Best smart TVs: What to look for before you buy

by Peter Griffin / 23 August, 2018

You want a good TV - but which one is right for you? Photo / Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - best smart

Let’s face it, between the plethora of binge-worthy TV shows, blockbuster video games and endless stream of international sports events, there’s more incentive than ever before to settle down in front of the box.

TV is having a renaissance and that’s not just down to clever scriptwriting and acting. The technology that goes into your TV is better than ever and the industry has cast off many of the gimmicks that led consumers astray in recent years.

The technology is rapidly evolving with ultra high-definition and high dynamic range just beginning to significantly improve video quality. But it can be a complicated picture, with plenty of jargon and complicated tech to throw you off track.

Here then is NOTED Tech's five-point guide to help you navigate the new TV landscape and decide on a new screen that’s right for you.

1. How much screen real estate do you need?

Do you have a big wall crying out for an expansive TV to take pride of place or, like me, do you live in a tiny apartment where a big TV resides at the expense of other furniture?

This is the big question that will occupy you when looking to upgrade your TV - what size screen you are going to go for. They’ve certainly spread out over the last decade, from 32 inches (measured diagonally) to 42 inches to the point where 55 and 65-inch models now dominate the market.

Bigger is preferable, but make sure that the TV will comfortably fit the space you have in mind for it. Will it sit comfortably on your entertainment cabinet? If you plan to wall mount it, will it sit clear of doorways and other architectural features?

How far you are sitting away from your TV does actually matter. If you are too close, you may be able to make out the screen’s pixels, particularly when the source is lower quality standard definition - think of the difference between watching a Blu-ray movie on your TV, then switching over to regular free to air TV.

A typical rule of thumb is to sit a distance between 1.5 to 2.5 times the diagonal of the screen measurement from your TV. So for a 55 inch TV, that would equate to 2.1 m – 3.5 m. Ideally, you’ll have a 30 degree viewing angle, which should give everyone seated on the couch a decent view of the screen.

In my lounge, I’m just far away enough from my 55-inch screen to have a great viewing experience and the couch is right in front of it so I have a good viewing angle - position does matter.

A larger screen will come at a price premium - maybe a 20 per cent difference between a 55 inch and 65 inch model, but an 85 inch screen may cost two-thirds as much. There’s nothing worse though than sitting in a lounge with an oversized TV dominating the room. Take your tape measure and visit a showroom to approximate how far you will be positioned from the screen - that will give you an idea of the viewing experience you can expect.

The LG C8 55 inch OLED has a stunning picture display.

2. Beyond LCD - can you afford the latest and greatest screen tech?

The TV market these days generally splits into two segments - screens based on Light Emitting Diode (LED) technology that has a LCD (liquid crystal display) panel lighting up the screen, and more advanced technologies such as organic light emitting diode (OLED) and market leader Samsung’s version of it, known as QLED - the Q stands for quantum dot.

The OLED/QLED screens command a hefty premium over LCD-LED models as the technology is widely regarded to deliver better overall picture quality - more accurate colours, better contrast, less light seeping in to dark scenes.

If you can afford it, opt for the OLED/QLED technology - LG, Samsung, Sony and Panasonic all have TVs on offer using this technology. The difference between OLED and QLED is highly technical and there really isn’t much separating them in real terms, though OLED seems to be given the edge by most critics.

It doesn’t mean that a late-model LED TV will deliver a disappointing viewing experience in comparison. I was recently very impressed with the LG SK85, which sits mid-market beneath LG’s OLED range, but offers fantastic value for money. Other technologies such as full-array dimming and high dynamic range are producing incredible results on LED screens priced as low as $1,500.

The Samsung NU8000 55 inch LED TV isn't fancy, but you get a quality screen.

3. Your big-screen TV must haves

4K:It goes without saying that any TV you buy should support 4K UHD (ultra high definition). This is the best screen resolution on offer (3840 x 2160 pixels or 4096 x 2160 pixels). Even low end LED TVs now support 4K, offering four times the resolution as regular high-definition TVs, which really only remain as entry-level models around the $500 mark.

