Best TV 2014: what TV should you buy?
20th Aug 2014 | 14:42
The best HD and 4K TVs for every budget
Best TV: all your buying questions answered
There has never been a better time to buy a new TV. Gone are the days when 32-inch TVs weighed 16 tonnes and cost £1,500. These days you can pick up a 50-inch LCD TV for closer to £300.
LCD panel technology has well and truly matured, and while brands like Sony and Panasonic push the boundaries of performance, you'll also find names like Toshiba doing very exciting things in the budget TV sector.
The practical upshot of this is that no matter what you're after, how big you want to go or how large your budget is, there's a perfect TV out there for you.
So which one is right for you, your family and your living space? In this buying guide, we will walk you through everything you need to know about being a new TV.
What types of TV are out there?
There are a lot of different screen types out there, all working in different ways to produce the same results. Each technology has its own unique strengths and weaknesses so here are some basics to consider:
LCD TV: CCFL
Until recently, all LCD TVs were backlit by always-on, CCFL (cold cathode fluorescent) lamps. This ageing technology has been superseded by the superior LED method on more expensive sets, but is still standard on some cheaper models.
LED TV: Direct LED
These displays are backlit by an array of LEDs (light emitting diodes) directly behind the screen. This enables localised dimming – meaning immediately adjacent areas of brightness and darkness can be displayed more effectively – and greatly improves contrast. LED TVs are also more power efficient and capable of a wider colour gamut than CCFL sets.
LED TV: Edge LED
The LEDs of the backlight are mounted along the edges of the panel. This arrangement enables radically slender displays and offers superior contrast levels to CCFL, but can't achieve the same picture quality as directly lit LED sets. However, they do come in far cheaper which is why most LED TVs out there now use this technology.
The backlighting on OLED (organic light emitting diode) sets is achieved by passing an electric current through an emissive, electroluminescent film. This technique produces far better colours and higher contrast and also enables screens to be extremely thin and flexible. This is the holy grail display technology and only in 2014 did a bigscreen OLED TV go on sale. So it's brand new, it's expensive and the top brands are still struggling to get their heads around it.
PDP (plasma display panel) TVs use glass panels containing millions of tiny cells filled with a mixture of inert gases. Electricity excites the gases, causing them to illuminate the pixels across the screen. Plasma, while arguably superior to LCD in terms of contrast and colour accuracy, is only viable on large (42in+) screens and has been dropped by all but a handful of manufacturers.
Some manufacturers are now making TVs that have slightly curved screens. But unlike old CRT TVs, the curve is inwards rather than outwards. The idea is that this makes every pixel equidistant from your eyes, delivering a more satisfying picture. However, there are drawbacks for this type of screen - the main one being that if you sit far enough to one side – more than 40 degrees or so – the curve clearly starts to affect the image's geometry, foreshortening content near to you and compressing the image's centre.
What resolution should I go for?
HD TVs come in two resolutions. Sets with the HD ready badge meet the requirements set by the European Information and Communications Technology Industry Association (EICTA). These criteria include at least one HDMI port and component video inputs as well as a resolution of at least 1,024 x 768-pixels. Meanwhile, full HD TVs have a higher resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels.
Ultra HD and 4K
The resolution of Ultra HD is exactly four times higher than full HD - 3840 x 2160. It means a far more detailed picture, with content requiring a lot more bandwidth and storage space. 4K TVs tend to be good at upscaling HD video to Ultra HD but there are currently very few options for watching native 4K content.
What kind of tuner do I need?
TVs in the UK come with two types of tuner: DVB-T2 (Freeview HD) and DVB-S (Freesat HD). Some TVs such as many sets from Panasonic have both tuners onboard, but most do not. So which should you go for?
Freeview is the natural successor to the analogue TV signal of old, flying the flag for free-to-air TV through a traditional aerial. So your decision of which tuner to go for could well be decided according to what receiving devices you've already got strapped to your roof. If you've got a traditional TV aerial only, Freeview is the obvious option. Equally, if you're buying a TV for a second room, you might have to rely on a portable aerial which again would make Freeview your best bet.
Freesat is similar to Freeview in that it's free-to-air, but different in that it's delivered through a satellite dish. Freesat uses the same satellite as Sky HD - the Astra/Eutelsat satellite which sits in the sky at 28.2E. That means if you've got a Sky dish, you can easily plug a Freesat TV or box in without having to move it. Freesat HD is ideal for large living room TVs as it delivers slightly higher quality pictures than Freeview, has fewer problems with signal, and also has a much larger selection of channels both in standard definition and high definition. It'll also likely be the first to carry 4K TV channels when they eventually launch.
What does TechRadar recommend?
