Best balance of quality and cost in current crop of TVs
January 15, 2016 12:23 PM   Subscribe

I last bought a new TV fifteen years ago (an excellent Sony that has aged very well, but is SD and increasingly obsolete). We've decided it's time for us to step up to the 21st century. I'm finding myself overwhelmed by the array of brands and models of current flat screen HD tvs. I understand the basics (plasma is out, LED is basic, OLED and 4K are the hot new standards), but I am wondering what people's recommendations for best mid-range (under $750) tv makes and models are. Should I count on using a set's built-in smart features, or should we be looking to save a bit on a non-smart model, and buy a Roku? Also, are there special considerations for setting up and calibrating current TVs to get a decent picture?
posted by aught to Technology (29 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
This is exactly the kind of thing I go to The Wirecutter for. They do extensive research, review lots of options, and cut to the chase with "Buy this" recommendations (and a couple of alternatives.) For each category you might not technically get the very absolutely most perfect-for-you option that exists, but you get to bypass the overwhelmingness of all the options and get something you definitely won't be disappointed with.
posted by Tomorrowful at 12:35 PM on January 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

I will tell you that all our TVs (2 full-time plus 2 out of 3 monitors) are Smart and we never use it, they're awful. Instead, for apps, we use:

-xBox 360
-BluRay player
-Apple TV apps + occasionally AirPlay from our iOS devices *shakes fist at Amazon*
-Hardline HDMI cable plugged straight into the tv with a Lightning adapter for our iOS devices

I haven't even looked at the SmartTV interface on any of them in 2 years. When we tried, they had crappy network reception, the apps were laggy, the interface with the TV remotes were frustrating. I think the big TV is a Samsung and the smaller ones are all Vizios, experience was similarly crap on all of them. They all work great with all the other options, except everything gets kind of bad wireless connectivity in the back bedroom.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:35 PM on January 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

I like plasma, and understood that the relative unpopularity was mostly marketing problems, not functionality. I would still buy one if available. It’s a VHS vs Beta thing in many regards, except there’s no penalty for choosing Beta.

If my Panasonic is any indicator, I’d not worry about the smart features and go with an external box. It’s OK, but half assed and baked in, like when you used to buy TV’s with built in DVD players. Fine for an extra bedroom TV, but not for your main one.

Don’t forget that viewing distance plays a huge factor. I often watch SD content on my 55" TV but am so far away the difference is barely noticeable in some cases.
posted by bongo_x at 12:38 PM on January 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Plasma screens are beautiful (lots of color correction and grading in Hollywood is done on plasma). Smart TVs are terrible (imagine having to update your firmware instead of watching something live). 4K and 3D have a dearth of content (3D is a dead man walking, and 4k is mostly made from uprezzing HD masters). I recommend like Tomorrowful says above.

If you're going to calibrate your screen, turn off all the automatic features that have cool marketing names like SmoothMotion™ and DynaColor®, as well as the ones that don't have cool names (like Vivid, Cinema, Sports, Surround, etc) and then do the calibration.
posted by infinitewindow at 12:51 PM on January 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

Just as a datapoint, I have a mid-level Vizio refurb from Woot. It's a 50" smart TV for about $480. It's great! I also use an Apple TV. Really, lots of TVs now are pretty good, though I think researching via wirecutter above is a great resource. I barely use the smart aspect of my smart TV. Also lots of smart TVs don't get software updates like other standalone streaming devices.
posted by Crystalinne at 12:53 PM on January 15, 2016

Another vote for you not to get a "smart" TV. Plug in what you want. Much better, less hardware/software to break inside the tv itself.

