I need a new TV, but I don't understand modern TVs. Advice sought.
December 17, 2020 10:14 AM   Subscribe

My ~10 year old TV (which became a sort of member of the family during the pandemic) has finally died for good. I've been browsing for TVs but what's out there in 2020 makes me feel like Rip van Winkle. Can you give us some advice based on our needs?

Hello all. I'd be grateful for advice and/or recommendations for specific models, but here are my primary questions:

1) Do I even need to be looking for a "TV"? We don't have cable or broadcast and have just been using a Roku stick the last few years. Are there non-TV monitors that would make for a decent quality movie viewing experience? Anything specific to look for if we can go that route?

2) If we need a proper TV, is there anything out there that's privacy-friendly? We've spent a great deal of time setting up de-Googled phones, Pi-holes and the like. Things that are listening for voice commands make my partner especially uncomfortable. It looks like every TV out there is "smart". Are there any that aren't, or that can have those sorts of features disabled with some certainty?

If you have something specific to recommend, we're looking for 43" max. We've been content with a 32" 720p screen for a long time, not really looking for a cinematic experience.

posted by quarterframer to Shopping (20 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: 1) I honestly don't know the answer to this, but I can say that older monitors don't work with roku sticks etc, because they don't support HDCP, so it won't let you play content. I find this really annoying since I have a stock of old monitors and sometimes I just want to take a stick with me to my work space and watch something. Also, IME, for the same general size, TVs seem cheaper than monitors

2) I have a smart TV but I didn't give it the password to my home wifi network, so it can listen to me all it wants but it can't phone home. I think generally the "smart" features of a TV are generally crap and should be considered abandonware, i.e. you can not count on the TV manufacturer to issue updates etc so it would be like never updating your browser in this age, eventually it would just stop working well

I am continuously impressed with how good modern TVs look across the board. I have a Samsung and a Philips and they both look great and were not (to my eye) very expensive
posted by RustyBrooks at 10:23 AM on December 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It's hard to avoid "smart" TV features, because they're profitable, and they try their damndest to hide of the OFF switches, occasionally reactivating them "accidentally" during software updates. Keeping them off your network is the safest option, which means you'll need external streaming hardware.

...I like Rtings.com for TV/monitor reviews.
posted by aramaic at 10:37 AM on December 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Unless a monitor has a specifically available remote control -- which you will probably have to buy separately, rendering the monitor just as expensive as a TV -- I wouldn't recommend using a monitor as a TV, because generally speaking, the on-off switch is a hardware control. I had a monitor in my bedroom in place of a TV but it meant that if I wanted to watch TV until I was ready to sleep, the last thing I had to do was crawl out of bed and manually turn the TV off which kinda killed the sleepy vibes. Even in your living room, you probably don't want to have to get up to go turn the TV on and off.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:43 AM on December 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have no idea what your home setup looks like or if this would even be feasible, but a projector setup has been epic for my family. Stream everything through your computer (which can be protected as you say), and then when you're not watching, you don't to even look at the monitor... despite it being a member of the family.
posted by knownassociate at 10:44 AM on December 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Non-smart TVs are getting very hard to find, but they are out there. It may be easier to just not give it your WiFi password. Or, they do make TVs with Roku software baked in; maybe those would be more amenable? I'm not sure how different those are from a standalone Roku device on the privacy front but at least the software does mostly come from them.

Caveats about computer monitors: they'll generally be more expensive for a given screen size and resolution, they likely won't have remotes (or HDMI CEC, which is the neat bit that lets your Roku turn your TV on and off), and if they do have speakers they'll be terrible (moreso than a regular TV would). You also have to make sure said monitor has a HDMI in on it - a lot of them do, but a lot of them just have computer-specific inputs (DisplayPort/DVI/USB-C/etc.). If you don't have a soundbar or some other sort of audio setup that the Roku you have can plug into, you'll also need to make sure you get one with an audio output and something to plug into it. (TV speakers are usually at least passable for group watching; I've never, ever run into monitor speakers that were, unless said computer monitor was built into a computer, like an iMac or something.) Re: cost, I was able to find this Insignia (BestBuy-branded) 40" non-smart TV pretty cheap at about $150; a similar sized computer monitor at NewEgg (sorted for price) was a 43" 4K Acer display at ~$350, and it doesn't have any audio capabilities that I could see (and was a refurb to boot). I know nothing about that particular Insignia TV, other than what it says on the page; the BestBuy house-brand TVs tend to be at least fairly passable from the ones I've seen but I don't have any of them, and not that one specifically either.
posted by mrg at 10:57 AM on December 17, 2020

Best answer: For equivalent size and quality, a "TV" will almost surely be cheaper than a "monitor." I would not recommend that path.

