It’s 2020 and what you watch on TV — from cable TV cord cutting to streaming, Netflix to Disney Plus to HBO Max — is changing seemingly every day. And so are the televisions themselves , especially when it’s probably been a few years since you’ve last shopped for one. 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.
Read more: Best 55-inch TVs for 2020
Think of this guide 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.
Which TV should I buy right now?
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 2020.
Best high-end TV for the money
LG OLEDB9P series
OLED TVs are the picture-quality kings, and as the least expensive OLED TV, the B9 is our favorite overall for high-end shoppers. It has a better picture than any non-OLED TV, including QLED models , and spending more for a more expensive OLED TV like the C9 isn’t worth it.
Sizes: 55-, 65-, 77-inch (pricing shown is for 65-inch).
Best TV for the money, period
Can’t afford an OLED TV? The latest version of the TCL 6-Series has excellent image quality for an LCD-based TV, thanks to improved color, and its well-implemented full-array local dimming helps it run circles around just about any other TV at this price. As if that’s not enough, the Roku TV operating system is our hands-down favorite.
Sizes: 55-, 65-inch (pricing shown is for 65-inch).
Best budget TV
Roku is our favorite platform for streaming apps like Netflix, and it’s even better baked into the TV. This TCL 4-Series can’t beat either of the two models above on image quality but it’s perfectly fine for most people, especially at this price.
Sizes: 43-, 50-, 55-, 65-, 75-inch (pricing shown is for 43-inch).
For more choices, check out our constantly updated list of the best TVs in 2020.
Timely advice: Spring is not 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. During spring you’ll still find plenty of last year’s TVs on sale, which is why all of the top TVs we recommend above are 2019 models. The actual 2020 TVs are just starting to come out.
Read more : Should you buy a new TV now, or wait?
If you’re a TV enthusiast who insists on the latest features a new 2020 model might be worth waiting for, but otherwise a 2019 television is perfectly fine. TVs are generally a mature technology, and our advice for most shoppers is not to wait for the next big thing.
Buying a new 2020 TV during spring also means paying top dollar. 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 television gets a Black Friday price cut.
So my advice is to wait until later in the year to get the best deal on a new TV. If you need one now, during the spring, look for a good deal on a 2019 model. The problem is that many of the 2019 sets will sell out as spring and summer progress, leaving you with little option but to overpay for a new one, at least until the fall price cuts, or a sale like Amazon Prime Day, rolls around.
Looking for more advice? Here you go.
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.
Read more : TV marketing terms and what they mean
Bigger really is better
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.
4K and HDR are the norm
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.
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 and Google Play, or invest in a 4K Blu-ray player and discs to play on it. Actual 4K or HDR TV channels are still nonexistent in the US, 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.
Read more : Why all HDR on TVs isn’t the same
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 nearly 20 years reviewing TVs, 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. 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.
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 7,680×4,320 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.
The first TVs with 8K resolution are already available today. They’re typically huge and super expensive — the cheapest in the US is a 65-inch Samsung for $3,500 — 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. 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 many of LG’s 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 and LG, Roku, Samsung, Sony and Vizio TVs will work with both Alexa and Google speakers.
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 2019 and 2020 TVs but it’s not worth worrying about for most buyers. And yes, you should just buy the cheap HDMI cables.
Read more : Best HDMI cables for your new 4K and HDR 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 $50 , and often the experience will be much better than on the TV.
Read more : Smart TV or media streamer?
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
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. I 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.
Frequently asked questions
What’s the best TV brand?
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? 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.
Read more : Best TVs for gaming with low input lag
What about all those picture settings? Should I buy a calibration? picture settings database and FAQ along with the articles TV settings explained and What is TV calibration? for advice on whether it’s right for you. DIY-ers can check out one of these Blu-ray setup discs for your TV , or even try a calibration by eye .
What accessories should I buy? All HDMI cables are the same . If you don’t have a universal remote already, you should get one. Our lists of best home video and best home audio gear have more good suggestions.
How long will my new TV last? Here’s the longer version .
Can I use my TV as a computer monitor? Here are a few tips .
How do I set it up? has you covered again .
What happened to 3D TV? 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.
Where can I find the latest TV reviews again? Right here .
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