Another vote for Plasma. They are physically very heavy, but so so much prettier picture-wise than my Samsung LED.
posted by jbenben at 12:58 PM on January 15, 2016

We have 2 Vizios and use the smart features all the time. I love them.
posted by soelo at 1:06 PM on January 15, 2016

Some background, from what I understand and in case you didn’t know;

Plasma TV’s came out a long time ago and were very expensive and didn’t look great. Over the years people ignored them because of the those reasons. Later LED’s came out and were cheaper and looked pretty good. Plasma continued to improve, looked better than LED’s in many people’s opinion, and matched LED’s for price, but by that time most people viewed LED’s as the new hotness and plasma as old tech. Manufactures were never able to shake that idea in the public, and frankly they don’t care, they’ll sell you whatever you want and LED’s are easy to make.
posted by bongo_x at 1:06 PM on January 15, 2016

One note about plasma (assuming you can actually buy one): they suffer from image retention to some degree. If you play a lot of games or are going to watch something with a static screen element (like a HUD or a stock ticker, sports score, network logo, etc) you may find that element staying around longer than you'd like.
posted by selfnoise at 1:06 PM on January 15, 2016

My vote is for the dumbest 4k tv you can find. 4k content isn't there yet, but it's pretty clear that's where content is heading.
posted by homesickness at 1:07 PM on January 15, 2016

Recently a lot of good TV-buying advice has been overtaken by events—the last plasma TV manufacturers left the business in late 2014, and it's increasingly difficult to find a TV that doesn't have smart features.

That doesn't mean you should necessarily use the smart features on the TV, but some of them are good for light use. (I tried LG's webOS at my parents' house recently, and it was very nice.) It seems like you'll probably end up buying a perfectly good 1080p TV with some smart TV features, just because that's 90% of what's out there now.
posted by Polycarp at 1:08 PM on January 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

Plasma is dead. Power consumption was too high, the picture degraded over time, and they were very heavy. They stopped making them.

My LG smart TV quickly became a stupid TV when the updates stopped coming, e.g. the Netflix client is out of date and crusty now and the Amazon client sometimes crashes the TV. It's better to get that functionality from outside boxes, so don't pay extra for smart TV features. Some degree of smartness is standard now though.

3D is on the way out as a TV feature, so not worth looking for. See it again in 10 years when it comes back into fashion.

4K is a good thing if you can afford it. It's extra resolution, not just hype, and more content and support is on the way so your TV will stay relevant for longer.

I think curved TVs are a stupid gimmick, particularly if you plan to mount it on a wall.

I don't know what size you want so I'll guess 55 inch.
The current price/performance leaders in LED backlit LCD TVs are the Koreans, i.e. Samsung and LG.
I'd stroll into Costco and get the largest well-priced Samsung or LG they had.
I can see they currently have some 1080p 55 inch Samsungs and LGs under $700.
To get a 55 inch-ish 4K TV at that size and around your budget you'd have to get a Vizio which is OK but the build quality is a bit lower.
posted by w0mbat at 1:29 PM on January 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

What Polycarp said. Stay away from curved screens or 3D TVs; and if you're buying for the long haul, it is too early to spring for OLED or 4K. Get an LED 1080p TV, probably one from Samsung or LG. You might not be able to avoid some "smart" features, but any streaming box (Apple TV, Roku) will do a far better job.

As an aside, if you're buying from Costco or Amazon, right now may (may) be a good moment to get the extra warranty. Usually these are total wastes of money, but the quality of the current generation of TVs is ... well, dubious. A 3- or 5-year warranty might not be a bad investment over the manufacturer's "12 months if you're lucky" warranty.

(Looks like w0mbat covered all of my advice while I was typing it out. Jeez.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 1:32 PM on January 15, 2016

Thanks all so far, I value all this input.

Probably looking at a 40-something inch TV, actually, modest house with smallish living room. (And we're moving from an old SONY 27", ahem. So they'll all seem large to us.)

Does anyone have an opinion about the whole "refresh rate / motion rate" thing, which seems to be used differently by different brands?
posted by aught at 1:42 PM on January 15, 2016

Does anyone have an opinion about the whole "refresh rate / motion rate" thing, which seems to be used differently by different brands?

