What the hell is a television supposed to be now?
November 30, 2018 2:30 PM   Subscribe

We may have to be buying a new television soon, and if my last horrific experience at Best Buy is any indication, I know nothing of what a "television" is now. Please to educate me, oh involuntary Luddite that I've become, what to look for in a quality new television in the late capitalist 21st century.
posted by Lipstick Thespian to Shopping (22 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It depends on what you need it for. Is it a bright room? Is it going to be tuned t9 the same station for extended periods? What size are you thinking? Do you play video games? Etc, etc...
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:35 PM on November 30, 2018

Here is the Obligatory link to The Wirecutter buying guide on the subject. it's a good read in the lower section to help you decide what you want vs what's available.
posted by Dr. Twist at 2:36 PM on November 30, 2018 [7 favorites]

I would be using it for streaming Netflix, Hulu, etc. and not playing video games on it and it has to be of biggish size (over 20").
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 2:40 PM on November 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

A television is a device where you can watch your regular TV, whether either cable or an antenna. You can attach a DVD/VHS player to it. Also, you can set it up (through your home wi-fi) to also have YouTube, Netflix, and other video-picture watching apps (I just downloaded a little fire log app which is cute). I don't game myself, but I'm positive you can also easily play games on it as well.

The term "4K" is generally the highest quality these days.

That is what a TV is now.
posted by Melismata at 2:40 PM on November 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have the LG 55” OLED and love it.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:43 PM on November 30, 2018

Mostly these days a television is a big dumb monitor that displays whatever comes out of the box you plug it in to (streaming device, cable box, etc.) - unless you are one of the people who wants over the air content, in which case be prepared to also buy an inexpensive HD antenna (actually that's not a bad idea, regardless).

Check your peripherals (DVD, BluRay, stereo receiver, etc.). If you have devices that don't use HDMI, you'll need to think about whether the TV handles that. We recently bought a small TV for my son to use for old games, and I was surprised to find that it had A/V input but no component connection. MOST devices have more than one output possibility, so you could be OK there, but pay attention to format too - you don't want a new TV only to find out that you can't plug in the one peripheral you actually use.

Ask what peripherals are important to you, too: If you use a Roku or ChromeCast for example, many TVs come with that capability baked in. You may not NEED the peripheral any more.

And you may have to upgrade the peripherals you DO have, too. We recently picked up a 65" UHD system for our living room, and had to replace the receiver at the same time - the old one didn't support 4K passthrough, and we didn't want to get a 4K TV but be unable to actually take advantage of the better picture. If you are using a cable box, make sure you are either upgrading that too (if needed) OR making sure you aren't buying a TV that needs a newer box. Check your plans. If buying an HD or UHD system for the first time, does your streaming or cable plan actually allow you to GET an HD or UHD image? If not, are you willing to pay more for that, or are you OK with settling on an image that is less crisp and sharp than your new TV can actually produce? (Think people who stuck with VHS when HD TVs first became the norm - do you want to get a blurry square image on a system that can handle high-definition widescreen?)

Finally, if you haven't upgraded in a long time, look at last year's best sellers. You needn't shell out for the biggest and newest things available - nearly ANYTHING you pick up will be an improvement over the TV you have now. When we upgraded, we found a last-year's high end Samsung at the same price as this-year's mid-range TCL - way better quality system but not any more than we budgeted.
posted by caution live frogs at 2:52 PM on November 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

OK wow you say 20" is biggish... you may want to think more like 40" or larger. Seriously. There's not that much of a price difference. My wife was the one behind our last upgrade - she was having a hard time reading subtitles on our 40" TV. You can definitely get away with bigger than 20", the newer systems are much thinner/lighter than the old flat screens.

But check how close you sit, and think about the size of the TV itself - under a certain size, or at certain viewing distances, paying for 4K is not worth it (no noticeable difference) - see here: https://www.rtings.com/tv/reviews/by-size/size-to-distance-relationship
posted by caution live frogs at 2:58 PM on November 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Some history:

In the olden times, TV was pretty low resolution. How low depended slightly on where you lived, but for simplicity let's just say 480 vertical lines (because vertical resolution is what usually gets called out in marketing).

