It’s the holiday shopping season and that means it’s one of the best times of the year to purchase a new big-screen television set. Manufacturers and retailers traditionally use this period to move inventory at low, low prices and hopefully entice buyers into adding on all of the necessary peripherals to get it up and running to your full satisfaction and piece of mind.
This year is certainly no exception. The evidence is all over recent articles we’ve posted showing manufacturer instant rebate specials on the latest Full HD 1080p and 4K Ultra HDTVs with either LED LCD or new organic light emitting diode (OLED) screens. Each offers benefits and limitations.
We have assembled some quick tips here to help you understand what’s available this year, what to look for to maximize your purchase value and a few examples of some of the models we think you might like.
One rule of thumb we try to stress: Don’t just look for a television at the cheapest price. These tend not be as well built for durability, and if you want the best picture performance and technology with a lower likelihood of becoming obsolete in the next three years or so, it’s a good idea to buy the best TV you can afford when you shop.
Read more of our holiday TV buying guide after the jump:
One of the first things to notice is that 4K Ultra HD is everywhere. That’s because it is a fairly new resolution level bringing four times the sharpness and clarity of the pervious Full HD 1080p standard, and many of the newer TVs today support it.
So called 4K Ultra HD TVs have a 3840 x 2160 (2160p) resolution which amounts to almost 8.3 million pixels. Compare that to the previous high standard of Full HD 1080p, with 1920 x 1080 pixels. This means 4K Ultra HDTVs should be incredibly detailed and sharp, but it also means the pixels are smaller and smaller and the difference in resolution alone is often hard for the human eye to discern at typical screen sizes.
Fortunately, better (and typically more expensive) versions of 4K UHD sets will also support a wide color gamut with a greater range of visible color shades, and high dynamic range (HDR). HDR basically ensures the TV set will be capable of delivering a greater range of contrast between the dark and light areas of a picture. It also produces localized brightness highlights that are actually brighter than rest of the surrounding image for very lifelike results. In short – HDR and a wide color gamut make 4K Ultra HD screens pop. Without them, the resolution benefits of 4K alone are almost insignificant.
The downsized of 4K Ultra HD, wide color gamut and HDR is that natively produced content available to support them is still relatively sparse compared to Full HD 1080p, HD 720p and standard definition (DVD) material. Currently, you will be able to find about 100 4K Ultra HD Blu-rays and a handful of new Ultra HD Blu-ray players from brands including: Samsung, Panasonic, Philips and Microsoft’s Xbox One S gaming system with Ultra HD Blu-ray compatibility. Models from Sony, Oppo and probably others are on the way in early 2017.
As for streaming: Netflix, Amazon Video, UltraFlix, Ultra (from Sony), Vudu and YouTube each have smaller by growing libraries of 4K Ultra HD content, and a handful even offer HDR and wide color gamut support. Many of these are available by apps available on the TVs smart TV platform, or can be added with outboard 4K UHD media adapters like: the latest premium Roku Ultra, FireTV, Google Chromecast, Nvidia Shield and other devices.
As for 4K Ultra HD gaming, there isn’t a lot available just yet. The new PlayStation 4 Pro console will handle some basically upconverted 4K games but it doesn’t have a built-in 4K Blu-ray player. The aforementioned Xbox One S has a built-in Ultra HD Blu-ray drive but doesn’t support 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray games at this time. This is likely to change next year, however.
Inputs and Outputs
As you might expect after a mention of all of these outboard peripheral devices, the more inputs you have on the TV set the easier it will be to content everything without the need of an external switcher or ARV. In any case, it is essential the TV and supporting peripherals have at least two HDMI 2.0 (type a or b) ports and HDCP 2.2 content management support to get the latest 4K Ultra HD and HDR signals into the TV.
Don’t go too small with the screen size you buy or you won’t see the extra pixels in the 4K Ultra HD picture. The optimum viewing distance for 4K Ultra HDTV (without HDR or wide color gamut) requires that you either get a really big screen, or re-arrange your living room to get up-close and really personal with the new set. Otherwise your eye isn’t going to see the benefit of all those extra pixels.
With a 4K TV, the optimum viewing distance calculation is roughly 1.5 x the picture height (3 x PH for Full HD 1080p). You will be able to see a detail improvement only up to 2 times picture height.
Let’s say you want to swap out your 55-inch 1080p set with a 55-inch 4K model. If you want to see full 4K UHD resolution, you will need to be no more than 3.5 feet away from the set. Sitting back further than that will diminish your ability to properly resolve a 4K-resolution image.
Let’s also say that your viewing distance is about 5 feet away from your current 55-inch 1080p TV. You’d like to swap it out with a 4K model, but don’t want to re-arrange your living room.
For a 5-foot viewing distance, a very pricey 85-inch 4K set is what’s needed (42-inch PH x 1.5), if you want to be able to discern true 3840 x 2160-pixel 4K/UHD resolution. Going instead with a 60- or even a 70-inch set simply won’t be enough.
This distance guideline is for 4K resolution alone. The contrast and color benefits of newer 4K Ultra HDTVs supporting HDR will be much more easily seen from greater distances, although the detail benefits won’t be as visible on smaller screens unless you get up close.
