and Calman software. The lens is set in the middle of the screen at a set distance (18 inches from the screen). We measure every picture mode for both SDR and HDR sources and choose the best and most accurate ones for my comparisons. In general the most accurate modes are Movie, Cinema or something similar, while the brightest are usually Vivid or Dynamic. We judge each mode's accuracy based on the accepted standards for color, gamma and HDR EOTF, or Electro-Optical Transfer Function, and report which modes are most accurate in the review.
Side-by-side comparison: Every TV CNET reviews is compared with others in the room during the evaluation. This is a direct, side-by-side comparison; the TVs are literally lined up next to one another and compared in real time, with the reviewer recording observations on a laptop computer. We feed numerous sources through the AVPro distribution amplifier -- a device that can feed multiple TVs the exact same signal with no degradation. The TVs being compared often share similar prices, screen sizes and other characteristics, but can just as often be more or less expensive or have different characteristics to better illustrate major differences (such as between LCD and OLED, or an extremely expensive set versus a less-expensive model).
These comparisons allow CNET to make definitive, in-context statements about virtually every area of a TV's performance.
Image-quality tests: We perform a broad range of tests on all televisions we review, organized into a few key categories.
At the end of the TV review you'll find our recommended picture mode as well as any additional notes on which settings delivered the most accurate picture for us. We no longer list specific numeric settings because they can vary from sample to sample.
The Geek Box is where we put many of the objective results we attain from measurements. It's been overhauled continually over the years as our testing evolves and is somewhat shorter in 2022 (we replaced the individual color measurements with a simple average, for example).
The box contains three columns: Test, Result and Score. Each test is detailed below. The result of each test is either numeric or pass-fail. Each score is either Good, Average or Poor. We determined the cutoffs for those scores based on guidelines in the Calman software, data gathered from past reviews and editorial discretion.
The color and saturation results list error levels, namely DeltaE 2000 as reported by Calman, compared to the industry reference. Results of 3 or lower are Good, 5 or lower Average and higher than 5 Poor.
Other than color, the Geek Box also reports:
Black luminance (0%): This is the black level in nits from a custom test pattern (User Defined window with Pattern Size 15, Pattern APL 10 on the Murideo SixG) using the most accurate SDR and HDR picture mode. Good is 0.27 or less, Average 0.65 or less and Poor is anything Brighter.
Peak white luminance (10% win): This is the maximum brightness in nits using the brightest (but not necessarily the most accurate) SDR and HDR picture mode. Good is 500 or higher (1,000 for HDR), Average is 300 or higher (700 for HDR) and Poor is anything dimmer.
Avg. gamma (10 to 100%): Only reported for SDR, this measures the progression from dark to bright compared against the 2.2 standard. Deviations of 0.1 or lower are Good, 0.2 or lower Average and higher than 0.2 Poor.
Input lag: Unless otherwise noted in the review, this is the lowest (fastest) lag measurement in milliseconds for SDR and 4K HDR sources, typically using the TV's game mode.
Gamut % UHDA/P3 (CIE 1976): Only reported for HDR, this is the P3 color gamut coverage using the CIE 1976 color space. 95% or higher is Good, 90% or higher Average and less than 90% Poor.
Note that while these numbers and scores are useful, they don't necessarily represent the full picture quality of a display, and we consider many other factors when arriving at the numeric performance score in a CNET review.