Then came HDTV, of which there were two primary options -- 720 lines, and 1080 lines (720p / 1080p, respectively). Why two options? Because at a small enough size, at the distance you sit from a TV, the extra resolution of 1080p is not visible to the human eye, and it's more expensive to make and buy. Either way, both of these are noticeably better than old-timey lower resolution TVs. People could see the difference clearly.

And lo, TV manufacturers rejoiced, because they sold a shitload of TV sets since everyone wanted to upgrade to the clearly better HDTV options.

And lo, TV manufacturers cried, because eventually everyone had upgraded, and sales slumped. So, they tried to come up with some new must-have feature, which at the time was 3D TVs. "You have to have a 3D TV!" , they said. And they were goddamn liars, because 3D is dumb and gimmicky and seriously do not waste your money. Most people did not bother, and it did not help sales much.

In the face of continued lower sales, the manufacturers decided that since resolution got sales up before, it could do it again. So, they came up with "4k", which is supposed to make you think it's nearly four times the vertical resolution of 1080p (e.g. 4000 lines vs 1080 lines). But: it's not. That's a marketing term. It's actually just four 1080p panels put together in a square, making it actually 2080 lines tall. They can do this because all these years later, they've gotten a lot better at making 1080p panels, to the point where the price of them is not really "premium" (e.g. not super profitable).

So the options now:

You probably can't even find a new 720p TV.

You can find 1080p TVs, but above a certain size range they start to disappear.

Above 45-50 inches or so, nearly everything is 4k, because they want to sell you on that premium feature for higher profits.

Do you need 4k? Not really, if your TV is not especially large. Less than 50 inches, there's absolutely no point. Even at 50-60 inches, it's of dubious worth.

Do you need a smart TV? If you already have an AppleTV or chromecast, no. They will be better (and more easily upgradeable). Many manufacturer-specific Smart TV apps wither and die (e.g. I have an older LG smart TV which I never really used the built-in apps, which is good, because some have been removed by later updates because they didn't care to keep maintaining them).

That said, I recently asked a related question, and bought a TV as a result. I'm really liking my Vizio 2018 P-Series so far, may be worth checking out various models in that line.
posted by tocts at 3:35 PM on November 30, 2018 [13 favorites]

in the late capitalist 21st century, tv watches you

Avoid any sort of smart tv like the plague, if possible (it's probably impossible now). Maybe a PC monitor is a viable option since, like me, you consider a 20+ screen inch large (the "normal" is 40+ nowadays) but that would mean getting extra devices like speakers.

That Wirecutter article linked above seems pretty decent at covering the basics.
posted by Bangaioh at 3:42 PM on November 30, 2018 [5 favorites]

I'll throw in 2 cents...
Your choices are going to be LED or OLED or QLED at this point.
LED and QLED are essentially the same technology and look great. The one thing I hate about my LED is that the blacks are blocky and shades of grey when watching shows that have a lot of dark. Other than that, it's really fantastic quality.
OLED has a much better black.. like inky. The only manufacturer of OLED is LG, and any OLED TV uses the exact same panel, even from the basic LG to the Top Tier LG to any other manufacture of TVs that uses an OLED panel. There are subtle differences in the "engine" that drives the panel, but nothing you'd really notice.

Given a choice, I'm looking for an LG 55" OLED, cheapest I can find. It'll last for years, but is prob around $1800 USD. All the other TVs out there will be LED (or QLED) and are much cheaper, but I can't stand the blacks anymore :-)
posted by niteHawk at 4:12 PM on November 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

I noticed on Black Friday that every chain was full of dirt cheap televisions. They have become commodities to the degree that you have to careful to pick them out of your breakfast cereal in the morning so you don't accidentally chip a tooth.

Just buy the biggest TCL that looks good to you with built-in Roku. That's what we did, and my only minor regret is not having bluetooth so I can't hook up a keyboard (because you have to type stuff in to search Youtube videos or look for movies, and using the controller is tedious) or bluetooth headphones, because my children are binging Brooklyn Nine Nine and K-drama, and there's only so much I can take.
posted by mecran01 at 4:45 PM on November 30, 2018 [6 favorites]

In a case like this where picking out an item and shopping for it are a tedious slog instead of fun, I usually recommend going full FUCK IT and just buying whatever the wirecutter recommendation is.

