The 6 Things You Absolutely Need to Know Before Buying a TV…When They All Look the Same to You

published Jan 17, 2017
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(Image credit: Marie-Lyne Quirion)

So you’re shopping for a new television. You enter a big box store and find yourself standing in front of a synchronized wall of flashing monitors, a dizzying world of sensory overload that gives you everything except answers to your questions such as: Will this picture look as good in my home as it does here? What features will I really use? Why is it so hot in here, and why don’t these stores serve cocktails?!

Buying a television these days can be overwhelming. You need to know a thing or two before you get hypnotized by the TV wall, or endless browser scrolling. More specifically, it’s helpful to know the difference between marketing jargon and the few pieces of wisdom that will help you choose the TV that’s right for you. Most of the language on the box is designed to cajole you into buying a more expensive model or to help you justify your already expensive purchase (my TV has more Quantum Dots than YOURS does!). So let’s sweep the confusion away, shall we? And get down to the six things you need to know before you buy a television.

Armed with these few knowledge nuggets, and some comfort around the jargon, and you’ll be set to buy the perfect set.

Size matters.

When it comes to size, things can go one of two ways: You get your TV home, mount it on the wall and realize it looks dinky. Regret city. Or, you go as big as you can afford and ignore the rest of the features, which you might regret as well. Size is tricky, so just like with a sofa or coffee table or any other major investment, it helps to measure in advance and even tape a rectangle on the wall to ensure that your selection isn’t too big (or too small) for the space.

Choosing the right-sized TV will also depend on how far away you’re viewing it. Use this as a guideline: Watch the TV from 1.5 to 2.5 inches away for every inch of diagonal width. Example: If you have a 55-inch TV in your living room, your couch should be somewhere between 6.9 and 11.5 feet away for an ideal viewing experience. If you’re watching lots of 4K content and you buy a 4K TV, you can sit on the closer end of that range and not observe any pixelation—the picture will still be sharp from closer up.

Speaking of diagonal width, don’t forget that a TV’s inch size refers to just that—the diagonal width of it’s screen, not to its horizontal width. (Makes it sound bigger, doesn’t it?). The actual width and height of, say, a 55″ inch TV can vary depending on its housing, so make sure you look up the actual width and height dimensions of the TV before you start measuring.

Bottom line: Size depends greatly on your viewing distance. When it doubt (and if the budget allows), go larger. You won’t be sorry.

(Image credit: Sophie Timothy)

Know your display types.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you don’t care too much about how your TV makes a Real Housewives marathon appear on your screen, only that it does it well, and will continue to do so years to come. So here’s a quick rundown of the common display types on the market today, so you can choose the one that’s right for your space:

  • A Plasma TV is great for a dark room (like a dedicated home theater), because they have high contrast and a wide viewing angle (easy to see from all over the room). However, they can suffer from glare issues in a normal living room with windows or other ambient light.
  • An LCD (liquid crystal display) TV is a good entry level option, as they’re typically less expensive than an LED or OLED. Not the best for a crowd (like your next Superbowl party), because viewing angles are limited. For a bedroom (where you’re typically watching straight-on from bed), it’s a good, inexpensive option.
  • An LED (light emitting diode) TV is the most widely-available option right now, in tons of sizes and prices. Typically more expensive than a Plasma or an LCD, but less than an OLED.
  • OLEDs (organic light emitting diodes) are the best things going, said to combine the best qualities of a Plasma and an LED. They perform well in brighter rooms; they’re super-thin; they also have high contrast ratios and beautiful dark blacks, which create great cinematic visuals. OLEDs are also expensive to make right now, so you’ll be paying more for all these best-of-class features (with prices hopefully coming down soon).

Bottom Line: An OLED TV is the best you can do. LED TVs are the most widely available, but an LCD or Plasma might be great for you depending on your room specifications and needs.

What’s the deal with curved TVs?

A curved TV might seduce you with it’s unique look, but since its initial introduction, it’s been proven to be more of a gimmick than anything else. They boast a more “immersive experience”, but most reviewers don’t notice a bit of difference in picture quality between a flat and curved screen, and often complain about restricted viewing angles.

To my eye, they look funny when wall mounted, and are really prettier when sitting on a console, which is not how most of us want our TVs displayed these days. On the flipside, while most of the industry has become jaded about curved TVs, they will likely elicit an OOOH or an AAAH from your guests. If you love the look and want to splurge, go for it.

