If it’s been a few years since you have bought a new TV, well, a lot has changed. No longer is it enough to go into a store and simply look for the best picture and sound. The advent of smart TVs has turned the typical display device into an all-in-one media center. This is good news, because you now get a lot more functionality for your money; however, it also means there are many more features you need to learn about and consider.
What is a Smart TV?
For the past two years at least, nearly every HDTV on the market has also been a smart TV. When these products first started emerging, we called them Internet TVs or connected TVs or a few other terms that have fallen out of use to be replaced by Smart TV. In short, a smart TV is any television that supports an Internet connection and online content services. Often, smart TVs include advanced features such as voice or gesture control, voice search, social media integration, app control and universal search features. The more features the TV has, the smarter it is.
The most popular feature on a smart TV is online media streaming. Services like Netflix, Amazon Video, VUDU, Cinema Now, Pandora, Slacker and more offer instant gratification for people who like a wide assortment of content available at their fingertips. A smart TV with media streaming and an Internet connection requires no extra hardware to be a complete entertainment hub. This has traditional cable companies a little upset because many customers have decided that directly-streamed Internet content is all they need, so they forgo those expensive cable subscriptions. Along with that, it’s important to remember that every HDTV sold today includes a digital over-the-air tuner for broadcast television networks. An inexpensive TV and a broadband Internet connection can often provide all the television content a family could ask for.
Where do you start?
When selecting a new TV, you’ll first need to decide how you plan to use it and what you want to watch on it. If you’re convinced that online streaming services are not for you, and you don’t want to learn how to use any new features, then look for a very basic smart TV. These days you’ll have trouble finding them, but some of the less popular TV brands still offer barebones TVs at bargain prices.
TIP: A smart TV with multiple streaming services is a good choice for a bedroom, den or kitchen,where installing an additional cable box would be difficult.
SIZE: TVs have gotten bigger and thinner over the years. There are several rule-of-thumb approaches to selecting the appropriate size TV, and most of them suggest a larger size than you had originally anticipated. This is because they’re based on field of view, and sometimes resolution. Instead of calculating the TV based on your field of view, instead consider how much space you have. You probably have more space than you believe. Today’s TVs have almost no bezel around the picture screen, and that lets you fit more TV into the same amount of space as your older TV. The average viewer sits about 10 feet from his/her living room TV. At this viewing distance, a 60- or 70-inch HDTV is not out of line. THX recommends a 40 degree field of view, which means that if you sit 10 feet from your TV you should be watching a 100-inch screen. If you opt for a new 4K Ultra HD TV, then your eyes wouldn’t even notice pixels if you were five feet away.
TIP: Our rule of thumb is to get the biggest TV that your wall space can accommodate. For a family’s main TV nothing smaller than 55 inches will do.
DISPLAY TECHNOLOGY: The selection of display technologies available on TVs today is a lot simpler to comprehend now than it was just a couple of years ago. There are two main choices among 1080p resolution TVs: LED LCD and plasma. Just a few years ago you’d need to decide between LCD and LED LCD, plus DLP rear projection. The LCD and DLP options are largely gone. In fact, plasma TVs have also mostly been phased out, much to the disappointment of a lot of TV enthusiasts. Only Samsung and LG still make plasma TVs (and Samsung won’t for very much longer), and just a few at that. So essentially you have a choice between a few models of plasma and a lot of LED LCD TVs. If you’re looking for the best picture quality, especially if you plan to watch TV with the lights on and the window shades open, then check out the better plasma TVs. Other than that, LED LCD is the way to go.
There are two different types of LED LCDs: edge lit and backlit (sometimes called full-array). Unlike a plasma TV, an LCD panel doesn’t actually produce any light itself. It requires a light source to create the picture—that’s the LED part (light emitting diode). TV manufacturers can either put the LEDs on the sides and then use a system of light channels to pipe the light behind the TV, or they can place the LEDs directly behind the TV. Edge-lit TVs have the benefit of being thinner (centimeters in some cases) and often cheaper than full-array models. Because of the placement of the LEDs, often edge-lit TVs will produce some uneven distribution of the lighting—this is usually seen in the form of brighter spots around sides or corners during very dark scenes of a movie. Full-array or backlit LED LCD TVs usually make up a company’s line of premium offerings. In a full-array model, the LEDs are divided into multiple zones behind the LCD screen. If the TV has a feature called Local Dimming (different manufacturers may call it slightly different things), then the LEDs have the ability to dim or turn off individually for dark sections of a picture. This produces a better contrast ratio (the difference between the TV’s blackest and whitest picture) and better black reproduction. The more dimming zones the better. Some edge-lit TVs also include local dimming features, and while they work, they’re not as effective as dimming on true backlit TVs.
What about OLED? OLED (organic light emitting diode) TVs may be the next big thing in TV display technology, but there are only a few models on the market now, and for most people, they’re prohibitively expensive.
What about 3DTV? Around 2009 3DTV seemed to be on a rocket ship trajectory. But like the exhaust of a rocket ship, the fad quickly faded. While now almost every TV over 32 inches is a 3D TV, it’s now just a standard, rather than a premium feature. The number of 3D movies and 3D Blu-ray releases has also dropped as viewers have pegged 3D a gimmick they don’t much care for. Still, if you like TV, then you have two choices of 3D: Active or Passive.
Active 3D TVs use battery operated glasses ($50 to $100) with built-in LCDs that act like shutters in sync with the alternating frames of a 3D video. Passive 3D puts most of the work in the screen, rather than in the glasses, so they use simple and cheap ($10 to $20) polarized glasses, similar to what most 3D movie houses use. Both systems work pretty well, but in a 1080p TV, the passive 3D method reduces a video’s resolution by half.