Here, I'll point at a different recommendation page. I like this one more because it considers a few actually-not-just-fussing alternatives, like the vizio over the tcl if you're going to watch it from seats that are far apart.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 6:26 PM on November 30, 2018

I don't know how old your TV is, but depending on when you last bought a TV, the screen aspect of TVs has changed - in other words, an old 32" TV actually has a bigger screen (11% bigger!) than the new 32" TVs. If your existing TV is not a flat screen that can be wall-mounted, you'll need to recalibrate your expectations.

To pick the appropriate size TV for your viewing space, measure the distance from where you'll normally be sitting to watch the TV out to where the TV will be mounted, then divide that by ~2. That's the size TV you should get for the most comfortable viewing experience. Example from my living room: if you're sitting 7 feet away from your TV (84"), you should get a ~42" TV. A 20" TV is like a desktop monitor, that's how close you have to be sitting near it to see things well.

(The last time we bought a TV predated 4k, so I'm not touching any of the uber-modern stuff, but the screen size changing was a major mindshift for us. Our 42" is piffling by modern standards, but I can still remember when a 26" screen was huge and took two muscleheads to move. Now, I see people taking 36" TVs home on the bus. I had trouble carting my 12" TV home on the bus in college!)
posted by Pandora Kouti at 6:47 PM on November 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

> It's actually just four 1080p panels put together in a square, making it actually 2080 lines tall.

Try your math again. It's 2,160 lines tall. You literally just explained what a 4K panel essentially is and still managed to get the number wrong. :P

As for why it's called 4K, it's because there are just shy of 4,000 vertical lines of pixels that comprise the picture. It also contains exactly four times the number of pixels in a 1080p display. Sure, everything is marketing, and the bigger number is always better on the box (which makes it curious why it was called 1080p instead of 1920p or 2K, though some are retroactively calling it 2K), but is firmly grounded in reality.

> because they want to sell you on that premium feature [4K] for higher profits

Not sure if you were around last weekend paying attention to the doorbuster deals, but 4K is no longer a "premium feature". You have to go out of your way to find non-4K TVs, and with the commoditization of TVs, especially on the low end, 4K is the standard resolution for TVs ranging from $150 Walmart Black Friday specials up to $3,500 LG OLEDs.

Anyway, all of this to say, after a lot of research I purchased a Vizio P-series about 10 days ago and have had no issues with it so far. As can be expected when companies get outside of their wheelhouse, the built-in apps are meh, which is made maddeningly worse by the TV's OS being slow as hell, the interface being both slow and annoying, and I, for one, say you do still need your Apple TV or streaming box of choice. Perhaps it's different for Roku (and obviously I don't have the TCL with Roku built-in to try, either), but the difference in using the Vizio apps versus the Apple TV is night and day.
posted by tubedogg at 10:15 PM on November 30, 2018

Forgot to say, I bought the TV model I did despite the "smart," not because of it.
posted by tubedogg at 10:16 PM on November 30, 2018

If you use a Roku or ChromeCast for example, many TVs come with that capability baked in. You may not NEED the peripheral any more.

On the other hand, any Roku or ChromeCast replacement baked into a TV is just going to suck, usability-wise, compared to the real thing.

TVs are just computers now, which makes them fragile, expensive and annoying. A smart TV is the perfect example of the IT industry principle that anything with "smart" in its name is guaranteed to be endlessly irritating in a gobsmacking variety of stupid ways.

If I were in the market for a new TV, I'd rapidly talk myself into being in the market for a decent sized computer monitor, a half-decent set of powered USB speakers and an OSMC Vero 4K instead.
posted by flabdablet at 1:54 AM on December 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

Avoid any sort of smart tv like the plague, if possible (it's probably impossible now).

It is pretty impossible these days. Easiest solution is to not give the TV your WiFi details.

Maybe a PC monitor is a viable option

Sorry but a monitor makes for a lousy TV.

You'll have to pay extra for speakers (as most monitors don't have them) and you won't have a remote control. You'll also miss out on the range of connectors that TVs come with - for example multiple HDMI (for other devices) and digital audio (for sound bars).

