Growing up in the 80s, buying a TV was simple. My dad would drive to the local electronics store and pick the cheapest one. He’d haul it back home in his Chrysler station wagon and proudly place it in front of the family room sofa. We didn’t care about specs — Mom was just happy to watch her midday soaps.
Now, the buying experience has changed. Shoppers have higher quality standards. But with a multitude of options and technologies to choose from, more homework is required.
So, before you click “buy” during your Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping, let’s get you up to speed on the latest buzzwords and technologies. Read on and be sure you aren’t getting an outdated piece of junk (high definition, anyone?). After grasping all the lingo here, we promise you’ll feel as confident as a dad in 1985.
What is 4K resolution? 6K? 8K? And what screen resolution do you need?
Resolution matters and it’s the first thing any buyer should consider. Why? Ever take a photo on your smartphone and zoom in real close? It gets all fuzzy, doesn’t it? Those fuzzy little dots of color are called pixels. And when it comes to picture quality, the more densely packed the pixels are, the more lifelike things become. That’s called “high resolution.”
The same rules apply to your TV. The higher the resolution, the better.
Bottom line: Buy a 4K TV, otherwise known as an Ultra High Definition (UHD) TV. It offers four times the resolution of HD TV. With eight million pixels, you have enough resolution to give you a picture worth watching on Super Bowl weekend. You can hold off on a 6K or 8K until movie makers catch up. Here are some examples of TVs with different resolutions in different price points:
What is HDR in your TV mean? Ultra HD?
Most newer models offer the buzzworthy feature that is high dynamic range (HDR) already. It means the TV is designed to offer a brighter or more vivid picture. (You may be able to notice a blemish on Tom Brady from afar, for example.)
HDR is a catch-all term for a variety of ways to deliver it. If vividness is especially important to you, upgrade to a 4K TV that features "ultra high definition" (UHD) or some version of HDR, as well. It'll get you an even better color presentation. If you see "Dolby Vision" or Samsung’s "HDR 10+" advertised, that’s considered a higher end form of HDR that promises to deliver striking scenes.
Quick Tip: TVs that are bright will also offer a better-performing HDR and – are more expensive.
Here are some examples of TVs sporting Dolby Vision, UHD and HDR 10+ in different price points:
OLED? LCD? LED? QLED? Which panel type is right for you?
When it comes to TVs in the higher-end spectrum, many sport either OLED or QLED panels, acronyms you'll see sprayed across their names. According to Popular Mechanics, they're also "the most prevalent" terms you might encounter during your TV shopping journey. Here's a quick breakdown of what everything means:
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
- Liquid crystal display (LCD): The dominant type of screen display, having vanquished the short life of its plasma competitor.
- Light-emitting diodes (LED): Built into the TV, these basically act as a backlight for the display and offer much more contrast than a backlight ever could.
Though it came to dominate the TV market — meaning you don't have to worry about choosing between the two — the so-called "LED-LCD sandwich" left something to be desired. "There’s a big problem with LED-LCD TVs," Popular Mechanics explained. "That backlight color— and how it’s rendered as an image by the LCD screen — can vary pretty widely from set to set.
So two broad solutions came forward:
- Organic LED (OLED): Generally used by Sony and LG, this solution has the TV's pixels emit their own light, resulting in a more contrasting image with a more vivid picture.
- Quantum LED (QLED): This Samsung and Vizio (and Hisense and TCL) solution is what it named a filter it built between the LEDs in its TVs and their LCD displays. That filter, sometimes inset with light zones that turn on and off, increases the contrast and vividness of the image.
If you are going for wider-than-average viewing angles, the more expensive OLED style is better, just expect to pay more. Either style will result in a great-looking movie or streaming show (as long as it's, well, an actually good movie or show). Here are some examples of OLED and QLED TVs in different price points:
The best TV screen size for your space
TV sizes are based on the diagonal measurement of their screens. To determine the best one for your space, here's a simple calculation, thanks to Samsung:
- Measure the amount of inches between you (or your couch) and your screen
- Divide that number by two
- The result is your optimal screen size
So if you sit 10 feet (120 inches) from your couch, your ideal screen size is 60 inches. Now, of course, that's a recommendation from a TV seller — use it as a starting point and see how well it works for you. Consumer Reports, for example, says that if you have a 60-inch screen, you’ll want to sit at least 8 feet away. Here are some examples of TVs in different sizes and different price points:
Do you need a smart TV?
Don’t overthink this one. Smart TVs have WiFi baked in and give you access to your streaming apps, as well as other TV apps. Whether it's a smart TV or not, you will be able to make it smart using any of the myriad smart streaming devices and services available — I plugged an Apple TV device into my non-smart TV — you'll need an HDMI cable to do the same — and haven't looked back.
If you are partial to Amazon's Fire TV, Roku-enabled TV or Android TV, there are TVs that come with it. Other brands like VIZIO, Samsung, and LG offer their own unique smart platform. As mentioned above, though, you can supersede their program using any smart TV device.
Quick tip: Don’t expect your smart TV to work wonders until your internet speed at home is in the fast lane.
What About Voice-Assistant TV?
If you like asking Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa for help, many TVs will enable you to change channels, lower volume, and generally control the TV using simple voice commands. Some will even allow you to control your other smart-compatible devices (like thermostats and lights) right from that 60-inch screen. You’ll know from the manufacturer’s description whether voice assistant technology is included.
Here are some examples of smart TVs with built-in streaming services
Does your new TV need a sound bar
TVs are so thin now that some users complain they don’t pump out enough high quality sound. A sound bar fixes this problem.
What else to consider before buying a new TV?
1. Refresh rate
The refresh rate determines how frequently the TV reloads (or refreshes) the picture for realistic motion and less blur. Go with a high refresh rate that’s over 120Hz — especially if you watch action-packed sports.
You can largely neglect this spec. There’s no real standards set in place on what’s best — and most common specs in modern TVs result in a similar picture.
3. HDMI ports
The more HDMI ports, the better. This way you can connect any gadgets, cable boxes, or sound bars you want to add. Look for the latest HDMI 2.1 format.
This year, get a TV with 4K screen resolution (or better) and be smart about how it fits into your space.
And when you have the TV, consider writing a review on the site where you purchased it. Your feedback can help future window shoppers find their next dream TV.
Check out our holiday gift guides for shopping inspiration