As we mentioned, new, higher-end and premium 4K Ultra HDTVs support HDR and wide color gamut covering 90 percent or more of the Digital Cinema Initiative P3 recommendation for professional digital movie theaters. These details will be evident from greater distances than resolution a lone, and might be enough for you going with a smaller screen size.
Also, keep in mind, with 4K TVs and 1080ps alike, overscan settings will affect the actual resolution your screen presents. Make sure the TV is in 1:1 display mode, or you won’t be seeing all of the pixels you paid for.
High dynamic range is one of the greatest advances in television technology since the implementation of high definition resolution. Simply put, this presents a much greater range of contrast from nearly pitch blacks to very bright whites an yellows. In addition, fine details, normally masked on a regular standard definition screen, pop to life in both dark shadowy black and blinding bright white areas of the picture, and at the same time.
At the same time, a wider range of color shades are become visible in these details and bright objects seem to stand out from the rest of the screen. There are two flavors of HDR in use in TVs this year. The most commonly accepted is called HDR-10, and it is the baseline system identified by the Ultra HD Alliance in its premium specifications. It is also called out in the specifications for the Ultra HD Blu-ray system. The second flavor is called Dolby Vision and it is the system used by most Hollywood studios in developing HDR content. It’s more expensive to use than HDR-10 and therefore not as well supported across brands and model lines, but its use is growing rapidly, as is the library of content supporting it.
Next year we expect to see many more TV models that are both HDR-10 and Dolby Vision compatible, and some models available today that don’t say they support it, ultimately might with future firmware updates.
The only TVs supporting both formats today include: select Vizio 2016 P and M series models and LG 4K Ultra HD OLED sets. All sets that say they support HDR should now support HDR-10, although a few left overs from 2015 might not, so be aware before you buy.
The way we look at it, at a minimum any TV that says it’s HDR capable should at least support HDR-10, and anything that adds Dolby Vision to that is a nice bonus.
As mentioned, to get all of the streaming services carrying movies in 4K Ultra HD, HDR and so forth, you’ll need a TV with smart TV capability. Fortunately, virtually every 4K Ultra HD model (and many Full HD 1080p) models have at least a basic smart TV platform and built-in Wi-Fi reception to connect to your household Wi-Fi network. If you haven’t got a Wi-Fi network (well God bless you, as the song goes), hopefully you have a wired router to receive broadband service. If so, the TV will have to be placed fairly close to the router so you can run an Ethernet cable between the TV and router. To stream 4K and most HDR content you need broadband download speed of between 11-20Mbps or better. Otherwise, be prepared for a lot of buffering stalls and/or auto down-resolution of the image by the streaming service provider. For those with Wi-Fi routers, it’s helpful to find a TV with 802.11ac or better to ensure access in the home with multiple video streams running simultaneously.
Today’s Smart TVs include one of several different operating systems and user interfaces. The version used is usually determined by the manufacturer. These platforms vary in easy of use and the number of apps supplied. If you get a TV with a lower-quality smart TV platform, you might have to buy an external media adapter to get the service or level of functionality you require. The primary smart TV OS today include: Android TV (Sony), Firefox (Panasonic), Tizen (Samsung) and webOS (LG), Roku (TCL, Hisense, Insignia, Hitachi, all in select model series). Other brands use their own proprietary systems or variations on one of the ones mentioned above.
Almost all support Netflix and YouTube today, but you’ll want to be sure the set carries some other popular ones like Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, Vudu and others. Some of these will require a monthly subscription fee while others charge by the purchase or rental.
LED LCD or OLED?
One of the primary factors in making a new TV purchase today is whether to go with an LED LCD TV or step up to new OLED technology.
Virtually all LCD TVs today from every brand have active matrix LCD panels that are back or edge lit with light emitting diode (LED) lights. These so-called “LED” TVs are the most commonly available 4K UHD and Full HDTVs and are generally less expensive than OLED TV models. They also allow the brightest pictures available, which is a bonus for some aspects of displaying HDR.
To boost the color gamut and to some degree brightness, some premium LED LCD TVs today use quantum dot technology. This uses nano-crystal substances embedded in clear polymer film placed between the LED backlight and the LCD. When a quantum dot is excited by photons generated from the blue LED back light a quantum effect is produced in the form of visible light. The size of each quantum dot determines the color it produces.
Another approach is to coat blue LEDs with various colored phosphors to produce the additional shades of color need for a wider color gamut.
OLED TVs on the other hand, inherently deliver accurate saturated colors, accurate shades of gray and accurate hard-to-reproduce pastels. OLED is best at black level and grayscale reproduction, which are used to produce colors. For every shade of gray, there are thousands of possible color combinations. OLED offers a level of grayscale reproduction that can produce a wide range of color combinations from deep black to full white.
OLED TVs thus far are only sold in the U.S. by LG Electronics, but are rapidly dropping in price while becoming easier to find in stores. But there are only a handful models to choose from in comparison to LED TVs. OLED technology is self-emissive, meaning they don’t use separate back lights to produce a picture. Instead each pixel is self-illuminating, and each can have light completely shut off to generate true blacks. This nature also allows for much slimmer screen designs and results in rich dark images without the bleed-through seen in back lights that turn black levels gray and images more washed out looking.
