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How to Pick Your Next Smart TV

A guide to sorting through new TV technology

Are you buying a new TV this winter? With so many new technology options, making a selection can be difficult. When our three-year-old TV went dead recently, we went on the hunt. A lot has changed in those few years, and the options are vast. 

Here’s what we learned from a lot of research on current TV technology and options.

1080p vs. 4K vs. 8k
The difference from 1080p to 4K to 8K is simply resolution.1080p screens have a resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 pixels. 4K screens double those numbers to 3,840 by 2,160 and quadruple the number of pixels. 8K doubles the numbers again, to a resolution of 7,680 by 4,320. That’s four times the number of pixels as 4K, which means it’s 16 times that of a 1080p.

Like 4K a few years ago, there is not enough programming in 8K available to make this a viable option for the average consumer. 4K will give you an amazing picture on a quality set. 

4K and Ultra HD
4K and Ultra HD, or UHD for short, are terms often used interchangeably. There are some subtle differences, but for all practical purposes, they are the same- they both offer four times the pixels of a standard 1080p (high definition) display. So, when comparison-shopping, 4k or UHD is going to be far superior when displaying 4K programming. With content providers like Netflix, Amazon and Apple pushing out more 4K programming, this is now a significant advantage. 

If you are wondering why two similar terms emerged, 4k is attributed to a professional production and cinema standard, and UHD is a consumer display and broadcast standard. You might even see these two terms printed on the box of the same product.

Types of TVs
Here are the four major categories of TV types you will find, all available at 4K resolution. While there are good to great selections in each category, these are listed from lowest to highest.

1. QLED and variations. A Q attached to LED stands for a TV in the Quantum dot category. Quantum dots are microscopic molecules which are overlaid in a film. The light travels through the LCD layer to make a picture. This technology is closer to the older LCD format than the newer OLED format.

The extra layer of quantum dots does refine and process the colors shown on screen better and improve the overall contrast of the image as well as brightness.

NEO QLED is a newer version of QLED (NEO = New). The quantum dots are smaller, more precise and responsive. A TVs software can better manage NEO QLED for a better picture.

The LG brand has created its own version, LG QNED, incorporating tech called NanoCell. Old LCD TVs used one backlight for the entire set. QNED stuffs as many as 30,000 LEDs in as a backlight.

Not all TVs in this category are created equal. Some use a few LEDs, some use hundreds. If you are looking at TVs in these three categories, the higher number of LEDs the better. Higher end QLEDs and NEO QLEDs are beginning to rival OLEDs in picture quality, and in some cases surpass in the categories of brightness and contrast. If you are upgrading from an older smart TV, you will be amazed at the upgrade.

Someone using a smart TV with a remote

2. Mini-LED. Even though this technology still uses LED backlights, Mini-LED’s are much smaller, creating more subtle light control which increases contrast. This creates more precise shading and a better sense of depth to the picture, and more realistic and nuanced color reproduction than a regular LCD TV. This is a fairly new evolution, which, as mentioned above, is an effort to pack in more LEDs for better picture quality.

3. OLED, and how it improves picture quality. OLED stands for organic light emitting diode. OLED is “emissive,” meaning the pixels emit their own light, rather than relying on a backlight. With OLED TVs, each pixel can be turned on and off resulting in really deep blacks. This provides much better contrast, giving images a more four-dimensional quality, with bright highlights.

When viewing OLED, all programming, even old movies and other non-4K programs, look incredibly crisp and clear. The picture quality is amazing. It’s a superior and more expensive option, and worth every penny if you can afford it.

4. Micro-LED- the one to watch. The newest arrival on the scene, Micro-LED (not to be confused with Mini-LED) is set to be OLED’s newest rival. Three tiny LEDs are incorporated into each pixel. Each pixel can be turned on or off independently, or be changed to display a different color than the one next to it. This microscopic tuning can create perfect color and contrast control, even better than top OLEDs. You can take a deeper dive into the technology in this article.

There are few other advantages over OLEDs. The technology makes it simpler to apply to very large screens, like Samsung’s 292-inch Micro-LED TV. Also, there is no risk of image retention with Mico-LED.

While Micro-LED ties or beats out OLEDs in many areas, there are two drawbacks. Right now, the price for a Micro-LED is ridiculously expensive (Just like OLEDs when first launched). And that’s if you can even find one for sale. Micro-LED sets are not listed on Samsung’s holiday promotions, but B&H Photo has a 99-inch version available for preorder at $130,000.

The second issue is size. The technology makes it very difficult to incorporate Micro-LED into smaller screens. While Samsung has promised a 77-inch model, that’s still pretty large for most consumers. Micro-LED may be the future of TVs, but may not be practical to purchase this year.

Other Considerations
Before purchasing your next smart TV, you should also know a couple of other terms.

  • High Dynamic Range. High Dynamic Range (HDR) creates better color contrast, including brighter whites and deeper blacks, resulting in more natural looking images. HDR also unlocks more colors.  Previous formats could only display up to 256 shades of red, green, and blue, but HDR can showcase 1,024 shades. While HDR will provide a better image quality than standard 4K, there are no industry guidelines around the technology, and some are superior than others. You might see HDR under five labels. According to Digital Trends, the top three are HDR10, HDR10+, Dolby Vision, with Dolby Vision being the best. Most high-end 4K televisions include one of these technologies.
  • Color gamut. This describes a range of colors within the spectrum of colors, or a color space. These can be reproduced on a TV, with the wider the gamut the better. Older technology relies on a mixture of a smaller range of colors to create images. New formats have a wide gamut, produced with pure, native colors. By choosing a system that includes more colors and contrast between them, the better and more natural the images
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  • Refresh rate and latency. If you are pushing content such as video games or internet apps to your TV, it’s a good idea to consider the refresh rate your new TV can accommodate. A higher refresh rate reduces latency, or input delay. Until recently, TVs refreshed at a standard 60Hz or once every 16.67ms. Some newer TVs  offer a 120Hz refresh rate (or higher) and the screen updates every 8.33ms (or less). Even if you are not a gamer, a higher refresh rate can improve viewing things like fast action movies. 

    Also, if you are using the set as a monitor, make sure it has necessary ports that support what you need, like ATSC 3.0 to HDMI 2.1.

  • Sound technology. With TV technology advancing rapidly, most of the focus is on improving the picture quality. As bezels get slimmer, TV speakers get smaller. For the 15% of adult Americans that have trouble hearing, TV sound quality can be critical. For the best sound, you can consider TV’s with the best built-in sound quality. Tech Radar puts DTS:X and Dolby Atmos at the top of home audio formats. Both technologies create a high-end surround sound effect. The other option is to add a high quality sound bar. Read this recent review of the best sound bars and deals this holiday season.

Final recommendation: Read reviews
Technology will continue to evolve, so the fall back is to buy the most expensive model you can afford from a reputable name brand: Samsung, Sony or LG. Even TCL, which is on the more budget end, has a decent top of the line Series 6 model. 

Going TV shopping is fun, and it’s good to view a set in person before buying. But keep in mind in-store TVs display a feed of special high-end programming, portraying them in the best possible light. Read up on reviews before heading out, check availability and have some specific models in mind. There are some excellent recommendations in this review from TechRadar.com, or this holiday list from Tom’s Guide. 

One final note—consider buying the extended warranty. Our previous TV lasted three years. Fortunately, it was under warranty.

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