TV buying guide: The 7 things you need to check before taking home your new set

You’ve boned up on all the latest TV specifications and technologies using the previous part of our TV buying guide, 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, ITV Hub, All4 and My5 platforms 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 organised 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.

Picture quality

A good TV picture is built on a range of different elements, and if just one of those elements is badly off it can ruin the whole picture. So even if first impressions of a picture are strong, try and look in detail at each of the following elements in turn to check there’s not something nasty hiding away behind the attractive first impressions that could end up driving you nuts when you start living with the TV at home.

Contrast

For many AV fans this is the single most important part of picture quality. Key things to look for are:

Black level depth. Do dark scenes/picture areas look black, or do they look grey and washed out?

Does a very dark shot look evenly lit, or are some parts of the screen brighter than others? Pay special attention to light jetting in from a TV’s corners, light bleed from the screen edges, general light clouding, and noticeable bars or halos of light around bright objects.

Do dark scenes look stable as the content changes, or does the level of brightness seem to flicker and jump?

How much brightness is lost from the light parts of mostly dark pictures as an LCD TV tries to reproduce a good black colour?

Where possible try to assess all of the above issues with a high dynamic range source (such as an Ultra HD Blu-ray), as the extra brightness in these sources tend to reveal TV contrast weakness much more clearly than standard dynamic range content like normal HD Blu-rays.

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 colour 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 colour 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.

Viewing angles

How well a TV can be watched from an angle can be a big deal in a lot of living rooms. To check this on a TV you’re interested in, pause an image on the screen that contains a bright, ideally colourful object against a dark backdrop, and start walking round it from straight opposite to down its sides while looking for the following:

Significant greyness over parts of the picture that look black when viewed straight-on.

Colours losing vibrancy.

The increased appearance of backlight clouds, stripes of halos.

Once one or more of these issues becomes distractingly obvious, note roughly the angle you’re looking at the screen from and apply that to your living room seating positions.

Color

Color is one of the trickiest picture quality attributes to judge in a store environment. But as well as the viewing angle colour point mentioned above, there are a few things you can try and focus in on.

a) How natural do tones look? Try and look both at the image as a whole and at individual colour elements. For instance, do greens look radioactive or sickly? Do reds look orange? Do blues look muted? Studying the way skin looks is a particularly good way of seeing how well a TV’s colours are working together. Do people look too pale? Too pink? Too yellow or green around the gills?

b) How balanced do colours look? Do some tones stand out so much that you get distracted by them?

c) How wide is the TV’s colour range? This isn’t so important for SDR-only TVs; with those you just want to make sure that the TV has enough colour performance to deliver natural, balanced tones. With HDR, though, you want to see if a TV manages to deliver a clear improvement in colour saturation, vibrancy and blend subtlety when you switch from SDR to HDR.

d) How subtle is a TV’s colour handling? Look out for obvious bands or stripes where there should be smooth colour blends (this striping issue is especially common with HDR). Look for blocking effects over background walls or, sometimes, people’s faces, especially in dark areas. Finally, look out for skin that looks too plasticky and smooth due to a lack of colour tone subtlety.

Sharpness

You’re ideally looking here for how crisp a TV’s picture looks with all the different source resolutions now available: high definition, Ultra High Definition (4K) and, to a lesser degree, standard definition. Though given the way things are moving now, I’d suggest that a TV’s performance with standard definition is relatively unimportant. If you’re buying a 4K TV, though, you should certainly try and pay attention to how well it ‘upscales’ HD sources such as Blu-rays to its native 4K screen.

When judging HD to 4K upscaling, look for common upscaling problems such as extra grain/fizzing, a reduction in colour vibrancy, jagged edges, motion blur, fizzing or shimmering noise over areas of fine detail and fine lines, and glowing halos around fine lines.

More general TV problems that can affect sharpness with any source are blurring over moving objects, poor colour resolution (as described in the previous section), poor video processing and over-aggressive noise reduction processing. Try turning a TV’s noise reduction systems off if a picture initially looks soft and ‘mushy’ to see how much that improves things.

Motion

TVs can suffer with two motion problems: judder and blur. Look for both, ideally with 60Hz (console game) content, 50Hz (broadcast) content and 24Hz (Blu-rays, UHD Blu-rays).

Do camera pans stutter along? Do fast-moving objects look blurred, short of detail or even leave a smeary trail behind them? Do you see momentary ‘freezes’ during action scenes? Do vertical lines in the picture suffer ‘doubling’ during camera pans?

Most TVs offer some sort of motion processing to counter blur and judder issues, so try and check these out. However, these processing systems can cause their own problems, specifically shimmering halos around moving objects, flickering over areas of really fast motion, and a tendency to smooth out judder so much that pictures – especially 24-frames-a-second movie pictures – are left looking unnaturally fluid.

Bear in mind that most TVs offer different ‘strengths’ of motion processing, so try adjusting the settings to get a more comprehensive idea of a TV’s motion performance.

Sound quality

Assuming that you’re not going to be running your new TV with some sort of external sound system you’re going to have to pay attention to how good a potential new set sounds.

This is relatively easy to do, thankfully. Just play a couple of loud action scenes and scenes with loud scores, listening for the following:

a)  Harshness – does the sound get brittle and thin at high volumes/when there’s a lot going on?

b) Bass – is there any ‘rumble’ to round out explosions, earthquakes etc. If there is, does it sound clean or muffled and overpowering?

c) Detail – does the sound contain lots of subtle details, or sound dense and ‘squashed’.

d) Voices – do they sound realistic (for both men and women), and do they still sound clear even when there’s a lot of noise going on behind them?

e) Do the speakers drop out or make a ‘phutting’ sound under pressure

f) Does the TV’s cabinet rattle or buzz under pressure?

g) Does the sound spread beyond the TV, and if it does can it still sound cohesive?

h) Do voices sound like they’re coming from the right place on the screen?

 

Tune in for part 3

Testing as many TVs as we do at TechRadar has made us realise that the various major TV brands out there all have quite different strengths, weaknesses and preoccupations. In part three we’ll be combining our knowledge of what’s gone before with what we know of each brands’ 2017 product ranges to see how they shape up with different TV technologies and at different price levels since this, again, could help you narrow down your TV search.

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