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

What to check before taking home your new set

You’ve boned up on all the latest TV specifications and technologies and now the time has come to actually get out there and take a look at your shortlisted models. 

Specifications on a page can only tell you so much, after all. There’s no substitute for actually standing there in a store looking at working samples of TVs you’ve shortlisted. 

But what should you be looking for? How can you spot if a TV is as good in reality as it sounded on paper? 

To help you out, here we share some of the things we look for ourselves when testing TVs. We appreciate that your ability to check everything on this exhaustive checklist may be hampered to some extent by the sort of lighting conditions the screen is running in, the sort of content options you’re able to feed it, and the amount of time you’ve got. But our view is that you can never know too much when you’re about to drop a hefty sum on any new TV – so let the crash course in TV testing begin!

Smart TV features and interface

Most of today’s TVs are more than just TVs. They also support apps and online features. The range and usefulness of these features can vary substantially from brand to brand, though, as can the helpfulness of the interfaces used to access them.

Given how much time many users will likely spend with a TV’s smart features, it’s worth spending a few minutes playing exploring those features and onscreen menus before fully committing to a purchase.

In terms of the features themselves, experience suggests that by far the most important ones to look for are video streaming services. Netflix and Amazon Video are easily the most popular services a smart TV should support, but viewers also often like to have access to the catch-up services of their locality/country’s most popular broadcast services (for instance, the BBC iPlayer in the UK). 

There are also numerous smaller subscription/pay per view services available, such as VUDU and wuaki.tv, and if you subscribe to any of these already don’t forget to check if they’re also supported by any new set you’re thinking about buying. 

Many smart TV platforms offer lots of non-streaming apps, covering such things as games and information services. Quality definitely trumps quantity when it comes to these sorts of secondary apps in a TV environment, though; you’ll only use a fraction of them, and having to wade through reams of rubbish just for the occasional gem can be a time-consuming and off-putting experience.

When it comes to a smart TV interface, experience shows that simple, uncluttered menus that can easily be customised to provide direct access to favourite apps work best. Pay attention too to how slick and responsive the menus are, how intuitively organized they are, how well they combine with the remote control, and what content search options are provided.

For what it’s worth, our favourite operating systems are LG’s webOS, and Panasonic’s Home Screen 2.0, while our least-favourite system is Android TV. But there’s a degree of subjectivity to all this, so do try to experiment.

  • Our guide to the best Smart TV has more information on which TVs have the best interfaces

Brightness

If your TV is going into a fairly bright room, sets that stand out in brightness terms on a shop floor can give you some idea of how their pictures will hold up when you get them home. 

A lack of brightness is a particularly common problem with relatively small TVs. It’s also recently become a big deal for the big-screen marketplace, though, with the arrival of high dynamic range technology. 

Without sufficient brightness a TV won’t produce well the bright white and color highlights that are so important to a successful HDR picture. They’ll look washed out, flat and short of detail – as if they’ve been bleached of color tone detail.

TVs that aren’t really bright enough for HDR will also create HDR pictures that look unnaturally dark and/or which leave dark parts of the picture looking too dominant and ‘hollow’. A good test of a TV’s HDR brightness is to put a shot on the screen that shows a dark object with lots of detail foregrounded against a bright backdrop. With TVs that are struggling for brightness, the dark object may lose all of its subtle shading and detailing, so that it just looks like a silhouette.

As a side note here, though, bear in mind that TVs which excel for brightness can struggle more than lower brightness TVs when it comes to black level, contrast and backlight stability/uniformity. In other words, don’t just assume that lots of brightness alone will get the job done; look at brightness and contrast issues as a balancing act.