TV buying guide: Plasma vs. OLED vs. 4K
I hope that this guide, which I created in 2002 and have updated many times since, will help you cut through the confusion with unbiased information so that you can select a new television. It won't answer every question, and when you read it, it won't tell you "the perfect TV for you" at the end. But I hope it can provide you with the basic tools you need to feel confident when you buy that new set.
And if you just want to skip all the details and just buy a great television, my overall recommendation for 2013 is the Panasonic TC-PST60 series. It's the best TV we've ever reviewed, and I don't think any will get a higher rating before the new 2014 models arrive. It's also the last of its kind.
For more choices, check out our constantly updated lists of the best TVs for more choices.
Three rules for buying a TV
1. Picture quality is not determined by the published specsAs a rule of thumb, the main purpose of a TV's specification sheet is to bombard you with confusing numbers in an attempt to get you to "step up" and buy the more expensive version. Just about the only worthwhile numbers are found under Inputs and Weight/Dimensions.
Contrast ratio is basically a lie, refresh rate (120Hz, 240Hz, 600Hz, etc.) is complex and ultimately subjective, seemingly related numbers like "CMR," "TruMotion," MotionFlow," SPS" and the rest are fake, viewing angles for LCD and LED-backlit LCD TVs are bunk, and LED does not mean a better picture (while we're at it, all HDMI cables are the same).
Rather than rely on the spec sheet to provide hints on which TV will perform better than another, our advice is to simply ignore it. The sheet can help when trying to differentiate a TV based on features, such as whether it has Smart TV or a fancy remote, but it's useless at best and outright misleading at worst when used as a tool for divining picture quality.
Further reading: Myths, Marketing, and Misdirection: HDTV edition
2. Bigger really is betterI recommend a size of at least 32 inches for a bedroom TV and at least 46 inches for a living room or main TV -- and 55 inches or larger is best. If you're replacing an existing TV set, those sizes might seem too big (tube televisions had a typical maximum size of 36 inches) but trust me, a big TV is a wonderful thing.
In fact, more than any other "feature" like Smart TV, 3D or higher refresh rates, stepping up in TV screen size is the best use of your money. One of the most common post-TV-purchase complaints I've heard is from people who didn't go big enough.
The upper limit will be determined by your budget, taste, and by the space where you want to put the TV. If you want to fit an existing entertainment center, make sure you have at least an inch on the sides and top of the TV cavity to allow for ventilation. Or just junk that old furniture and get a bigger TV.
Further reading: How big a TV should I buy?
3. Consider plasmaIn case you haven't heard, Panasonic, the industry leader in plasma TVs, will stop making them altogether soon. You should strongly consider picking one up while they last.
It may surprise you, but plasma TVs generally provide better picture quality for the price than LCD TVs -- including so-called "LED TVs," which are just LCD TVs with LED backlights.
One reason people avoid plasma TVs is their reputation for burn-in, where an image "sticks" permanently on the screen. But if you watch TV or play video games like any normal viewer, then burn-in simply isn't a problem. In addition, the lifespan of plasma TVs is just as long as that of their LCD counterparts.
Another reason is that people perceive plasma as "old" and LCD, especially those with LED backlights, as "new." Plasmas usually do look a bit chunkier than especially the thinnest LED models, but both are mature technologies, and stylish, thin plasmas are common today. Speaking of maturity, let's face it: a TV is not a smartphone, and a new one bought today will not feel obsolete two years from now.
As far as we're concerned, the only good reason for most people to skip plasma is because it's either too big or too small. The size range of mainstream plasma TVs these days is from 42 to 65 inches diagonal, so if you want something smaller or larger than that, you need to get an LCD/LED model.
There are a couple of exceptions that don't apply to most people. The first is that we don't recommend plasma for very bright rooms. By "very bright," think huge windows along more than one wall or sunlight shining directly on the screen (not a good idea for any TV). For the vast majority of normal rooms, plasmas have plenty of light output. But for those extremely bright situations, LCD TVs, which can get a lot brighter than plasmas especially at large screen sizes, are the better choice. If you're unsure whether your room is too bright yet still want plasma, the only way to be sure is to bring one home for a trial--just make sure you buy from a retailer with a good return policy.
