With next-generation consoles right around the corner, and ultra-high-definition HDR content in plentiful supply, 2020 is a great time to buy a new TV. Before you do, though, here are six mistakes to avoid.
Picking a TV Based on Store Demos
Many of us have relied too much on in-store demonstrations at some point. It’s a common belief that seeing is believing, so why wouldn’t you base a purchasing decision on a demo? While the theory is a sound one, the reality is quite different.
One thing to consider is some TVs have manufacturer-specific demos running on each unit, while others just show a basic feed on every screen. It’s not always obvious if this feed even reaches 1080p, let alone 4K or HDR. It’s hard to make a fair assessment without knowing what the TV is truly capable of when you feed it a high-quality source, like a UHD Blu-ray.
Then, there are the settings on the TV. Most have a demo mode designed to be used in stores, and these tend to jack everything up to 11. You’ll see over-saturated colors, the maximum possible brightness, and maybe even some artificial sharpening of the image.
This is done to make certain models stand out on the show floor, but it’s not an accurate representation of how you’ll be using the television long-term.
This goes double for anyone looking to buy a TV for gaming. Much of the image processing used in-store introduces significant latency when used with a console or PC. In reality, you want to see what a TV looks like with all the bells and whistles turned off.
Even the in-store demos themselves can be misleading. If you’ve ever seen an ad for an “ultra-high-definition HDR” TV, you’ll be familiar with some of the tricks manufacturers use. They always create the illusion that their product is pushing some serious pixels, even though you’re watching the ad on your current display.
Store demos can be useful, but not for judging picture or sound quality. Rarely do the lighting conditions in a store match those in your living or theater room.
Viewing angles, however, aren’t impacted by a retail environment. If you’re buying a TV for the whole family or groups of friends to watch with you, check in-store that everyone can see the screen no matter where they might be sitting.
You can also judge whether you like the overall design of the TV. Are the bezels thin enough? Does the stand wobble too much? Can you get a soundbar underneath the screen, or will you need a wall mount? It’s a lot harder to judge these things when you’re staring at a product on Amazon.
Then there’s the way you interact with the TV. How responsive is its operating system? Does the remote feel nice in your hand? How fast does the TV start up from standby mode? Keep in mind that some models might also have software updates that will improve them over the store models, which are rarely (if ever) updated.
Listening to a Sales Person
Most major chain retailers train their staff to sell, rather than provide unbiased consumer advice. Their main goal is making money. This means they’ll often steer you toward the more expensive options, even though you don’t necessarily want or need them.
Speaking from past experience, store staff aren’t always the most well-informed about the products they’re selling. Working long hours for little pay is a job, not a passion. This is why the retail sector has one of the highest turnover rates of any industry.
As such, thoroughly training every new member of staff simply isn’t a priority. Plus, if you work in a department that sells 50 to 100 different models, you can’t be expected to be an expert on all of them.
Store staff often push particular products because that’s what their manager told them to do. If they work on commission, they also have a vested interest in steering you toward a model that’s more expensive than what you need.
Brand representatives likely have a much better understanding of the products than general retail staff. Of course, why would a representative of a specific brand give you unbiased advice if a rival’s product is the better buy? You should always take their recommendations with a big pinch of salt.
It’s worth adding that specialist retailers (usually independent stores) do train their staff to match customers with a product that suits their needs and budget. You should always be a discerning customer, though.
For a truly unbiased opinion, look at independent sources, like journalists, reviewers, and experts in the field.
Believing Spending More Will Improve Picture Quality
The best budget TVs don’t sacrifice image quality. In fact, image quality is all the best budget TVs have going for them. This is why TCL and Hisense have both gained so much market share selling no-frills sets at affordable prices.
You could spend double the price of something like the TCL 6-Series ($650 for a 55-inch) and somehow end up with worse image quality. How is this possible? You’re paying for features, not a better picture.
Manufacturers like TCL have cornered the budget end of the market by paring back their products to the bare minimum required to impress. In the case of the 6-Series, it’s a good-quality 4K panel that delivers a bright image with Mini-LED local dimming to improve black reproduction.
What you won’t get is an 8K resolution, a next-generation image processor, excellent motion handling, a 120 Hz refresh rate, or HDMI 2.1 ports.
If you want better upscaling, the latest HDMI specification for next-gen gaming, and a high refresh rate that delivers smoother motion, you’ll either have to spend more or sacrifice image quality to get it. It’s virtually impossible to find a mid-tier TV that does it all.
Image quality is determined by the panel type, contrast ratio, overall brightness, and other factors, including whether the TV has a backlight or uses local dimming.
There are many other features that go into a TV that don’t impact image quality directly. To improve image quality beyond even a good budget set, you’ll either have to spend substantially more on a premium model or make some sacrifices to fit your budget.