Best 32-inch TVs
The perfect size for bedroom TVs or sets for smaller rooms
Most living rooms can't physically take a TV much bigger than 32-inch, making this size by far the best for a lot of people in the UK. But within this size division, there's plenty of choice. A basic HD-ready set can be found for less than £300 is you search hard, though it's just as easy to spend over £2k on the best ones. There's only one certainty at this size – your new TV will be a LCD TV. If you're lucky it could have LED backlighting, but it won't be a plasma; LG used to make plasmas at this size, but there's not one on sale currently. 10 best 32-inch TVs in the world today
Best 40 and 42-inch TVs
The sweet spot for plasma TVs offers lots of bang for your buck
Once known simply as 'plasma screens' in the collective consciousness, the 40-42-inch size is where the flatscreen dream started in the late 1990s - and where it's still at its most innovative and best. Now a lot more varied, with plasmas rubbing shoulders with (and quickly being outnumbered by) LCD TVs and their ultra-modern LED TV makeover, 40-42 inches is still the sweetspot for anyone not overly concerned with ruining the interior design of their living room. As well as being the fastest growing sector of the market, this size also offers possibly the best value TVs around. Serious home cinema addicts have moved on to 50-inch and bigger screens, leaving this category a swarm of slashed prices. 10 best 40 and 42-inch TVs
Best 46 and 47-inch TVs
Offering the pinnacle of performance, this is where it gets serious
There was a time when plasma screens reigned supreme in the 46-inch TV market. But in much the same way as a meteor strike killed off the dinosaurs, the second coming of the LCD TV is the invasive species that has done for plasma. We're still huge advocates of plasma on TechRadar, don't get us wrong, but the tech is dying out at this size. Old-school CCFL tech has been replaced by LED backlight scanning and technical wizardry to make LCD tech viable in large sizes. So the majority of TVs in this size bracket are now from the LED side of the wall, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. LED TVs these days are brighter than plasmas, they're thinner and there's a lot more variety on show. So here's our selection of the best 46-inch, 47-inch and now also 48-inch TVs for your perusal.. 10 best 46, 47 and 48-inch TVs
Best 50 and 55-inch TVs
Where the home cinema experience begins
The size where a home cinema turns from dream to reality, it's also at this 50-55-inch TV screen size that 3D starts to become immersive enough to convince and impress. This size, last year dominated by full HD models, is now being overrun by Ultra HD 4K models. While LED tech has gone a long way towards condemning plasma to a role on the outskirts of the TV industry, at 50-inches and above, plasma really comes into its own if you can find one. Most home cinema buffs still swear by plasma, with its cinematic colours and deep blacks making for a real movie-watcher's paradise. But 2014 sees the first batch of 50-inch LED-backlit panels off the production line, a development that further marginalises plasma technology at one of the sizes it previously dominated. If you're looking for a dream movie-watching experience, check out these home cinema beauties. 10 best 50 and 55-inch TVs
Best 60-inch TVs and above
If you want the best, you'll need to pay the best
If you're feeling extravagant or want to furnish your big living room with a similarly big TV, 60 inches or more of television will certainly make a statement. There are some truly massive TVs available these days, with Ultra HD-toting 84-inch screens such as the LG 84LM960V, Toshiba 84L9300, Sony KD-84X9005A and Samsung UE85S9ST. But for most of us, 65 inches of screen space is luxurious enough, while still being manageable. Gone are the days when the over-60s were mere monitors; expect to find all the niceties a good living room-ready TV should have, such as Freeview HD tuners, perhaps even Freesat HD tuners, too, plus smart TV apps and 3D compatibility. There's a smattering of plasmas here - it's the size category where the original flatscreen TV tech truly excels. But as plasma fades, the real story in this category is the rise of the 4K LCD. So what's the best 60-65-inch TV for you? 10 best 60 and 65-inch TVs in the world today
Best 4K Ultra HD TVs
The latest big thing in big screens
Everyone wants an Ultra HD 4K TV! Yes, okay, we all know there isn't much 4K source material to properly showcase the stunning picture quality, but Netflix has at least started to offer 4K content. There could also still be a 4K Blu-ray format later this year, and before you know it there'll be test transmissions and perhaps even a 4K TV channel from Sky or the BBC. It's all about future-proofing, though there's slightly more to it than that; some of the first batch of Ultra HD TVs pump out best-ever Blu-ray images, thanks to some wonderfully adept upscaling tech. The birth of 4K could also lead to the re-birth of 3D – it just looks so much better at this higher resolution. The big stumbling block – as always – is money, but already there are relative bargains to be had and, better still, some sumptuous designs stuffed with new innovations. The race for 3840x2160 pixels is on. 10 best 4K TVs in the world today
What else should I consider?
Buying a new TV can be traumatic and baffling - unless you're armed with our guide to the countless pitfalls and confusions that await you...
Buying a flatscreen television is a major investment and one that you can't afford to take lightly. Just popping into the closest store and grabbing the first plasma or LCD you see won't get you the best deal, the screen that suits your needs, or the gear you require to make the most of your new purchase.