The second is for those who live in the mountains, Santa Fe (but Denver is OK!), or in outer space. Plasmas don't do well at very high altitudes.
Plasma TVs do use more power than LED LCD TVs, but typically on the order of $30-$50 more per year -- hardly enough to be a major factor in most viewers' decision-making.
Further reading: LED LCD vs. plasma vs. LCD
Picture quality P's and Q's
I consider the best picture quality for the money a sort of holy grail in the quest for a new TV. It's still consistently the No. 1 thing TV shoppers cite as important to their buying decision. If you don't place as high a priority on PQ, you'll get the best value by simply sorting a list of TVs by price and the screen size you want, choosing the cheapest from a brand you trust, and calling it a day. Or at least skip to the next section of this guide.
Unfortunately, picture quality is also the most difficult thing to judge for yourself without actually buying the TV and taking it home (and even then it might be tough!). It's dependent on numerous factors, including source quality, room lighting, and picture settings, that can affect the "true" potential of the TV itself.
In CNET TV reviews we control for these variables in an attempt to provide a level playing field for direct comparison of the TVs' pictures. Even after these controls, and calibrating all of the TVs to a standard, we observe considerable differences in quality from model to model -- I definitely disagree with the sentiment that "all HDTVs look the same." Check out more on how we test TVs here.
After more than 10 years reviewing HDTVs, I feel comfortable conveying some generalizations I've observed about picture quality:
- A good picture is one that reproduces the incoming source as closely as possible without "improving" color, smoothness, or other characteristics.
- Plasma TVs come closer to this ideal than LCDs, especially for viewers who aren't sitting in the sweet spot directly in front of the screen.
- LCD TVs can get brighter, but plasmas are bright enough for all but the most sun-drenched rooms.
- LED-backlit LCD TVs with local dimming, whether edge-lit or full-array, often outperform those without.
- Screen uniformity is a problem for LCD TVs, but not for plasmas.
- The ability to produce a deep shade of black -- which translates into high contrast -- is the most important ingredient in a good picture.
- Color saturation, which is directly influenced by contrast/black level, is second-most important, followed by color accuracy.
- In a bright room matte screens are the best overall at reducing reflections. The best glossy screens preserve black levels well.
- Less important factors include video processing (120Hz, 240Hz, etc), maximum light output, and display resolution (1080p, 1080i and 720p).
- Many people don't realize they're watching the Soap Opera Effect, and might like their TV's picture quality better if they turned it off.
- Poor picture settings on a good TV will usually look worse than calibrated picture settings on a crappy TV.
These are generalizations only, so it's common enough to find TVs that violate them. Many LED-based LCD TVs can outperform many plasmas or have excellent uniformity, models with local dimming can look worse than those without, wildly inaccurate color can look worse even if its saturation is correct, and a TV with deep black levels can still perform worse overall than one with brighter blacks.
In sum, picture quality is more complex than just counting pixels or reading a spec sheet, and your best bet is to read reviews, such as those at CNET. Hopefully you can also get the chance to see a good TV in person along with someone who can explain why it's good.
Extras beyond picture qualityOn one level, I don't consider any of these extras necessary or even all that important. On the other hand, they're often found on TVs that have better picture quality and cost more money (funny how that works, isn't it?), so it's worthwhile to know about them anyway.
Since you can connect a $50 Roku, $99 Apple TV, $150 Blu-ray player $200-$500 game console, or any number of other devices to make any TV "Smart" -- in the sense that you get access to Netflix, Amazon Instant, and the rest -- the "apps" on TVs are often redundant. That's why I want my dumb TV. All things being equal, I recommend an app-free model over its more expensive Smart brother. Things are rarely equal, however, and your next TV will likely have Smart apps whether you use them or not.
Further reading: Major Smart TV app suites compared.