The good news is, if you just want a TV with a great picture so you can stream a few shows and movies, you don’t need to spend a huge amount on features you won’t use.
Forgetting to Budget for a Soundbar or Better
As TVs get thinner and bezels shrink, manufacturers have less space for built-in speakers. In fact, most TVs don’t even use speakers that face the viewer directly. Instead, manufacturers are angling speakers toward the bottom, and then “bouncing” sound out toward the viewer.
This results in poor sound reproduction, especially when it comes to bass response. Your next TV might sound worse than the one you’re replacing, even if it’s a flagship model. If audio is important to you, you’ll definitely want to budget for a soundbar or surround sound.
Soundbars are an ideal option for those who lack the space or budget for proper surround sound. You can find a soundbar to suit just about any budget, and any soundbar is better than no soundbar at all.
If you have a little more to spend, you can invest in a receiver, satellite speakers, and a subwoofer for true surround sound.
If you’re looking at soundbars, keep an eye out for ARC or eARC. ARC stands for audio return channel, and it vastly simplifies connecting a soundbar to your TV. You can use an HDMI cable to connect your soundbar to your TV. The TV then outputs the correct source to the soundbar, whether it’s a Blu-ray player, game console, or cable box.
eARC is the next generation of ARC, and it offers better lip-sync compensation and higher bandwidth to support technologies like Dolby Atmos and Dolby TrueHD. You can always connect your soundbar via a dedicated cable, but using ARC means you have one less cable to worry about. Some soundbars even have additional HDMI ports if you need them.
If you’re spending big on a TV, remember, even the best picture quality in the world won’t excuse tinny, uninspiring audio.
Avoiding Smart TVs
When you last bought a TV, you might have decided you didn’t want a “smart” model. Maybe the software on the TVs at the time was slow or frustrating to use. Or, maybe you just weren’t crazy about the way your viewing habits could be shared with third parties.
Unfortunately, pretty much all TVs are now smart models. If you want the latest features and advances in technology, you’re going to have to bite the bullet and purchase a smart set. You might be able to find a few older models that lack these features, but why would you want to buy a TV that’s already outdated?
You can always just ignore the smart features, if you prefer. This might be as simple as never connecting your new TV to the internet, but we wouldn’t recommend that. Most TV manufacturers now deliver updates via the web. These often add new features, fix bugs, and—in the case of some older TCL models—unlock the HDMI 2.1 functionality that was always in there.
You can also grab a Chromecast, Apple TV, or Roku to use for streaming. While TV interfaces have come a long way in the last decade, streaming boxes are usually even better.
If you’re absolutely determined to get a “dumb” TV, your only options are either a projector or big format gaming display (BFGD). Projectors are expensive, often require lots of space, and greatly depend on the lighting in a room.
BFGDs are just as expensive as flagship TVs from LG and Samsung. However, they lack a tuner for terrestrial viewing and, in the case of the ASUS PG65UQ, they have audible fans inside.
Putting Off an Upgrade Indefinitely Due to FOMO
Do you need a TV or do you want a TV? If you want a TV and can afford one, get the one you’re happy with for a price that suits your budget.
Enthusiasts and window-shoppers are prone to wait for the next big thing before parting ways with their cash. Unfortunately, this can become an obsessive case of FOMO, where you never buy anything because you’re worried about missing out on what might be available next year.
Display technology seems to be moving at a much quicker pace than the days of fat CRTs, and early flat-panel LCDs. This might lead some to think that technologies like MicroLED and QNED—neither of which will be commercially viable for years—are just around the corner.
Even when these technologies do finally make their way to consumer TVs, they’ll be incredibly expensive.
It’s also easy to think these technologies will leave what’s currently on the market in the dust. While this might be true to a certain extent, if you’re happy with your new TV in 2020, why let the promise of a better model next year rain on your parade? The arrival of new tech doesn’t degrade your existing tech; it just shifts your perception.
There are also a lot of perils that come along with being an early adopter, like paying a huge premium for technology that might not be all that great.
Just a few years ago, OLED sets were almost twice as expensive as they are today. They were also quite prone to burn-in (permanent image retention). Now, they’re much cheaper and more resilient to burn in (although the problem still exists).
It’s better to buy a mature technology that’s reaching its peak of overall performance, instead of a fledgling that still has a long way to go.
Find Your Perfect TV
Now that you know what to avoid, it’s time to buy your new TV! Again, we recommend checking independent sources, like RATINGS (confusingly pronounced “ratings”). This site reviews most budget, mid-tier, and flagship models that hit the North American market. They also consider those in European markets (and even further afield), where manufacturers release slightly different models.
It can be helpful to identify what’s most important to you, particularly if budget is a concern. If you aren’t playing next-gen video games or watching director’s cuts in a pitch-black theater room, you can save a lot of money by going cheap and cheerful.