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5 Steps to Picking a TV, Plus Common Questions Answered

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With the wide range of TVs available, picking a TV can be tough. We've put together a short list of features to look for and information on common TV topics, such as:

  • TV resolutions, such as 4K
  • The meaning of TV “inch class”
  • What connections to look for on a TV
  • What it means for a TV to be “smart”
  • The difference between refresh rate and motion rate
  • TV backlighting (and why it's important)
young man pointing at flat screen TV

5 Key Steps to Picking a TV

We'll get into more details below, but these are the basic steps to selecting a good television.

  1. Pick 4K resolution if 40″ or up, otherwise 1080p.
  2. Make sure it fits in your space.
  3. Check if it'll connect to your other equipment. Antenna/cable input can be done through HDMI converters.
  4. Ignore “motion rate” (don't avoid it, just ignore it) – if you want an extra smooth picture, get 120Hz.
  5. AFTER those, check the backlight.

What resolution TV do I need?

If you're going for anything 40″ or up, get a 4K TV. 4K refers to the resolution, its size in individual dots (pixels) on the display. 4K and Ultra HD are 3,840 by 2,160 pixels.

Slow connection? Don't worry. Even if you can't directly watch Ultra HD content, most TVs have upscaling that improves video. It's a good idea to make a “future-proofed” investment.

Some other resolutions available on the market are 720p, 1080p and 8K.

For displays under 40″, 1080p is a good option. While 4K is better, 1080p is entirely acceptable on smaller displays.

720p is too small for ANY size of TV, and 8K is much more expensive for very little practical benefit.

What is TV “inch class”?

TV inches refer to the display size measured from the top corner to the opposite bottom corner, NOT its width.

measuring TV inches from top corner to opposite bottom corner

Check the TV manufacturer's specifications (width, height, depth) to make sure your television fits.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you plan to wall mount the TV, check the weight. Make sure your mount and wall will support it.

What connections does my TV need?

The two main connections you need to hook up to the TV are HDMI and audio. The television's HDMI inputs should be at least HDMI 2.0.

If you have an existing sound system, make sure the TV you pick can output to it.

A side note about HDMI:

If you're trying to hook up a laptop, or some models of DVR or camera, they may have a mini or micro HDMI output. These connectors have a vaguely similar shape but are considerably smaller.

They will work, but you'll need an HDMI to mini HDMI or micro HDMI cable. These are NOT the same thing, so make sure you look at the connectors to get the correct one.

Some new TVs will NOT have a direct coaxial input. Cable TV often can't be converted to HDMI, so be sure to get a coaxial input if your cable source doesn't have an HDMI output.

Local antenna TV can easily be received over HDMI using a digital converter box or an over-the-air DVR.

Rebuilding an old TV stand into a table to hold a larger flat screen TV
We cut the top off of our old TV stand and put it back together and refinished it so the new set could sit on top.

What's a smart TV?

Smart TVs have integrated features above and beyond displaying the video they're given from HDMI inputs.

These features vary. Some play media from USB storage and streaming video from a limited selection of sources (Netflix and Hulu usually among them). Others have full-on app stores and connections to dozens of services.

Can I buy a “dumb” one?

Not likely. Most TVs are now smart TVs unless you go all the way low-end.

That said, you can keep the “features” to a minimum. Avoid any TVs that specifically mention compatibility with voice assistants like Alexa or Google Assistant.

Refresh Rate vs. Motion Rate

Refresh rate is what to focus on when picking a TV if you care about motion smoothness. Ignore motion rate entirely.

What does refresh rate mean?

Videos (including TV, streaming, etc.) consist of a series of pictures. Each picture is called a “frame”. The frames (pictures) are displayed at a certain rate called the “refresh rate”. The refresh rate is measured in Hz (Hertz). This is the maximum number of frames (pictures) that the TV can show in one second.

Televisions usually have either a 60 Hz or 120 Hz refresh rate. Most sources of video won't exceed 60 frames per second.

Many mid to high end TVs now include the ability to “stretch” video out into a simulated higher frame rate. This makes motion appear smoother on the display, and can usually be turned off if you don't like it.

What does motion rate mean?

Also known as “effective refresh rate”, “clear motion index” or other names, these are “tricks” that try to make the picture look smoother. They do this with either “frame interpolation” (the stretching mentioned above, done at a different stage) OR “black frame insertion”, which darkens the TV between frames in an attempt to make your eye “reset” between them.

Some people find these appealing, but they are NOT a replacement for actual refresh rate.

Frame interpolation can make TV or movies appear unnatural (often called the “soap opera effect”). Black frames can make the TV appear to flicker and reduce its display brightness.