People tend to pick the size of their flat TV based on the amount of space they have for it, this isn't necessarily wise. Flat TVs take up much less space than you might think, so your new TV may end up a foot or two further away from your viewing position, making the picture appear smaller.
Also, with hi-def, you can have a bigger screen and the same viewing distance without worrying about seeing blemishes inherent to the source. HDTV's lack of noise means that the ideal distance to sit from the screen is three to four times the height of the TV.
How to calculate the right size HD TV:
The trick here is to ensure that your TV is big enough to fill your line of vision, but small enough to be sharp and clear. Remember, if you intend to only watch standard-definition sources, the bigger the screen gets, the worse the image will look.
The ideal screen size can be calculated by multiplying the distance that you intend to sit away from it by 0.535 and then rounding this up to the nearest size.
So, if you sit 80in away from your TV, the ideal size is 42-inch (80 x 0.535= 42.8).
What features should I look out for?
Features are too numerous to go into here, but here are some things you should consider.
Photo viewing: If you have a digital camera, a TV that has a slot for memory cards or a USB socket for a card reader will let you view your photos onscreen.
Here are some of the things we look for when we review a screen, so you should, too...
Contrast: Bright whites shouldn't have any signs of green, pink or blue in them, while blacks should look solid and not washed out, grey, green or blue.
Colours: Look at how bright and solid they are; how noiseless their edges are; how 'dotty' richly saturated areas are and how natural skin looks, especially in dim scenes.
Fine detail: How much texture does the screen give? Does a tree look like a green lump, or can you see the individual leaves
Edges: Check for ghosting, bright halos and jaggedness, especially around curves.
Motion: Check moving objects and quick camera pans for smearing or blurring, trailing, jerkiness and fizzing dotty noise.
Image artefacts: Look for blockiness, colour bands, grain, smearing, dot crawl: anything that looks like it's added by the TV picture processing or a weak TV tuner. Tinker with a TV's picture settings before making a final decision. Factory settings are rarely good for everyday viewing.
What about sound?
To provide the best audio to complement the pictures, your TV should be hooked up to a surround sound system, but this isn't always an option. So, here's what we listen for when testing a TV's speakers:
Bass: Deep, rounded rumbles that don't cause the set to rattle or speakers to distort, cramp or overwhelm the rest of the sound; but that expand when needed.
Vocals: Voices should sound open, rich and clear, not boxed in, nasal or thin.
Trebles: Treble effects should sound clean, rounded and smooth in loud scenes and shouldn't dominate the soundstage.
Soundstage width/depth: A good TV should throw the sound away from the TV, to the sides, forward and back, to give an extra dimension to what's on screen, without losing any coherence.
Questions to ask before you buy
Taking the time to consider these questions will make choosing the best TV easier...
HD or 4K?
4K TVs are stunning and even though there is currently little native 4K content to enjoy, the good ones are able to upscale HD to 4K very well. That being said, unless you're buying a very large TV - we're talking 65-inches plus - full HD should be adequate.
What size do I need?
This is dictated by the dimensions of the room where the TV is going and the amount of cash you're prepared to spend. As a general rule of thumb, work out how far from the set you'll be sitting (in inches), multiply that distance by 0.535 and then round up the result to the nearest screen size. Bear in mind that a decent smaller telly is often a more sensible investment than a larger, less accomplished one. And if you're going to buy a 4K TV, you can sit much closer because of the higher resolution.
How many HDMI sockets do I need?
For a living room TV you should be looking for a minimum of 3 HDMI inputs. If you want to attach a set-top box as well as games consoles etc, those HDMI ports will fill up fast.
Can I connect my older, analogue kit?
Most new sets carry no more than two Scarts, while S-video is fast approaching obsolescence. Check that your new TV can hook up to older digiboxes, VCRs or DVD decks that you might want to plug into it.
What picture type do I prefer, LCD or plasma?
LCDs and plasmas produce different sorts of pictures. Broadly speaking, the former's are usually sharper, brighter and more densely saturated, while the latter's tend to be richer, more natural and produce better black levels. Decent dealers should be able to arrange a side-by-side demo for you.
Do I want to hang my TV on the wall?
First off, you'll need to consult a construction expert to check that the wall in question is strong enough to support a flatscreen. Then find out if the set you want is designed to be wall-mounted and, if so, ask if the relevant bracket is included in the basic package or as an optional extra.
Will I be connecting it to a home cinema?
If the answer is no, you might want to think more carefully about your set's audio performance. Look for a screen that can go as loud as you'll need without distortion or cabinet rattle. Consider how dialogue sounds and how much low-end rumble the bass is capable of.
Conversely, it's pointless paying out more cash for exceptional built-in speakers if you already have a decent home cinema system.