Nov 20, 2017

Black Friday 2017: How to avoid buying a crappy TV

By Seb Peltekian

Black Friday and Cyber Monday are almost upon us. You'll find a ton of great deals on electronics, but you'll also find plenty of marked-down items—televisions, especially—that might look a lot better on paper than they do in your living room.

Hunting for the right TV can be a little tricky, especially if you haven't purchased a new set in some time. There are plenty of terms you're going to want to be familiar with so you can make the best, most informed purchase during the shopping mayhem—including "4K," "HDR," "refresh rate," and "dimming zones." Don't just buy a new TV because it's cheap and it looks good at the store. No, no, no.

What is 4K?

If you're looking for the latest television technology, ignore everything that doesn't have a 4K display—3,840 horizontal pixels by 2,160 pixels. To put that pixel count in context, that's four times the total number of pixels compared to what you'd find in a conventional 1080p television. 

What does this mean for your Netflix binges?  Provided your television is the right size, and you're sitting the proper distance from your screen to notice a difference, you'll could potentially experience a huge bump in image quality. We caveat that, because the source of what you're viewing also has to be presented in 4K—sorry, Nintendo Switch owners—for you to experience the big benefits. 

Additionally, there are other technologies that you'll also want to have in a brand-new TV in order to have the best-looking picture—like HDR, for example, which we'll explain in a bit. Just because a television says 4K doesn't mean that it's amazing by default.

Paul's Hardware: "For this video, I'm going to assume that the resolution you want is 4K, and after that, you should get the TV that has the largest screen size possible—while staying within your budget, of course." 

HDR: even more important than 4K

Having a ton of pixels on your display is great, but you need more than that to have an amazing 4K television. The set you purchase needs to support HDR, short for "high dynamic range." 

HDR allows your television to display a much wider range of brightness and color than a standard HDTV. In fact, HDR is so important, that we'd recommend a great 1080p television with HDR over a 4K television without HDR any day of the week—the difference in quality is that noticeable (if you're viewing HDR content).

Currently, HDR comes in two formats: HDR10 and Dolby Vision.  A great television should support both but, if you have to compromise, Dolby Vision is a bit more future-proof (and has higher standards of quality).

As Linus Tech Tips explains: "Moving indoors again, the difference is there in the vibrancy in the sign on the character's right as she walks in, and in the lighting on our character's face as she sits at the bar. In the Blu-ray version, it looks like there's a light shining on her face. In HDR, she is clearly lit in multiple colors, from multiple different sources, just like she would be if she was sitting in a bar."

What about refresh rate?

When shopping for a TV, you'll probably see a description of a television's "refresh rate." That's the number of times that a display can redraw an image in a second, measured in Hertz (Hz). 

The issue with refresh rates is that a television manufacturer can say a television has a 120Hz display, but that could mean that the display itself is 60Hz and the manufacturer is using software tricks to make the image appear smoother—the entire point of having a high refresh rate. This can give you a "soap opera" effect, as its commonly known, and make your brand-new, 4K HDR display look ugly in real-world use (until you turn the manufacturer's motion blur-reducing tricks off).

A television's refresh rate is important, but don't get suckered in by the number. Most people enjoy 120Hz, but only when it's true 120Hz, not an interpolation of a 60Hz display. If you're not sure what your potential new 4K TV can do, focus more on its other specs: HDR, local dimming, connections, user interface, etc.

Techquickie: "As well, things do look clearer and smoother, many people perceive a definitely fakeness to the resulting motion, either because the technology isn't perfect or because some people are just used to lower frame rates, making things look theatrical. After all, many movies are filmed and shown in 24 frames per second."

Local dimming: more important than mood lighting

Local dimming is the process by which your television can brighten or darken different sections of the display based on what's appearing on the screen. This has the effect of increasing the television's contrast ratio, which makes for a better picture: brighter parts of the scene that should be vibrant and darker parts of a scene that should look grittier.

Full-array televisions have their LCDs set up in a grid behind the display, a prettier and more expensive solution that combines LCDs into different, independent zones.  Cheaper 4K TVs use edge-lit dimming, which places all the LCDs around the television's edge. These televisions can still dim portions of the screen as needed, but they're much larger areas than what full-array televisions can do.

To see what these two types of local dimming look like in the real world, check out Joelster G4K's head-to-head comparison:

How smart is your new TV?

A smart TV comes with a flashy user interface that lets you access all sorts of other features, typically in the form of third-party apps. For example, you could install Plex directly on your television, which would allow you to stream your (legal) content from your desktop PC to your television. You could also install the Netflix app, which would let you binge shows without needing a separate, connected device, like an Apple TV or an Xbox One.

Smart TVs are incredibly useful, but you might want to try a potential purchase out at the store before you buy. If the user interface is sluggish, avoid the television. And if a "dumb" television is a lot cheaper than its "smart" alternative—or has all the other features you want, minus a digital brain—consider picking it up instead. You can always buy a separate device, like a Roku or a Google ChromeCast, to boost your television's capabilities.

Geekyranjit: "Does it make sense in 2017 to go with a non-smart television? I would say, if you are on a tight budget, it really makes sense."