A Few Curved TV Recommendations:

(Image credit: Amazon)

(Image credit: Amazon)

How sharp is too sharp?

Once you’ve chosen a size and display type, you’ll want to tackle picture resolution next. A TV’s resolution simply refers to the number of pixels that make up the picture on the TV. The more pixels (or dots), the finer the resolution and more crisp the picture. Too few pixels, and you’ll have a grainy image. Too many, and…well, the human eye stops being able to discern the improvement at a point. Moreover, your image is only as good as the content you’re watching on it, so if you’re watching reruns of Fantasy Island, your 4K TV won’t do you much good.

What you need to know: 720p TVs are still available, but it’s outdated technology in which I wouldn’t invest. Stick to a 1080p (can also be called “Full Definition” or “High Definition” as well…confused yet?), or a 4K TV (also called “Ultra High Definition” or “UHD”).

A 4K TV has roughly eight million dots or four times as many pixels as a 1080p, and while much of the content you watch on TV is not yet in 4K, that will change in the coming years, and you’ll want a TV that can beautifully display all that high resolution content.

A recent upgrade to the 4K options (it’s not applicable to 1080p TVs or lower) is something called HDR or “High Dynamic Range” (also called Ultra HD Premium or Dolby Vision). It promises more realistic colors and a more cinematic experience at home. Again, you’ll need to be watching HDR content to see the most noticeable difference, but you will definitely see brighter colors, less banding and an overall richer picture. If you can afford the upgrade, go for it.

Bottom line: A 4K, HDR resolution is the best you can do, but 1080p is an inexpensive option that will still display today’s content beautifully.

Consider These HDR TVs:

(Image credit: Amazon)

(Image credit: Amazon)

(Image credit: Amazon)

The hook up.

This is an easy one: Make sure the TV you’re selecting has enough inputs for all the things you’d like to connect to it. Sounds simple, but this often bites people in the butt when they open the box and realize there’s one too few inputs to connect their XBox or Chomecast. These days, HDMI or DisplayPort inputs are the standard for everything from Blu-Ray players to computers to gaming consoles to cable boxes. But if you want to connect an old DVD player or VCR, you’ll need to make sure you have an analog port.

In other words, count the components you’re going to connect and note their connectivity needs before you go shopping (ideally, you’ll have a couple HDMI ports left over for future expansion).

Bottom Line: Check the tech specs to make sure you have the inputs you need before you buy. It’s common for older models of TVs to come with one two HDMI ports, so if you have a lot to connect, look for three or more.

(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

Get smart (or not).

This is a matter of preference. A Smart TV can connect to the internet (via wi-fi or ethernet jack) and stream content through pre-installed apps like Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and the like. This kind of built-in connectivity might negate the need for a Roku or Amazon Fire TV, resulting in less clutter and less wires around the TV. Many new TVs are smart, but you’ll be paying a premium to have this feature for now.

On the other hand, it’s easy enough to get an HDMI stick to make any TV “smart”—it might be a bit clunkier to navigate, but if that math works, it’s a good option.

Bottom line: Smart TV technology can replace the need for a streaming media device, but can easily be replicated by an HDMI stick like Roku or Amazon Fire TV.


(Image credit: Amazon)

(Image credit: Amazon)

(Image credit: Amazon)

(Image credit: Amazon)

Sounds good.

The thinner the TV, the smaller the speaker driver, which means…crappy sound. In fact, most TVs these days don’t sound very good due to the teensy speakers on the back of its thin frame (that you’re trying to mount as close as possible to the wall). To get your TV to sound great, you will need to factor in its integration into an existing home audio system, or plan on purchasing a sound bar. Fortunately, there are some great looking sound bars out there that sound as good as they look, but there won’t be one to match every television’s width and style, so just make sure you have a plan before you get home and realize you can’t hear any of the Gilmore Girls witty repartee.

Bottom line: Thin TVs have trouble sounding great. Count on adding a sound bar to remedy if audio quality is important to you.

Sound Bars

(Image credit: Amazon)

(Image credit: Amazon)

(Image credit: Amazon)

Shopping for a TV? Let me know what your biggest questions are in the comments!

Looking for more TV buying advice? Don’t miss the rest of the Ultimate Guide to Buying a TV series: