Correction appended Friday, Mar. 10
It’s not easy buying a TV, and retailers don’t like simplifying it, either. Urban legend has it that big box stores often tweak the settings on their wall of televisions to subtly guide consumers to the model they want to sell that day. Turn down the brightness here, add a pinch of contrast there, and viola, you’ve got one screen outshining the rest.
In theory, online shoppers should have an advantage in weeding through all the options. But without the naked eye as a guide, and with a dizzying array of marketing terms and specifications to wade through, its very difficult to weigh one screen against the others.
The glossary below eliminates the noise and cuts to the chase, helping you determine which specs matter so you can pick the right television for your baseball games, Bachelorette viewing parties, and, most importantly, your budget. Once you’re ready, check out our list of the best TVs for every budget.
Here’s the most important thing for you to know about 1080p TVs: they’re just about obsolete. Also called HD or high-definition, 1080p (and 1080i) was the latest and greatest tech 10 years ago. Today, though your cable company still only broadcasts in high definition (and not in 4K), you don’t want to buy a 1080p TV — unless you’re working with a very small budget. 4K is here, and unless you’re on a shoestring budget, it’s worth buying a TV set capable of displaying it.
Also known as ultra high-definition, 4K is the next big thing in broadcast and streaming content — which is why now is the time to buy a 4K set. A resolution with four times the pixel density of high definition video, 4K offers a brighter picture and more detail than HD.
But what is 4K, exactly? Imagine that your TV screen is made of stacked rows of lights. High definition televisions have 1,080 rows of those lights, while 4K screens have 2,160 rows, all packed into a screen that’s the same size. More rows in the same space means a better ability to render finer detail.
Literally behind the scenes technology, backlighting sits behind the screen to make the image brighter and more colorful. There are different methods of backlighting (covered below) that television manufacturers use to improve quality or reduce cost.
The technical term for the frame around your television’s screens, the bezel is getting a lot of attention these days as manufacturers try to make their products (and not just the displays) more attractive to buyers. Big, chunky plastic bezels are a thing of the past. Now thinner, piano black or metal bezels are popular with consumers. And high-end TVs are practically bezel-free, with slick, glass slabs bringing living rooms into the future.
Forget resolution and refresh rates — this is the spec that matters most. A number that shows the difference between the a television’s brightest bright and blackest black, the contrast ratio describes how varied a television’s image can be. So, the bigger the ratio, the better the TV (typically) looks. And the smaller that first number is, the more likely you are to have a washed out display.
The amount of frames per second a video displays, frame rate is often confused with refresh rate, the amount of times per second a display changes to match that video. When TV shopping, lot of people will say frame rate but mean refresh rate, because decades of recording movies with film and video has groomed us to think this way.
Just think of it this way: frame rates apply to media (like DVDs, Blu-Rays, and even digital downloads), while refresh rates describe hardware. Regardless, for both, the larger the number the better, though any higher than 120 frames per second (or 120Hz for a refresh rate) is mostly indistinguishable by the human eye.
This is an abbreviation for “high definition,” which is technically any screen with a resolution higher than 720 pixels tall. The more pixels there are, the higher definition a screen will have. 1080 pixel HD displays are newer and more popular than 720 sets. Meanwhile, 4K displays have a height of 2160 pixels.
Standing for “high-bandwidth digital content protection,” HDCP is basically copy protection for the 21st century. While TV shopping, you may see this listed as a tech spec, but it’s not really a feature so much as it is a fact of our increasingly digital life. Given the choice, you’ll likely want a television with HDCP, since a lot of today’s streaming boxes and services require it.
An acronym for “high-definition multimedia interface,” HDMI is a digital cable and port combination that vanquished the tangle of various analog audio/video cords that used to sit behind our TV sets. Able to transmit both pictures and sound, HDMI cables have been around since the early 2000s, and now they connect everything from Blu-Ray players to streaming video boxes to your television.
When TV shopping, you’ll want to make sure your screen has an ample amount of HDMI ports for all your gadgets. Four HDMI ports is a good amount, but more are always better. (Though you can buy a separate HDMI hub if you’re really desperate for extra ports.)
High dynamic range, more commonly known as HDR, is a feature being touted on mid- and high-level televisions that lets the screens display a broader array of colors, lightness, and blacks than previously. On televisions, HDR makes images much more realistic looking (unlike HDR photos, which use a different process and often achieve a more surreal result — so don’t confuse the two).
A decades-old technology that’s always finding new applications, LEDs — or light-emitting diodes — are little semiconductors that glow when an electrical current moves through them. In televisions, LEDs are used in backlighting. So, when you see a television that advertises itself as an LED TV, realize you’re not actually looking at the LEDs — you’re typically looking at an LCD screen backlit by LEDs.
Edge-Lit LED Backlighting
Typically less expensive than full-array, edge-lit backlighting inserts a strip of LEDs around the bezel of the television that lights up to improve the image’s brightness or color saturation. Because it isn’t a complete layer of lighting sitting behind the screen, edge-lit backlighting is often used by manufacturers to make their televisions thinner.
Short for liquid crystal display, LCDs have been around a while — roughly since the 1960s — but it wasn’t until 2007 that they became a mainstream TV screen technology. But something that old can’t be the latest and the greatest. (Currently that award goes to OLED televisions).
Still, LCD televisions have stuck around because they’ve been paired with other innovations — namely LED backlighting — to get brighter and richer results. But when TV shopping, pay attention to the details: An LED TV likely has an LCD display backlit by LEDs. Likewise, an LCD television could have LED backlighting, either a full-array layer, or edge lighting. But there is a chance there’s no backlighting, which would make your LCD TV dimmer, duller, and less expensive (hopefully) than other models. The devil is in the details, so pay attention.
The latest and greatest in display technology, organic light emitting diodes (or OLEDs) make their own light when a current flows through them. As a result, OLED TVs are thinner than LED TVs (which, again, are really LCDs backed with LEDS), and they handle light and color much better.
Another term for a streaming video service like Netflix, over-the-top services deliver television via Internet data, rather than cable or satellite. A lot of people are turning to these less expensive plans for their television-watching needs, but since they have to be delivered via high-speed internet, they still end up having to pay their cable company for data. (Read more: 7 streaming TV packages that will let you cut the cord for good.)
An alternative to backlighting, quantum dot technology helps to improve color and brightness for LCD screens, but does it through colored lights, rather than the white LEDs in full-array or edge-lit sets. The technology works by placing a layer of quantum dots behind an LCD. These dots are a variety of colors, and they light up to match the image on the LCD screen in front of it.
The frequency that the television’s screen can change, refresh rate is a specification you want to pay attention to for fast-moving content, like live sports or video games. Older or cheaper televisions will have a 60Kz refresh rate. 120Hz is ample, but newer sets go up to 240Hz or even 360Hz.
A television with baked-in software that lets you access streaming video, smart TVs are seemingly everywhere these days. And while it’s nice to be able to access these online services without an external box, be wary of manufacturers using their own proprietary smart systems, because they may be slow to update them. Roku-enabled TVs are generally a safe bet. Android TVs should be, but Google isn’t always great at following through on product updates. (It’s also worth noting that Smart TVs have been at the center of several privacy scandals.)
Though they aren’t advertised like they used to be, viewing angles are a vital specification for placing a television in a room where some of the seating may be off-center. If the television you’re interested in doesn’t provide viewing angle information, look online at user reviews, or go see the TV in person at a local store. Both a television’s color and light levels can fade when viewed askew, so you want to make sure you know what you’re in for before you bring a television home, especially if you like to host big Super Bowl or other TV-centric parties.
The ability to make lower-resolution video look better on higher-resolution screens, upscaling is a feature you’ll find on a variety of video devices, including DVD players and of course, televisions. It can help enhance the way that cable signals (often transmitted in 720-pizel resolutions) are displayed on 4K televisions. So if you’re thinking of sticking with paid television, look into getting a TV with upscaling ability.
Correction: The original version of this article misstated the number of rows 4K television screens have. It is 2,160 lines, not almost 4,000.