They all have it at this point, but you can disable it. Not a reason to buy one over another.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:57 PM on January 15, 2016

I've been happy with the well-reviewed Roku box, but since you're starting from scratch, consider the Roku TV (review is of the 32-inch, but they sell other sizes.) Cheaper than buying the box separately, plus fewer boxes/wires/remotes.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 2:05 PM on January 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, that motion crap drives me insane, it makes everything look like a soap opera. Some people don't see it, apparently.

I'd really encourage you to get larger than 40" if you can make it work at all. Here's a site that helps figure out what viewing distances and TV sizes are optimal.

I'd stay away from the smart apps, too. I find that the Roku is the best all-around streaming device, but I use an Xbox One in the living room. I'd also get a soundbar no matter what TV you end up with... the sound on all of them is crap. Wirecutter has good recommendations there, too.
posted by Huck500 at 2:09 PM on January 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

Smart features on TVs all suck. Right now, it's a competition to see whose features will suck the least. Even on really good quality TVs from well respected companies like Samsung, Sony, LG, etc., the "Smart" features are really no good. Actually, Vizio seems to be a notable exception to this trend. The Smart stuff isn't really good yet, but Vizio smart stuff seems to suck significantly less. I don't know if you'll actually save money by looking for a non-Smart TV (it's sort of something that's fairly standard on many TVs now), but you'll definitely want to get a Roku/AppleTV/Chromecast regardless. Basically, I'd shop as if all TVs are dumb TVs and not even pay $1 extra for a "Smart" version of a TV.

For brands, my take is: Sony is great, but you pay the "Sony Tax" and pay more for what would be comparable quality. I'm a big fan of Samsung- I've bought two TVs from them in the last 8 years and they've been incredibly good and durable. LG seems equally good. Vizio is a very good newish brand (not so new anymore) that doesn't have the name-brand recognizability of Sony/Samsung/LG.

If I were buying a 40 inch TV today, I'd probably buy this one or this one (the 40" version; for some reason Amazon just defaults to the biggest screen size on those models). Both are nice mid-range Samsung TVs. Are they notably better than equivalent offerings from LG/Vizio/Sony? Probably not, but I just know Samsung best. But really, it's pretty hard to screw this decision up. Most TVs you buy these days are going to be good enough for most people.

If you really care about the details, you can spring for the fancy/expensive calibration stuff, but the most I've done is look up some example settings on the AVS Forums and used those for my TV. And I think I care about this more than 98% of the population. The AVS forum people are absolute fanatics about this stuff - which is great, but is also completely overwhelming if you're not in the 99.99th percentile in caring about this stuff.
posted by Betelgeuse at 2:10 PM on January 15, 2016

I bought this one and have been happy wth it. I have two Samsung TVs and really like them both. I have a Vizio too (because it was the biggest screen that fit in a weirdly sized space), and am not impressed with that one. It's intermittently responsive to the remote which is highly annoying, but necessary to use the smart features and the picture is meh (though to be fair I've seen Vizios with great pictures in the stores).
posted by cecic at 2:13 PM on January 15, 2016

I find that the motion and really all picture enhancement features are best turned off and forgotten about. Most of them are meant to make the TV stand out in a warehouse full of fluorescent lights, not at your house. The motion features always look like video tape to me, like Huck500 said.

I would look for reviews of build and picture quality and ignore features entirely. I bought a 3D TV because it was a better TV, with no intention of using that feature. Manufactures know that features are what most people are looking at, ignoring quality, the market skews that way. Something might be essentially worthless but it’s there because it sells units.

I also second Huck500’s advice of looking up the optimal size for your conditions. It’s hard to judge that when you aren’t used to it. I thought 55" was huge and almost unwatchable when I got it, I almost took it back, and I already had a big TV. It actually made my wife dizzy. Now it seems fine and I wouldn’t mind if it was bigger.

