The transition from 1080p to 4K televisions brings with it a lot of new and exciting technological advancements...but it also brings a lot of questions for potential shoppers. Much has changed even in the two years since we did our last shopper's guide, The Good, Better, and Best HDTVs on the Market Today. That guide still offers helpful advice on relevant topics like LED backlighting options and higher refresh rates, if you have questions in those areas. But today's shopper likely has questions about 4K versus 1080p, High Dynamic Range, and the current state of 3D and smart TV. Whether you're assembling your own holiday wish list or preparing to brave the Black Friday crowds to buy a TV for someone else, here's are five questions to ask in advance that can help you narrow down the dizzying amount of choices.
1. Do you want a 4K or 1080p TV?
1080p is the new 720p. The vast majority of new TVs being introduced to market have a 4K resolution, and prices are dropping fast on 4K offerings. As a result, the number of 1080p TVs (which will often be labeled as "Full HD TVs") is starting to dwindle. These TVs are being pushed down, down, down market, comprising the most entry-level offerings from any given manufacturer.
For instance, VIZIO's budget D and E Series feature some 1080p models; however, even these low-priced series include a number of models with a 4K resolution. Generally, you'll save $100 to $200 by going with the 1080p option instead of the 4K equivalent.
Samsung's 2016 line includes two 1080p series: the J6200 and the J6300 (we reviewed the 55-inch UN55J6300 early this year). Sony offers the W600/650 and W800/850 series of 1080p TVs, while LG offers the LH5000, LH5300, and LH5700 series. Hisense offers the H5, H4, and H3 Series of Full HD TVs.
Will you see a difference between the 4K and 1080p model? In terms of resolution, you probably won't if you're shopping for a screen size of 55 inches or less. Even with a 65-inch display, it will be difficult to see the step up in resolution at normal seating distances. However, you'll likely see differences in other performance areas. Because the 1080p models are being pushed down market, it is increasingly difficult to find a new, high-performance 1080p TV. None of LG's newest OLED TVs has a 1080p resolution, nor will Samsung or Sony be offering full-array LED backlighting with advanced local dimming in their 1080p sets. VIZIO uses full-array LED backlighting in all of its LED/LCD TVs, but the number of dimmable zones is quite low in the entry-level TVs, and that makes a noticeable difference in performance. Likewise, many new 1080p models only have a 60Hz refresh rate.
If you're shopping for your primary TV and you value performance, it's probably worth it to step up to a mid-level 4K model--even if you have no plans to upgrade to 4K source devices anytime soon. But if you're just shopping for a secondary TV for a bedroom or a kid's dorm room, then it's okay to save a few bucks and get the 1080p model instead.
2. Do you need High Dynamic Range and Wide Color Gamut technologies?
Once you've settled on 4K, the next question is, do you need to pay more to get a TV that supports High Dynamic Range (HDR) and Wide Color Gamut (WCG) technologies? If you don't even know what those things are, here are a couple of primers: High Hopes for High Dynamic Range Video and What Quantum Dots Mean to Your Next UHD TV.
As I mentioned above, a 4K resolution on its own isn't going to offer a notable improvement in performance, especially at smaller screen sizes. HDR and WCG provide improvements in the overall dynamic range (or contrast) and color capabilities of the TV. However, these improvements won't be offered across the board with any old content. The content has to be mastered with WCG and HDR. Right now, such content is available through Ultra HD Blu-ray players and discs, and some is streamed through services like Netflix, Amazon Video, and VUDU.
Wide Color Gamut technology (which can be achieved through the use of quantum dots, another term you'll see) is still generally reserved for the top-tier performers in a TV manufacturer's line. HDR, on the other hand, has started to trickle down to lower-priced TVs. But here's the catch: Even if a TV is capable of playing back High Dynamic Range content, if the TV does not inherently have good contrast--i.e, it lacks the needed brightness, or its black level is mediocre because it uses edge LED lighting with poor local dimming--then you'll probably be less than wowed by HDR content.