The drawback is that OLED TVs can’t generate the same high brightness levels that some LED TVs achieve. But because the contrast ratio for OLED TVs starts lower on the black level scale, the sets will generate a range of contrast needed to qualify as HDR capable. LED TVs on the other, can’t get as dark, so they display degrees of gray rather than true blacks but bright specular highlights really standout for an almost 3D effect.
Another benefit of OLED technology is that is achieves a very wide viewing angle before contrast and colors start to drop off. This means a TV can be viewed from almost and seat in the room without losing image quality, making it the display technology of choice if you plan to wall mount the set. LED TVs on the other suffer sometime severe loss of color and contrast the further the screen is viewed from the left or right of dead center. There will be one decided sweet spot in the room for an LED TV, and everyone else gets to see sub-par image quality. If the TV is mounted up above eye level on a wall, that image quality degrades as well. That’s something to really consider in making a placement decision.
According to Ultra HD Alliance “Ultra HD Premium” certification quality standards, a premium 4K OLED set has a brightness range from 0.0005 nits up to 540 nits. In comparison the UHDA premium range for LED TVs is 0.05 nits up to 1,000 nits. Pricing for a Full HD 1080p OLED TV measuring 55-inches now starts under $2,000. A 55-inch 4K Ultra HDTV can be found at 2016 holiday promotional pricing of $1,797.99 for a limited time.
To Curve or Not To Curve?
Both OLED and LED LCD TVs are available with either curved or flat screens. At one time it was believed that curving the screen helped improve off-angle (side to side) viewing, but in most applications we’ve tested it doesn’t seem to add much of an improvement. If you plan to sit really close, like in a desktop PC-type situation, the curved screen will create an illusion of the image wrapping around the viewer for a more potentially more immersive experience, but from normal TV viewing distances, this goes away, making the curve more of aesthetic decision than anything else. Either you like the way it looks or you don’t.
Both LED TVs and OLED models suffer from image degradation in fast moving subjects. Know as blurring and judder, this degradation can be reduced in LED LCD TVs by purchasing a TV with a so-called “high native refresh rate.” Today, the highest native refresh rate available is 120 Hz, or double the traditional 60 Hz rate.
When motion is present in an image of Full HD 1080p, lines of resolution (per frame height) drop to 320 lines or less on displays with 60 Hz refresh rate panels and artifacts like motion blur become more visible. Speeding up the refresh rate to 120 Hz reduces or virtually eliminates motion blur, but this adds to the cost of the TV.
To get around this for entry and mid-level TV models, manufacturers have employed new motion smoothing technologies that uses tricks like back light blinking to trick the eye into seeing a smoother image, but none of these systems has been able to top a high refresh rate. Therefore, it pays to look for a 120 Hz refresh rate in any TV.
OLED TVs also suffer from motion image degradation and use compensation techniques to improve artifact issues, but don’t use the same refresh rate techniques as LED TVs. Models introduced in 2016 have helped mitigate the issue but some blurring issues remain as one of the limitations of OLED technology.
So, you’ll have a number of areas to consider when purchasing a new TV this year. If you want to keep it cheap you can still grab one of the few remaining Full HD 1080p models, but keep in mind that the future will be moving swiftly in the direction of 4K Ultra HD and you might want to be ready for that over the next seven to 10 years you own the set you purchase.
If you don’t already have a good idea of what 4K Ultra HD or Full HD 1080p are, you might want to go to a local electronics store a get a good side-by-side demonstration to see for yourself, and while you’re at it, take a look at HDR and wide color gamut models. Just because something is cheap doesn’t mean it will be necessarily good, or even cheaper in the long run if you have to replace it.
Below we have listed a few of the better TV’s we have tested this year for your consideration.
4K Ultra HD LED LCD TVs Recommendations:
Nov. 29-Dec. 3
Price after $2,000 instant rebate
Price after $1,500 instant rebate
Price after $2,000 instant rebate
Price after $1,100 instant rebate
Price after $500 instant rebate
Price after $1,500 instant rebate
Price after $1,100 instant rebate
Price after $500 instant rebat
Regularly $5,499.99 price includes $1,000 instant rebate.
Previously $4,298.99 price includes $1,000 instant rebate.
Previously $2,198.99 price includes $800 instant rebate.
Previously $1,598.99 price includes $200 instant rebate.
OLED TV Recommendations:
Effective Sale Days: Nov. 13th, Nov. 20th, Nov. 27th, Dec. 18th, Dec. 25th
Regularly $6,999.99, sale price includes $3,000 instant rebate.
Effective Sale Days: Nov. 13th, Nov. 20th, Nov. 27th, Dec. 18th, Dec. 25th
Regularly $4,999.99, sale price includes $2,500 instant rebate.
Nov. 20-Nov. 28th
Previous sale price $2,997.00 on Amazon
Previous sale price $1,997.00 on Amazon
By Greg Tarr
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