Know what equipment you’re going to hook up and make sure the connections are there, or you have another plan. Are you going to want to use your old video game console? If your set only has HDMI you’re going to have to rig up a solution.

The things that are emphasized in the sales information are usually not the important things. Those are rings you’re going to forget about days after you get it home. You will care about the quality and ease of use for years.
posted by bongo_x at 2:30 PM on January 15, 2016

4K is a good thing if you can afford it. It's extra resolution, not just hype

This is true - but the human eye is incapable of seeing resolution this high at the distances most people sit from their tvs.

If you buy a 40 inch screen, you will need to sit no more than 5 feet/1.5 metres from the screen to actually "see" 4k.

posted by smoke at 4:39 PM on January 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is exactly the kind of thing I go to The Wirecutter for. They do extensive research, review lots of options, and cut to the chase with "Buy this" recommendations (and a couple of alternatives.) For each category you might not technically get the very absolutely most perfect-for-you option that exists, but you get to bypass the overwhelmingness of all the options and get something you definitely won't be disappointed with.

I have purchased two things at the recommendation of the Wirecutter, and both are awful. I have a "smart" Vizio per their recommendation and it's a really bad product. The colors are bad, the refresh rate is weird, the remote control makes no sense and is a strange size and shape, it turns off at random times, and the smart features are really, really slow to load. We just plugged a Roku box in because it has such better performance. We bought their recommended Bluetooth speaker, too, and ended up returning it and getting a different one. I don't know if this is just random personal preference, but I feel like Wirecutter either doesn't test stuff for long enough to get a real feel for how these things work long term, or - and I have no evidence for this, but I've had such bad experiences with them - they are just paid advertisements.
posted by one_bean at 4:45 PM on January 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

I, too, find the wirecutter wildly over-rated. Their recommendations range from fine-if-not-particularly-informed, to missing-the-whole-picture, to bad. Their semi-mythic status as the ultimate arbiter of consumer tech baffles me. They are a review site, not much better or worse than any other..
posted by smoke at 5:20 PM on January 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

I bought the Vizio 50" on Wirecutter's rec for "best $500 tv" and returned it two weeks later. No amount of twiddling made it acceptable. Upping my budget (and staying at Costco, because the return policies are so much more liberal than the other big boxes) I was choosing between a Samsung HDTV and a Vizio 4k at the same price. I ended up with the Vizio and really like it. I use the built in smart features more than my Roku, Chromecast, and Firestick put together. For a tv as small as you're talking, you probably only need to spend $500 to get a nice set, and again at that size 4K probably doesn't make any sense.
posted by mzurer at 6:31 PM on January 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

I recently stepped into the 21st century and turned in my old Sony box. I got a Vizeo which I like and I use the smart features occasionally, but my A-1, top, primo advice would be to go big. If you are thinking 40", go 50". Truly, the most amazing thing about flat screen technology to me has been the size. Watching movies and sports on my 55" is so friggin amazing compared to my Sony purchased in 1985 at the Great Ace on Clark St at the Great Ace. (Thanks dad for the apartment warming right out of college gift!) Whatever you are thinking in terms of size, you will not regret going a little bigger. You may regret not going big enough.

To me, TVs are relatively cheap. Adding size is cost effective. Relative to my $750 smart phone, my 55" tv for around $600 was a steal.

I use Chromecast all the time. Easier to cast from your phone or pc than to fiddle with the smart TV features, but being able to put up my Twitter feed while watching an event that my feed is live tweeting is pretty interesting so I use that built in feature sometimes.
posted by AugustWest at 7:09 PM on January 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have the almost-top-of-the-line samsung smart tv from... 2014? I didn't care about the smart features, but realized that if you wanted the highest, or even a higher than average quality display you HAD to get a smart model. This irked me, but whatever.

The smart portion of it is incredibly crappy. It's a laggy, stuttery, crashing mess. It was supposed to "auto update" itself and turns on randomly during the day to try and do that. It never successfully does unless i force it, and even if i turn that feature off it turns itself on and off randomly all day.