Just don't connect it to the network if you're worried about privacy (though I personally am not convinced that a Roku is substantially better).
posted by primethyme at 10:58 AM on December 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: FWIW any service you use through the Roku is already tracking you. Some amount of tracking is unavoidable. You can usually turn off all the extra tracking but as aramaic says it often turns itself back on after a software update. Our LG TV has one "smart" feature that definitely reports back to the mothership, and if you turn off the system-level tracking it disables that particular feature. Our TV also has optional voice commands but to my knowledge it never actually listens to us since we never turned that feature on. I think even if we did want to use voice commands we'd have to engage the feature each time with a button on the remote.

You can get TVs from TCL that have the Roku built in, so your search may start and end there. You could also look at Vizio and perhaps Samsung. From personal experience I don't love Samsung's cheaper lines, but YMMV. My 32" Samsung has a few problems that could have been avoided with more careful engineering, and my mom's 40" Samsung was plagued by backlight issues that resulted in multiple service calls and her eventually giving up on the TV altogether and buying whatever caught her eye at Sam's Club. We have a fancy LG OLED that we love, and LG's software is great, but I have no experience with their non-OLED TVs so I can't speak to their picture quality or longevity. I'm wary of the super-cheap brands like Element and Insignia.

New TVs have new features that may matter more or less to you. "Smart" features mean you won't need an external Roku (or Apple TV or Amazon Fire Stick) unless you like a streaming service that isn't available for your TV. 4K UHD means more pixels for a sharper picture, but below 40" I don't know that you will see (literally) any benefit from them. The pixels would be so small you'd almost have to have your nose up to the screen to be able to tell. What may be valuable to you is high dynamic range, or HDR. I don't know if non-4K TVs with HDR exist, because there may not be a market for non-4K HDR content, but from what we've seen via Amazon Prime HDR makes a bigger difference to us than the extra pixels do. If you can get HDR, and whatever content you're watching supports it, you may appreciate it.
posted by fedward at 11:10 AM on December 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'm in the "most contemporary TVs on the market today are pretty damn good" camp, and based on your question here, I'd guess you'll be happy with just about any TV you end up with. Set a price limit and shop somewhere brick and mortar that allows returns, and allows you to compare images.

One basic thing I'd recommend considering is where you usually sit to watch. Some TVs look fine viewed from off to the side. Some similarly priced TVs look TERRIBLE when viewed off to the side. Check out the image from various angles and consider this if it matters to you.

I'd also recommend Googling some guides about changing standard factory settings. TVs are displayed in stores with factory defaults which, IMO are meant to sell the TV, not to give the best picture. TVs out of the box generally have the contrast and saturation levels cranked up to a ludicrous level. This is because there's 25 TVs next to each other in the store trying to get you to buy them. A more "accurate" image on a TV will look dull (maybe) to an average shopper, especially next to six sets that have their surreal colors popping out into your eyeballs. There's plenty of guides online about setting a TV to more natural levels when you get it home, so that the picture is more accurate to what is intended. I also recommend turning off image smoothing or interlacing (it's called different things by different brands). This is the feature that makes even high-quality films look like cheap daytime soap operas.

But if none of what I typed out here bothers you, just ignore it. Buy a set that YOU like and don't worry about the settings if you don't care. It's just entertainment. I did minimal research last year and got a new set, and the new one absolutely blows away the ten year old set it replaced, and was only around $600.
posted by SoberHighland at 11:25 AM on December 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: These are all great (and consistent) answers, thank you!!

