You're finally serious about buying a new TV, but a lot has changed since you bought your last one. Over the past few years, high-definition TV has evolved into ultra-high-definition TV, with new sets now packing higher pixel counts and improved color definition. Plasma technology is history, and 3D TV is waning. Curved-screen sets now compete for attention with flat-screen models, and a new technology called High Dynamic Range promises to take the TV-viewing experience to a new level of realism. On top of all that, 4K Blu-ray has finally arrived—but to make the most of that format, the new TV you buy has to provide a specific set of features.
That's quite a load of TV news to take in at once, but we'll turn our attention to the details next. By the time you finish this article, you should have the info you need to choose a set that suits your specific needs.
LCD or OLED?
In the past, one important question that people considering a big-screen TV had to do up-front was decide between LCD and plasma technologies. But in 2014, Panasonic and Samsung—the last two plasma holdouts—stopped making plasma TVs. These days, the crucial TV display tech decision facing buyers is between OLED and LCD.
One key difference between OLED and LCD technologies is that the pixels in an OLED TV are self-illuminating. LCD sets, in contrast, use a backlight—typically an array of LED lamps—to illuminate pixels in a liquid-crystal display panel. An advantage to OLED is that the pixels in the display can shut off completely to create absolute black, whereas the backlight on an LCD TV typically generates some degree of contrast-reducing light leakage. As a result, OLED sets deliver images with deeper shadows than LCD models can produce. The OLED's ability to create absolute black means that its picture contrast can be effectively infinite. Another plus with OLED sets is that, unlike with many LCD TVs, you'll be able to see images with uniform brightness and contrast from both on-axis and off-center viewing angles.
At the moment, LG and Panasonic are the only two OLED TV manufacturers. LG offers a wide range of models in screen sizes up to 77 inches, while Panasonic sells a single, 65-inch model. Prices for OLED skew higher than for LCD—you can expect to pay $2,000 or more for a 55-inch model, and $5,000 or more for a 65-inch model.
HDTV or UHDTV?
Many of the televisions coming out now are Ultra HDTVs, also known as 4K TVs. The main difference between these and regular HDTVs is their display resolution: HDTV screens contain 1920 horizontal by 1080 vertical pixels, while UHDTVs have 3840 horizontal by 2160 vertical pixels — four times as many as regular HDTVs. It's easy to get impressed by those numbers, but in most situations you won't see much of a difference. The reason? The human eye can process only so much detail, and when you view a typical 50- to 65-inch-diagonal UHDTV at a typical seating distance of 8 to 9 feet, you'll lose the impact of those extra pixels. So unless you buy a really big-screen set—65 inches or larger—and plan to sit no more than 8 feet away from it, you can save money without any loss in effective viewing quality by buying a regular HDTV instead of a UHDTV.
Flat or curved screen?
A recent trend in TV design has been toward curved screens. This development is hard to explain because curved screens provide no real advantage over regular flat-screen models. Their main claim to fame is that the design enables them to stand out on the sales floor.
When you shop for a TV, sellers may argue that curved screens deliver a more immersive experience for movie and TV viewing. But that is true only of very big screens such as the 88-inch and larger sets available from Samsung and LG—models that cost upward of $20,000. On the downside, curved-screen TVs can reduce picture quality by distorting the appearance of letterboxed movies and dulling the contrast of images viewed from off-center seats.
Edge-lit vs. full-array
Another important decision you'll have to make when buying an LCD TV is between full-array backlighting and edge-lit backlighting. On full-array models, the LED lamps used in the backlight are distributed across the screen area, and the set dynamically dims them in zones to enhance picture contrast. On edge-lit models, the LEDs in the backlight are situated along the edges of the screen; these, too, can be addressed dynamically as zones, but the overall effect lacks the precision that full-array displays can deliver. Although you can expect good dynamic performance from edge-lit LCDs, a full-array model can provide it more consistently—an important factor to consider if you'll be using the set primarily for movie viewing.
3D: Does it still matter?
Manufacturers added 3D display capabilities to TVs in response to a wave of 3D movie releases that began around 2009. But while 3D movies still see regular theatrical release, 3D at home never moved beyond niche status. Movie studios continue to offer 3D movies in Blu-ray format, but TV broadcasters never committed to the format (the pioneering ESPN 3D channel went dark in 2013), and 3D streaming content has been limited at best.