If you're shopping for a higher-end TV and plan to get an Ultra HD Blu-ray player to go with it, then yes, HDR and WCG are absolutely necessary. Otherwise, you can live without them.
3. OLED or LCD?
Speaking of higher-end TVs, when it comes to getting the créme of the crop in performance, the choice is between OLED and full-array LED/LCDs with advanced local dimming technology. (By advanced, I mean that the LED backlight has a lot of independent dimmable zones; the more zones the grid has, the more precise the black level can be.) Basically, the choice boils down to LG OLED TVs versus everything else. (Panasonic also sells a 4K OLED, but not in the U.S.)
With the demise of plasma, OLED has become the videophile's display technology of choice. In my opinion, OLED is even better than plasma because both its black level and especially its brightness can be even better. Pretty much every review I've seen of a 2015 or 2016 LG OLED has been a rave (including my own review of the 2015 LG 65EF9500). At first, OLED TVs were insanely expensive, but the price has now come down enough that these displays are on par with or even less than top-tier LED/LCDs like Samsung's KS9800, Sony's Z9 Series, and VIZIO's Reference Series.
While LED/LCDs simply can't match the black-level depth and precision you get from an OLED, they can put out a lot more light--which makes a noticeable difference with HDR content that's mastered to 1,000 nits or higher. So the big question is, how do you watch movies? If you mostly watch movies at night in a darkened room, then OLED is the way to go. If you watch a lot of movies during the day or with the room lights turned up, then a high-end full-array LED/LCD might be the better option.
4. Do you plan to use the smart TV capabilities?
Almost every new HD and 4K TV includes a smart TV platform to access streaming video/music services, social media sites, etc. The question is, are you actually going to use it? If you already own a Roku, Amazon Fire TV, or Apple TV device, then you probably won't. In that case, it won't matter how intuitive a particular interface is or what apps it delivers.
If, on the other hand, you want a completely integrated setup with no external set-top boxes required, then the smart TV is a great option ... but which one is best? Truth be told, all of them are fine. Pretty much all of them are going to give you access to major video streaming services like Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, VUDU, and HBO Now--but if you want to go even deeper into music and gaming services, you should do some homework on the various platforms.
Several value-oriented TV brands--including Hisense, TCL, Sharp, Hitachi, and Insignia--have partnered with Roku to integrate the excellent Roku interface directly into their TVs. So you get all the benefits of Roku--with its extensive channel lineup and comprehensive cross-platform search tool--directly in the TV.
Samsung's Tizen-based platform and LG's webOS-based platform look and function quite similarly and are customizable, allowing you to add a wide range of apps from a variety of categories...and these companies have done a really nice job of integrating your cable/satellite content into the interface, if you so desire.
Sony and VIZIO have both embraced Google Cast, but in different ways. Sony uses the Android TV platform in its TVs but also supports the casting of content from Google Cast-compatible apps on your phone or tablet. VIZIO has completely eliminated its onscreen smart TV interface (formerly known as V.I.A. Plus); in the newest TVs, everything is done through a phone or supplied tablet, using VIZIO's SmartCast app or Google Cast apps to send content to the TV.
5. Do you want a 3D-capable TV?
3D is still going strong in the front-projection realm, but it's definitely losing favor amongst TV manufacturers. VIZIO was the first big-name manufacturer to eliminate 3D capability from its entire TV lineup a couple years ago. This year, Samsung followed suit. So, if you own a 3D-capable Blu-ray player and would still like to enjoy the occasional 3D movie, then you can scratch those brands off your list right now.
LG continues to incorporate passive 3D technology into both its OLED and LED/LCD models, while Sony supports active 3D in its LED/LCD line. It appears Hisense only offers 3D in its top-tier H10 Series, and only Sharp's Q+ TVs support 3D; none of the true 4K models do.
Those are five questions we think will be on TV shoppers' minds this holiday season. Is there something we missed? Ask your question in the Comments section below.