Yeah, I know the Roku more than likely tracks what it can, but at least we have a non-voice model and keep it on it's own network. We don't lose sleep over privacy concerns, just trying to take reasonable steps to not be in the Googlazonapplface A/V club. I know it's a losing battle but it's just not a thing we want to opt into where it can be helped.
posted by quarterframer at 11:28 AM on December 17, 2020

If you're already happy with the Roku, agree that you should get a TV with a built in Roku (like a TCL 5-series, which as far as I know does not have voice controls). Having to deal with a single remote and no wires is really nice. Then adjust the Roku privacy settings to minimize the amount of data they collect.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:38 AM on December 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

I purchased a Samsung 49" UHD two years ago, and have been pretty happy with it - excellent black levels, and a very nice interface. The image quality is pretty impressive (at least to me), particularly considering it was less than $600. It is a smart TV (as are most better ones these days) but I suppose you could just skip the Wi-Fi connection and use it with the Roku instead.

You can always take a look at Wirecutter for other recommendations - I think the Roku TV mentioned upthread is one of their suggestions.
posted by photo guy at 11:40 AM on December 17, 2020

Best answer: Some amount of tracking is unavoidable.

An Odroid N2+ running CoreELEC with a nice fat hard drive plugged in, hooked to your TV with an HDMI cable, with your home network connected only to the CoreELEC box and not to the TV, and the Transmission BitTorrent daemon installed via the Thoradia add-on repository, won't track jack shit if you only ever feed it magnet links with the trackers stripped out. In fact Transmission is smart enough to interpret an unadorned BitTorrent info hash (40 hex digits representing a 160-bit SHA1 hash value) pasted into its web interface's "upload URL" box as if it were a trackerless Magnet link which makes this really easy to do.

Bonus: always-reliable uninterrupted playback with total insensitivity to Internet quality issues. Downloading content offers an experience that's so much better than streaming it.
posted by flabdablet at 11:50 AM on December 17, 2020 [14 favorites]

nth-ing the TCL Roku TV. I got mine about 3 years ago after a Samsung went kaput and have had no problems. I was also looking for the least possible smartness. Since then, I have bought 2 more for bedrooms and have no regrets.
posted by little king trashmouth at 11:52 AM on December 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

In my experience, Samsung video products are best avoided. Really really nice panels to be sure, but ruined by just awful user interfaces.
posted by flabdablet at 11:54 AM on December 17, 2020

I own multiple TCL Roku TVs, we love them. And aside from occasional wifi disruptions (to the house, I mean; the TV has great signal) we get no real hassle from the TV functions.

The BEST part of the Roku TV is it's a single remote that has power and volume onboard.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:56 AM on December 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

Re: cost, I was able to find this Insignia (BestBuy-branded) 40" non-smart TV pretty cheap at about $150

I own this TV and it is a cheap, non-smart delight. I had the 32-inch version for years and it was also a cheap, non-smart delight. Highly recommend.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 1:33 PM on December 17, 2020

You can always take a look at Wirecutter for other recommendations - I think the Roku TV mentioned upthread is one of their suggestions.

Here's the Wirecutter review of their recommended TCL series 5. I'm planning on replacing my 2006 TV with this one in the new year.
posted by gladly at 1:37 PM on December 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

https://www.rtings.com/tv is a good resource for TV decision making
posted by osi at 2:22 PM on December 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

Seconding flabdablet's anti-Samsung recommendation. We used to have an LG, it was great, played everything without issues, had a good user interface... until it died. We then switched to a smart Samsung, and it doesn't know how to play 75% of our content and is shit at so many things that I caved in and bought a TV stick. So now our "smart" TV is just a tool to display content from our TV stick (similar to your Roku).
posted by gakiko at 9:31 AM on December 18, 2020

FWIW, I bought a TCL Roku TV on Metafilter's recommendation, and I kinda hate it, because most of the channels in Canada don't have Roku apps, and trying to get it to play anything that doesn't have a Roku app has been a pain in the ass. So I also have a Chromecast plugged into it, and I use that for a bunch of things instead. Check the channels you want to watch to make sure they work on Roku before committing to that specifically.

I don't know if there's another better alternative to Roku TV + Android (or Apple, if that's your thing) streaming box out there -- just be forewarned that in some cases, Roku won't be the be all and end all of streaming.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:34 AM on December 18, 2020

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