How to buy a TV in 2016

Looking for honest TV advice? CNET explains the most important things to know when shopping for TVs in 2016.

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Buying a new television is an overwhelming experience. 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 morass 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.

Cut to the chase: Which TV should I buy?

If you just want to skip all the details and buy a great television, I have three go-to choices:

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

Looking for more detailed advice on buying TVs in 2016? Read on.

Three rules for buying a TV

1. 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.

Contrast ratio is usually bunk (when it's listed at all). Refresh rate (60Hz, 120Hz, 240Hz, etc.) is complex and ultimately subjective (when it's not inflated on a 4K TV). 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, whether or not it it's augmented by Quantum Dots or Triluminos. (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 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: From SUHD to nits: 2016 TV marketing terms and what they mean

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Geoff Morrison/CNET

2. 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. If you're replacing an existing TV set, those sizes might seem too big but trust me, a big TV is a wonderful thing.

In fact, more than any other "feature" like 4K resolution, HDR, Smart TV or a fancy remote, 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 and HDR are worth considering

If you've been TV shopping in the last year, you've probably been faced with the decision "to 4K or not to 4K." And you've probably seen "HDR," which stands for high dynamic range.

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. Simply put, those pixels are too small to provide a discernible benefit unless you sit very close to a very big TV. Even then, you'll need to be watching actual 4K content (TV shows, movies or games) to get any benefit.

On the other hand, 4K LCD TVs are easy for manufacturers to produce, so they're coming down quickly in price. Vizio, TCL and even Samsung offer 65-inch 4K TVs for around $1,000. These days many TVs -- especially the big ones -- have 4K resolution, and 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 midpriced and higher-end 4K TVs this year 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.

4K TV shows and movies are rare today, and HDR is even less common. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon offer both, but only with a handful of titles. You can also invest in a 4K Blu-ray player (like the Samsung UBD-K8500 or Xbox One S), which also do HDR, and discs to play on it. Actual 4K TV channels are still nonexistent in the United States, however, as are HDR broadcasts.

Bottom line? No matter whether they're showing a normal HDTV show or a 4K HDR Blu-ray disc , almost all of the best TVs are 4K TVs with HDR. If you're shopping for a bigger TV or a high-end TV, you'll probably end up with a 4K one anyway, and chances are it'll do HDR too. On the other hand if you're looking to save money, a good 1080p TVs is still your best bet -- and it won't go obsolete anytime soon.

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

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Every CNET TV review is conducted as a side-by-side comparison with up to 7 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 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 15 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 have the best picture quality available. But they're still quite expensive, so now that plasma is dead nearly every TV uses LED LCD technology.
  • 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.
  • 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, 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: Best TVs for picture quality, regardless of price

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 an inexpensive HDMI stick or box 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). Even so, your next TV will likely have Smart apps whether you use them or not.

Further reading: Smart TV or media streamer?

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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
Once a futuristic add-on filled with promise -- remember "Avatar"? -- 3D TV is now basically dead. This year Samsung, the world's No. 1 TV brand, dropped 3D support entirely, joining Vizio and most TVs from other brands. Higher-end LG and Sony sets still offer it for fans who care, but that's it.

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 (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, no matter how fancy, to ignominy in a drawer.

Further reading: Best universal remotes

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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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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 brand?
I don't have a favorite brand, instead I try to judge the TVs I test on their individual merits, 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 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. That said, simply selecting the "Movie" or "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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Which HDR format is better, HDR10 or Dolby Vision?
Neither one has proven better in our tests yet, but so far TVs with Dolby Vision have look better when fed Dolby Vision content. Here's a primer on the HDR format war.

Seriously, what about SUHD, Super UHD, Triluminos, Quantum Dots, UHD Alliance Premium Certified and so on?
Remember when I told you to ignore the spec sheet? Still curious? Alrighty then.

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

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


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