Buy a TV instead. Don't go under 32 inches - even if you think you don't need something that big.
posted by mr_silver at 2:27 AM on December 1, 2018

It’s not impossible, just expensive. LG sells a bare 1080p OLED panel in 55” and 65” with just a power and control box at the end of a ribbon cable, with one HDMI input, for about $5000 – they’re hard to find at retail but I got one from Walmart. It makes an excellent TV if you connect an AV receiver to drive speakers and an Apple TV to provide content.
posted by nicwolff at 3:52 AM on December 1, 2018

I just want to echo mecran01's recommendation of TCL TVs. I bought one last year based on the Wirecutter's kudos and I couldn't be happier. I paid $329 on Amazon for the TCL 49S405 49-Inch 4K Ultra HD Roku Smart LED TV (2017 Model) -- you can get others, especially smaller, for even less now. I wouldn't dream of spending $2000 or $5000 on a TV, ever, given how well this one performs.
posted by argonauta at 4:24 AM on December 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

You literally just explained what a 4K panel essentially is and still managed to get the number wrong.

Yeah, I know, I was tired while writing, but thanks for focusing on a typo.

As for why it's called 4K, it's because there are just shy of 4,000 vertical lines of pixels ...

Yes, that's the justification the industry has given for why they changed how they specify resolution on TVs, which conveniently happens to make newer TVs which are legitimately higher resolution seem artificially even higher resolution to consumers used to the old way of specifying it.

Not sure if you were around last weekend paying attention to the doorbuster deals, but 4K is no longer a "premium feature".

It isn't particularly premium anymore, but it was when it was introduced, and was specifically introduced to try to create a second wave of upgrade sales like the first wave of HDTV upgrade sales. For years that didn't work particularly well, and every year a new crop of articles from various outlets would come out explaining why 4k TV still made no real sense. Now it's come down in price. It's still not a feature most people need.

Anyways. The best, smallest piece of advice I can give to anyone getting into a new TV is this: chances are, any new TV that's reasonably reviewed is going to be a big upgrade from your old TV. You can get into a lot of detailed analysis of why new TV A is clearly superior to new TV B, but outside of a showroom you can hardly tell the difference. If you like how it looks, if it has reasonable reviews, if it fits your budget, and if it fits the location you're going to put it, you probably are not going to go wrong.
posted by tocts at 8:03 AM on December 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have the TCL 55R615, which is the $600 "BestBuy exclusive" version of the 55R617. It's exactly the same as the 55R617 but without the fancy WiFI remote. It's just a standard IR remote like we've all used for the past 30+ years.

It is friggin' great, at least for my use case. My primary input is a PC over HDMI though. I use the built-in Roku functionality every morning, though, to watch NHK news through a link I "installed" on the home screen of the TV's native Roku interface. It's easier in the groggy morning times to get that running in like 3 button presses (power, right arrow, OK) vs many (logging into the computer, selecting the correct input, loading a web page, finding the full-screen button, etc).

The picture is astounding. A poster above mentioned going to OLED to get better black levels, but newer LED like the 55R61X's have a feature called local dimming which basically turns of the backlighting behind areas that are supposed to be black, so you get black levels that are much much closer to OLED's pure blacks. It works pretty darn well on mine. When I'm starting a movie at night, with the lights off, and the opening credits are the kind where it's text over a full black background, the words just look like they're floating by themselves in the corner of the room. You can't see the rest of the unlit screen at all.

But don't take my word for it. Ba-dump-bump!

And seconding another poster above, for the most part the ship has sailed in the opposition to smart TVs. If you don't want the smart functionality, don't connect the TV to a network. I've heard anecdotal reports that some smart TVs won't activate without downloading updates the first time you turn it on but I've never seen it myself and I chalk it up to users not noticing an option to skip that part of the setup. My TCL seems to get mostly monthly updates and they've been hit or miss. Like, one update improved the UI by making the volume overlay cover a much smaller portion of the screen when you change the volume (good!), while this month's update has introduced some janky stuttering in the displayed image when you adjust the voulme (bad!), but I have faith that they'll fix that with the next update but until then it's not that big of a deal.
posted by glonous keming at 10:35 AM on December 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh, I meant to add... The speakers do kinda suck on the TCL55R61X's but that's pretty common for most flat screens these days. I added a $30 set of Logitech Z313 speakers and now the sound is way more than adequate.
posted by glonous keming at 10:39 AM on December 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

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