The main thing you need to know is that every 3D TV is also perfectly capable of playing 2D content, too, so we prefer to think of 3D as an extra feature as opposed to a separate type of television. It's also largely unnecessary. Lack of content is king; most people with 3D TVs never use the 3D feature.
Further reading: CNET guide to 3D TV: What you need to know
If you aren't planning to use a universal model or the remote that came with your cable box, pay attention to the TV's included clicker. It's nice when it can command other gear directly via infrared, as opposed to simply controlling gear via HDMI, and I prefer TVs to include medium-size remotes with well-differentiated, backlit buttons. Fancy remotes with touchpads and gesture controls are nice, but a good universal model will almost always work better, consigning your included remote, no matter how fancy, to ignominy in a drawer.
Further reading: Best universal remotes
This one has gotten easier as important inputs have dwindled to one kind: HDMI. Just count the number of devices you'll want to connect, and make sure your TV has at least that many HDMI ports (or one or two extra if you'll be expanding). USB inputs and/or an SD card slot are nice for displaying photos too. You only need to worry about the analog ports if you have an older device to connect; the Nintendo Wii is the classic HDMI-free offender.
Further reading: Why all HDMI cables are the same
For better or for worse, a TV is a piece of furniture and the big screens can dominate a room even when turned off. That's why TV makers, led by Samsung again, have concentrated on making their sets thinner and less intrusive. The best examples have frames so thin they look like almost all picture, and when seen from the side, or hung on a wall, the thin cabinets almost disappear. Unfortunately, thin LED-backlit LCDs can also introduce uniformity problems in my experience.
Frequently asked questionsOn the off chance that I didn't cover what you wanted to know above, here are a few other questions I've heard from TV shoppers over the years.
What's the best TV for gaming? What about sports?
Trick question! I believe the best TVs for watching pretty much anything are the TVs with the best black level, color, and other standard performance characteristics. Motion resolution isn't a major concern since most blurring on TV sporting events is inherent in the source, and input lag, which we measure for every TV review, can often be defeated by specialized gaming modes common on most TVs. But since you asked, here are some tips for a particular football game, and my reassurance that plasmas don't get burn-in from video games any more than from regular TV content.
What about all those picture settings? Should I buy a calibration?
Properly adjusting the picture is very important to getting the most out of your TV. To avoid being intimidated by all the options, check out my picture settings database and FAQ along with the articles HDTV settings explained and what is HDTV calibration? for advice on whether it's right for you. DIY-ers can check out try one of these Blu-ray setup discs for your HDTV or even try a calibration by eye.
What accessories should I buy?
Let me reiterate: All HDMI cables are the same. If you don't have a universal remote already, you should get one. Our list of best home video and best home audio gear has other good suggestions.
The short answer is "it should last a very long time." Here's the longer version.
Can I use my TV as a computer monitor?
Yes you can, and it should work very well. In general LCDs are best for TVs that will undergo heavy monitor use. Here are a few more tips.
How do I set it up?
Geoff Morrison has you covered again.
How come you never mention rear-projection TV?
Because they're no longer available for sale.
What about new technologies like OLED and 4K?
They're new and extremely expensive, so we don't recommend investing in either one yet unless you have money to burn. They're also very different.
OLED is a type of big-screen display technology, separate from LED LCD and plasma, that can produce the best picture quality yet and allow even thinner panels. Unfortunately it also has plenty of problems, the first being that it starts at $9,000 for a 55-inch screen -- and likely won't get cheaper very fast.
4K, or Ultra High Definition, is new resolution that has four times as many pixels as today's 1080p TVs. All current 4K TVs use LED LCD technology, which means they're a lot easier to manufacture than OLED. They're still very expensive though; as of September 2013, the cheapest 4K TV from a major brand costs $3,000. It'll be at least another year before prices fall enough that we recommend 4K TVs to normal buyers, and even then the extra resolution is wasted at typical screen sizes and seating distances. That's one reason why we think 4K TVs are stupid.
Check out Four 4K TV facts you must know for our latest take and buying advice on 4K.