TV manufacturers, too, have started to bail on 3D. Vizio was the first to omit 3D capability, starting with its full lineup of 2014 sets. New Samsung sets for 2016 also reportedly lack support for the feature. Manufacturers still pushing 3D include LG and Sony, but it has become more of a step-up option on pricey top-of-the-line sets. Should you care? That depends on whether you enjoy watching movies with a 3D effect (not everyone does) and how you feel about wearing glasses while viewing (glasses-free 3D TVs never moved beyond the prototype phase). One benefit of 3D TVs is that they can deliver a brighter 3D image than you typically get at the multiplex—so movies viewed on a 3D TV at home can look better than they did in the theater.
High Dynamic Range: What is it?
A number of UHDTVs arriving in 2016 support a feature called High Dynamic Range (HDR). In brief, HDR enables the TV to expand the brightness range of display images: Shadows gain deeper gradations of black, and highlights show finer levels of white detail. The extra brightness information is encoded as metadata in programs on new 4K Blu-rays and on certain Ultra-HD offerings from streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Instant, and Vudu. With HDR, the TV responds to the metadata, adjusting picture settings to convey the expanded brightness range of the content.
All major TV manufacturers will release HDR-capable models in 2016. Some sets—specifically Vizio's LCDs and certain OLED models from LG—will support the proprietary Dolby Vision standard; others will support HDR-10, a baseline standard that ensures compatibility with HDR content on 4K Blu-ray. Both Netflix and Amazon Instant are using HDR-10 to deliver HDR content, so there's quite a bit of compatibility for the standard right out of the gate. To handle HDR, however, not just your TV, but your sources and any switches in the signal path (such as an A/V receiver) must have the latest HDMI 2.0a connections—the only HDMI version capable of transmitting HDR metadata.
Another thing to be aware of when shopping for an HDR-capable set is UHD Premium labeling, which all comes down to specs. To qualify as premium, the set must be capable of 10-bit color (see below) and must display a combination of either less than 0.0005 nits luminance and more than 540 nits peak brightness, or less than 0.05 nits luminance and more than 1,000 nits peak brightness. (The differences in the two combinations are due to the varying capabilities of OLED and LCD: OLED delivers deeper blacks but has less light output capability, while LCD has lighter blacks but is capable of greater overall brightness.) Either way, when you buy a UHD Premium set, it should deliver an above-average HDR experience.
Extended color: What is that?
Another benefit of High Dynamic Range is extended color. The HDTV standard uses the Rec.709 color space with 8-bit color encoding, which translates into 16.8 million possible colors. But the new UHDTV standard permits extended color gamuts, including the P3 color space used for Digital Cinema releases in theaters.
A main reason why this is possible is that many new UHDTVs are capable of 10-bit display. With this system, sets can show up to 1 billion colors—a huge improvement over the old Rec.709/8-bit standard. Between HDR and extended color, what you now see onscreen more closely approximates not only the image quality of a movie viewed in a theater, but that of objects and scenes that your eyes encounter in real life.
Promising 2016 TVs
Only now are 2016 television models that incorporate many of the technologies discussed above starting to reach stores. Here are four sets to keep your eye on.
LG Signature OLED65G6P ($7,999). This 65-inch, flat-screen UHD OLED TV sports a UHD Premium label, is compatible with both HDR-10 and Dolby Vision HDR standards, and has passive 3D capability.
Affordable alternative: LG 55EG9100 ($1,999). LG's lowest-priced OLED is a 55-inch, 1080p-resolution curved-screen set with passive 3D capability.
Vizio RS65-B2 Reference Series ($5,999). Vizio's top-of-the-line 65-inch UHDTV has a full-array backlight with 384 active LED zones and is compatible with Dolby Vision HDR (HDR-10 compatibility should be forthcoming via a firmware update).
Affordable alternative: Samsung UN65KS8000 ($2,799). Samsung's 65-inch, flat-screen Ultra HDTV is HDR-10 compatible and uses Quantum Dot technology for improved color.
Photo credits: manaemedia/iStock/Getty Images