If you just want a smooth picture, particularly for high frame rate broadcasts like sports, focus only on the true refresh rate (ideally 120 Hz). Ignore any “motion technologies” when picking a TV.

What is Backlight Dimming?

In LCD and LED televisions, the display consists of two components; the panel (which creates the colors you see) and the backlight (which provides brightness to make the color more visible).

In most (but not all) TVs of these types, each backlight has only two levels of true brightness – on or off.

Brightness is controlled by turning this light on and off really fast at a steady rate. (This is known as pulse width modulation – PWM). PWM averages out the light to the selected level.

If the frequency of the PWM is too slow, this can cause subtle flickering that isn't clearly visible, but can still bother your eyes.

There are three main ways to avoid this:

  • A high PWM frequency – at least 240 Hz, ideally higher.
  • Analog backlight dimming (sometimes shown as 0 Hz).
  • An OLED display – in OLED TVs, the panel provides the brightness itself, meaning there's no backlight that can flicker. These are good, but expensive.

A bit of a note – you might have a bit of difficulty finding information on this, compared to other features like resolution and refresh rate.

Try picking a TV or two based on other criteria first. Then search phrases like “(model name) backlight” or “(model name) dimming frequency”.

Okay, but which TV do I buy?

If you're still not sure where to start when picking a TV, here are a few options.

TCL Roku TVs (32-49 inch class)

This lineup of smart TVs from TCL is relatively inexpensive and feature-rich, but has a few caveats due to the price. Here's a quick rundown:

  • Smart, but not “too” smart: Includes most streaming services, and you can install new apps. While it does support Alexa and Google Assistant, there's no microphone in the TV.
  • Good response time: If anyone in the house wants to play video games on the TV, this should do the job nicely.
  • Very cheap for what you get: the 43-inch model in particular is comparable in price to most desktop monitors.
  • Connections: 3 HDMI inputs, direct coaxial (antenna/cable) input, both 3.5mm and optical audio output, can connect to Internet either wired or wireless.
  • Decent speakers: The TV's built-in audio has good sound but limited bass. Speakers or a sound bar are probably recommended. It can use 3.5mm speakers, which are widely available secondhand.
  • 60 Hz true refresh rate: While you can get a better refresh rate, it's not necessary for most content.
  • Watch out for duds: These have been known to be damaged in shipping on rare occasion. If you buy one of these, open it fairly soon so you can return it within the window if it's not working right.
  • Narrow viewing angle: In other words, the picture is only good when looking at the TV while facing it directly.
  • Mediocre backlight: The backlight PWM only operates at 120 Hz, and the backlight isn't very bright. This won't work well in direct sun or dim rooms, but in an evenly-lit interior room, this shouldn't be a downside. There are also some reports of the backlight not fully shutting off when the TV is turned off, but this does not appear to be frequent.

There are some bigger models of this, but they're in and out of stock.

Vizio M-Series Quantum (55 inch class)

We have a Vizio TV. This is a different model, but it's still an excellent TV without excess bells and whistles.

  • Excellent backlight: The backlight on this TV has 480Hz PWM, concealing its flicker extremely well and making its black frame insertion something worth considering use of. It also has 90 individual dimming zones, allowing it to reduce the brightness of areas where darkness is being shown on screen.
  • Great picture quality: The color and contrast on this display are top-shelf right out of the box (partially due to the above), and can get even better if you want to fiddle with the settings.
  • Good speakers: While you'll still want a sound bar if you're concerned with maximum fidelity (it is a flat panel TV, after all), the built-in speakers are sufficient for most things you'd want to watch.
  • Limited but solid “smart” features: While you can't install new apps onto this TV and its smart interface is somewhat slow, it does include the major streaming services (Amazon, Netflix, Hulu) and a couple others. Like the TCL, voice control requires a separate device.
  • Connections: 4 HDMI inputs, direct coaxial (antenna/cable) input, composite video input, L/R audio input and output, optical audio output, can connect to Internet either wired or wireless.
  • 60 Hz refresh rate: While you can get a better refresh rate, it's not necessary for most content, so this is all right.
  • Somewhat poor upscaling: If you're watching DVDs or cable TV, the picture quality may not be improved as much as with some other TV choices. It's still decent, but not great. 1080p content, like Blu-Rays and HD streaming, scales up entirely fine.

More Home Technology Tips

We don't jump on all the latest and greatest fads, but we do like tech that gets the job done. I wasn't sure about switching to a bigger TV, but now we can see it easily from all areas of the great room.

We have several home technology related posts on the site, including:

Have more questions about picking a TV? Leave a comment and we'll do our best to help.

This post is by August Neverman V, who handles the tech support for Common Sense Home and all things computing.

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