How to buy a TV: everything you need to know to get a set that's right for you

Don't buy a TV without reading this first

Viewing angles

How well a TV can be watched from an angle can be a big deal in a lot of living rooms. To check this on a TV you’re interested in, pause an image on the screen that contains a bright, ideally colorful object against a dark backdrop, and start walking round it from straight opposite to down its sides while looking for the following:

  • Significant greyness over parts of the picture that look black when viewed straight-on
  • Colors losing vibrancy
  • The increased appearance of backlight clouds, stripes or halos.

Once one or more of these issues becomes distractingly obvious, note roughly the angle you’re looking at the screen from and apply that to your living room seating positions.

Color

Color is one of the trickiest picture quality attributes to judge in a store environment. But as well as the viewing angle color point mentioned above, there are a few things you can try and focus in on.

  • How natural do tones look? Try and look both at the image as a whole and at individual color elements. For instance, do greens look radioactive or sickly? Do reds look orange? Do blues look muted? Studying the way skin looks is a particularly good way of seeing how well a TV’s colors are working together. Do people look too pale? Too pink? Too yellow or green around the gills?
  • How balanced do colors look? Do some tones stand out so much that you get distracted by them?
  • How wide is the TV’s color range? This isn’t so important for SDR-only TVs; with those you just want to make sure the TV has enough color performance to deliver natural, balanced tones. With HDR, though, you want to see if a TV manages to deliver a clear improvement in color saturation, vibrancy and blend subtlety when you switch from SDR to HDR.
  • How subtle is a TV’s color handling? Look out for obvious bands or stripes where there should be smooth color blends (this striping issue is especially common with HDR). Look for blocking effects over background walls or, sometimes, people’s faces, especially in dark areas. Finally, look out for skin that looks too plasticky and smooth due to a lack of color tone subtlety.

Sharpness

You’re ideally looking here for how crisp a TV’s picture looks with all the different source resolutions now available: high definition, ultra high definition (4K) and, to a lesser degree, standard definition. Though given the way things are moving now, we’d suggest that a TV’s performance with standard definition is relatively unimportant. If you’re buying a 4K TV, though, you should certainly try and pay attention to how well it ‘upscales’ HD sources such as Blu-rays to its native 4K screen. 

When judging HD to 4K upscaling, look for common upscaling problems such as extra grain/fizzing, a reduction in color vibrancy, jagged edges, motion blur, fizzing or shimmering noise over areas of fine detail and fine lines, and glowing halos around fine lines. 

More general TV problems that can affect sharpness with any source are blurring over moving objects, poor color resolution (as described in the previous section), poor video processing and over-aggressive noise reduction processing. Try turning a TV’s noise reduction systems off if a picture initially looks soft and ‘mushy’ to see how much that improves things.

Motion

TVs can suffer with two motion problems: judder and blur. Look for both, ideally with 60Hz (console game) content, 50Hz (broadcast) content and 24Hz (Blu-rays, UHD Blu-rays). 

Do camera pans stutter along? Do fast-moving objects look blurred, short of detail or even leave a smeary trail behind them? Do you see momentary ‘freezes’ during action scenes? Do vertical lines in the picture suffer ‘doubling’ during camera pans?

Most TVs offer some sort of motion processing to counter blur and judder issues, so try and check these out. However, these processing systems can cause their own problems, specifically shimmering halos around moving objects, flickering over areas of really fast motion, and a tendency to smooth out judder so much that pictures – especially 24-frames-a-second movie pictures – are left looking unnaturally fluid.

Bear in mind that most TVs offer different ‘strengths’ of motion processing, so try adjusting the settings to get a more comprehensive idea of a TV’s motion performance.

Sound quality

Assuming that you’re not going to be running your new TV with some sort of external sound system, you’re going to have to pay attention to how good a potential new set sounds. 

This is relatively easy to do, thankfully. Just play a couple of loud action scenes and scenes with loud scores, listening for the following:

  • Harshness – does the sound get brittle and thin at high volumes/when there’s a lot going on?
  • Bass – is there any ‘rumble’ to round out explosions, earthquakes etc. If there is, does it sound clean or muffled and overpowering?
  • Detail – does the sound contain lots of subtle details, or sound dense and ‘squashed’.
  • Voices – do they sound realistic (for both men and women), and do they still sound clear even when there’s a lot of noise going on behind them?
  • Do the speakers drop out or make a ‘phutting’ sound under pressure?
  • Does the TV’s cabinet rattle or buzz under pressure?
  • Does the sound spread beyond the TV, and if it does can it still sound cohesive?
  • Do voices sound like they’re coming from the right place on the screen?