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TV sizes: Most people don't know their TV is too small

Pick a TV size based on these three rules of thumb (or just buy the biggest screen you can find).

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LG's wall-sized direct-view LED TV.

LG

TVs have gotten pretty big, but how big is too big? How big a TV do you really need? 50-inch? 65? 85? Perhaps a TV the size of a wall? Or maybe a TV that is a wall. No matter what TV size you want, there's probably an option. The thing is, you can probably go bigger than you're imagining. Thanks to 4K resolutions and ultraslim designs, modern TVs have larger screens but take up less space than older TVs. Plus, you can sit even closer to them to make the image seem even bigger.

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Brett Pearce/CNET

Our basic advice is simple: Get as big a TV as you can afford. The longer answer depends on your room, your seating distance and the acceptance factor of any cohabitating co-deciders.

Here's how to figure out how big you can go.

Read more: Best 75-inch TVs for 2021

TV sizes and seating distance

If you ask TV and theatrical industry groups, they'll tell you to measure your seating distance to determine the ideal screen size. The farther away you sit, obviously, the smaller your TV appears. The ideal is to have a screen that fills a certain amount of your field of view, though how much is "ideal" is up for debate.

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Consider 55 inches the minimum screen size for most living rooms.

LG

THX recommends, for example, you multiply your seating distance (in inches or centimeters) by 0.835. This gets you the recommended screen diagonal. So if you're like most people and you're sitting about nine feet from your TV (108 inches), THX recommends a screen roughly 90 inches diagonal. So yeah, that big 65-inch TV you're looking at is not "too big," at least as far as THX is concerned. 

The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers recommends a viewing angle of 30 degrees, which is quite a bit less than THX. To match SMPTE's recommendation, multiply your seating distance by 0.625. So given our nine-foot example, that means a TV around 68 inches (so a 65- or 70-inch model would work).

While these are good guidelines, don't take them as steadfast rules. It's far too easy to get caught up in a numbers game when the reality is far more complex. There are additional factors in play.

Read more: Best home theater projector for 2021

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This 85-inch Samsung is pretty big. But is it big enough?

Sarah Tew/CNET

TV resolution and screen size: 4K, 8K, 1080p

Nearly all new TVs are Ultra HD 4K resolution. A growing number are 8K. Only the smallest and least expensive models are still merely HD (1080p or 720p). 

To see all the detail available in a 4K or 8K resolution image you either need to sit very close, or have a very large TV. In fact, if you're sitting nine feet away, even "big" TVs are still too small for you to see all the resolution for which they're capable. Or to put it another way, the resolution of your next TV is going to be plenty unless you're sitting very close, or are getting an exceptionally large TV (over 100 inches). So yeah, you don't need an 8K TV. If you want to know how far away you need to sit before you can no longer see individual pixels, Sony offers the following chart. 

Sony's recommended seating distance

TV size Viewing distance range (approx.)
43-inch 35 inches (2.95 feet)
49-inch 39 inches (3.28 feet)
55-inch 39 inches (3.28 feet)
65-inch 47 inches (3.94 feet)
75-inch 55 inches (4.59 feet)
85-inch 63 inches (5.25 feet)

The flip side is that with lower-quality content a big TV will expose more flaws. If you find yourself noticing blockiness, video noise or other artifacts when watching shows and movies on your current TV, a larger model will show those issues even more. Eagle-eyed viewers who want a bigger TV should also look for better video to feed it, for example 4K streaming and Blu-ray.

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

TV room domination: How big is too big?

The other major factor to consider is something I'll call "room domination." How big does a TV have to be before that looming black rectangular slab seems to be the only thing in the room? This factor is definitely subjective. As someone who's had a 12-foot-wide projection screen in his house for over a decade, and has also reviewed large TVs, I'll take the big projection screen over a TV any day (not least because when the "TV" is off, a projector's screen is white or gray, a TV is glossy black). An 80-plus inch TV can easily just dominate a space. Wall mounting can help a bit, but your TV room risks becoming the TV's room.

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Read more: 9 quick TV settings that'll hugely improve your picture quality

If you have any doubts, try taping off or cutting out cardboard the size of the TV you're thinking about, and seeing how it fares in your room. You might want to paint it, or put some black cloth over it, too. That's what it's going to look like when it's turned off (features like Samsung's Ambient Mode notwithstanding). Maybe that's not a concern for you, but it will be for some. Know that once the TV is actually in there, it will be way more awesome than cardboard, and probably brighter. It will also seem way, way bigger. It certainly depends on your room, décor and the opinions of others who share that room.

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MicroLED promises even larger TVs, sizes once only possible with projectors.

Samsung

Do bigger TVs make for a better viewing experience?

I'll be honest, I don't subscribe to any of the established "rules" for viewing distance and screen size. I think the SMPTE and the lesser THX numbers are too TV-biased. I think they vastly underestimate what's easily possible with modern technology, for those who want more.

Read more: At 292 inches, Samsung's 'The Wall' TV might be the biggest screen we've ever seen

I sit nine feet from a 102-inch screen. That's just the 16x9 portion. The full screen is 2.35:1 and 128 inches diagonal. I can just barely make out pixels when I expand a 1080p projector to the full width of the screen, but in standard 16x9 viewing, I can't. 4K looks amazing. Watching TV this size is addictive, and I love it.

Read moreLG's 325-inch, $1.7 million direct-view LED TV

I mention this as proof you can go much larger than most people assume is possible. Check out how inexpensive, and bright, projectors have gotten. We've reviewed a bunch lately and have lists of the best projectors overall and best 4K projectors.

Do you want to go that big? Well, that's a different question. I find larger screen sizes easier on the eyes, as more of your field of view is taken up with the roughly uniform brightness of the screen. In an otherwise dark room, your pupils are more naturally closed to the amount of light thanks to the big screen.

Conversely, I find watching a small screen in a dark room more fatiguing, as your pupils are more open (because of the dark room) with this one annoying pinprick of bright light (the TV). Many people complain about headaches when they watch TV in a dark room. One possible cause is the hundreds of nits from an HDR TV taking up a tiny fraction of your field of view. Think about when someone shines a flashlight in your eyes when you've been in the dark for an hour. With a projector, you've got far less light than what a TV produces, and it's spread out over a huge swath of your vision.

True bias lights, leaving the room lights on and turning down an LCD's backlight can minimize fatigue as well or better than a big screen, but I like watching TV in a dark room. To each their own.

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LG

Bottom line: You could go much, much bigger with your next TV

The ultimate decision is one of personal preference. My goal here was to point out a rough idea of what's possible or recommended. For me, I would always err on the side of "too big." An old boss of mine used to say that no one regretted buying a TV they thought might be "too big." My opinion is that a 50-inch TV is too small for most rooms. That's not to say I think everyone should get a 102-inch screen, but the reality is a 50-inch flat panel is really not that much larger than the 36-inch CRTs of the old days. Since 65- and even 75-inch TVs are now far more affordable, they're worth considering if you've got the space. 

If you want to go really big, consider a projector instead if you've got control over the ambient light in your room.

Best TVs by size

Note: First published in 2012 but updated regularly with new info and links.


As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castlesairplane graveyards and more. 

You can follow his exploits on Instagram and YouTube about his 10,000 mile road trip. He also has written a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines, along with a sequel.