It recently started freezing, and needing to be unplugged to actually turn off. You can keep watching stuff but all the menus just... crash. I have an amazon firetv plugged in to it and literally go in to the tvs own menus maybe once a week, or even once a month. I just have it set to fire up straight to input 2, and never touch the remote after that. Even though the TV itself has netflix i use the firetv netflix app. Seriously.

I am, however, here to come to the defense of the idea of a smart tv. With android TV.

My friend recently got a nicer sony android tv and holy shit its glorious. You can use EVERY streaming service that works on an android tablet/phone, you can install any apps you want. The entire thing is incredibly fluid and smooth and just works brilliantly. The voice control honestly works, very well even. The entire thing just seems very very very well done.

I was seriously about to write off the whole concept, but i think specifically an android TV smart model is worth it. Holy shit am i never ever buying a proprietary smart TV again though. I SERIOUSLY hate this thing now and am basically just waiting for it to die. It's a pretty tv with a clever design, and the picture is excellent even compared to the newest stuff... but the software and stability of it is just SOOOOO bad.

They all have it at this point, but you can disable it. Not a reason to buy one over another.

This isn't totally true. There IS a purpose to buying a higher refresh rate TV, even if you don't use the "smoothing" function. I bought a 240hz tv and immediately set the motion compensation to "clear" and basically shut it all off. Why? Because 240 is a directly divisible number of 24.

Most movies are 24fps. 3d movies are 48fps(although i know i know, 3d is lame, etc). All of these will have stuttering on a 60 or 120hz tv.

The difference in the smoothness of motion on my 240hz tv compared to most tvs i see at other peoples houses, various public displays, etc isn't enormous but you DO notice it once you catch on to it.

All that said, i don't think 4k is worth it yet. Nor do i think OLED is. The good LED TVs look very good now. Ones that include a full-array lighting system(several brands have gotten on board with this) and utilize local dimming can look, in my opinion, better than most cheap plasmas because of how bright they can get directly next to being dark. Something like a lightsaber in a dark scene of star wars can be very striking. Almost all plasmas look too dim to me. And i've owned several nice ones.

I would buy, like my friend did, the cheapest 1080p sony that has android TV. This is the one they got, and i have no complaints about that. The w800 series is generally well received as close to the best and has been since they launched it a couple years ago.
posted by emptythought at 7:19 PM on January 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you build yourself a media player based on a Raspberry Pi and OSMC, you end up with an inexpensive thing that's highly capable out of the box, arbitrarily extensible, endlessly updatable, and which will drive any TV you buy including your existing old Sony.

You might even find out that almost no TV programs are actually more entertaining just because every single nostril hair is now visible, and that you don't actually need a more capable display than what you already have.
posted by flabdablet at 10:25 AM on January 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Some Random comments:

Refresh Rate comment:
Going larger than 32-inch? Go for 120hz refresh rate, do not settle for 60hz.

I too wanted to do a bunch of research but believe it or not when I saw a 32" HDTV with 720P at walmart under the brand "element" for $150/- I just picked it up. Because if it breaks, I can always get a new one as it is fairly cheap.

Now, do not spend money getting 1080p on a 32-inch tv, then it is much better to jump to 40-inches. And, google for how big of a tv should you buy - at the end of the day, make sure you feel comfortable doing the activity you do at the distance that you will be sitting.
posted by iNfo.Pump at 2:28 PM on January 16, 2016

For the record, as I tag this AskMe resolved, I should mention that I ended up buying a SONY Bravia 40", which had the best picture (to my eye) in all the various stores where we looked at TVs. Which probably flies in the face of a lot of the good advice above, but the eye sees what it sees, I guess. Now to figure out what to do with the retired 15 year old monster, which I almost hurt myself moving to another room. (I mean, no one's going to want to buy it.)
posted by aught at 1:38 PM on February 16, 2016

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