The reality is that there still isn’t much content available in the 4K format to get the best out of your screen. But more of it is appearing on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV and Youtube and broadcasters are exploring offering programming in 4K. Within the next couple of years, a lot more content will hit the market, so future-proof yourself with a 4K display.

HDR: A technology relatively new to TV displays is called High Dynamic Range (HDR). This applies to 4K screens and creates a dynamic contrast between the brightest whites and the darkest blacks on the screen. It really does make a noticeable difference to TV shows and movies - more atmospheric and lifelike scenes.

But it is early days for HDR and as with 4K, content has to be encoded in the format to make the most of your TV screen. Several versions of HDR currently vie for attention. Make sure you are getting a TV that supports the most common standard - HDR10. Ideally, the screen should also support other formats including Dolby Vision and Samsung’s HDR10 Plus. Again, this is a future-proofing decision as more HDR content will be coming to our screens soon.

Refresh rate: Your TV screen is constantly refreshing the image on your screen and the faster it is capable of doing this, the smoother the picture you will get. That becomes particularly important where there are fast-moving scenes on your screen, such as in an action movie or a game of rugby.

You should therefore look for a TV with a high refresh rate - ideally a minimum of 120Hz (Hertz).

Connections: Between a Sky or Freeview set-top box, games console, Blu-ray player and other assorted entertainment devices, you’ll want plenty of connections for plugging things into your TV. Look for a minimum of four HDMI 2.0 ports and as many USB connections. You’ll also want an Ethernet port to supply reliable internet connectivity to your TV, though you can also expect most new TVs to support Wi-fi as well. 

Freeview: Do you still watch much free-to-air TV? If you do so and are not a Sky TV subscriber, you should consider buying a TV that is Freeview-compatible. This means that it includes a tuner that will let you pick up the channels carried on Freeview, such as One, 2, Three, Prime and Al Jazeera. Freeview TVs have an electronic programming guide and some of them will let you record content to watch later. You’ll need a UHF aerial to access Freeview on your TV. But buying a Freeview-compatible TV means you won’t have to invest in a separate set-top box to clutter up your entertainment unit.

When wall-mounted Samsung's 43 inch The Frame TV resembles a painting.

4. How much use will you make of smart TV functions?

The four big TV makers dominating the New Zealand market - Samsung, LG, Panasonic and Sony, all have their own software interface and smart TV functions.

It is worth spending time in an electronics store navigating the various smart features of each manufacturer to see which one you are most comfortable with - let’s face it, you will be spending a lot of time looking at them on screen.

I know Samsung’s user interface inside out as I’ve had two Samsung TVs in a row. But I’m leaning towards the new, highly visual interface on LG’s new TVs. The big four support most of the apps you’ll want to access on your screen from Netflix and Lightbox to Sky’s FanPass and TVNZ On Demand. But check the full-range of available apps to make sure your favourites aren’t missed out by a particular TV maker.

Smart TV functions now extend to artificial intelligence that let you do smart things like change channel and search for content with voice commands. Like your smartphone, there are increasingly learning from your behaviour to make your viewing experience smoother. It is early days for these features and I wouldn’t buy a TV primarily for them. Other services like screen mirroring, so you can transfer content on a phone or tablet to your TV may be of interest and your TV should have a tidy interface for managing media, such as image, video and audio files contained on an inserted USB stick.

Get familiar with the TV’s remote control before you buy - and enquire whether there is a premium version of it you can upgrade to.

5. Curved screens and other gimmicks

The TV industry has seen one fad after another come and go. Five years ago, the hot new feature was built-in 3D support - just don these geeky glasses and the images will leap out of the screen at you.

You are quite likely to be offered a TV that supports 3D, but the technology has largely been a flop outside of the cinema, as the glasses are uncomfortable to wear and the 3D image loses resolution so isn’t as clear and crisp as a regular 2D image on a high-quality display. Don’t buy a TV for 3D, unless you love the experience.

Likewise, curved screens were big for a season or two, but have largely disappeared from the market as people realised they didn’t provide any better a viewing experience than flat screens and weren’t suitable for viewing from off to the side. They are also more difficult to wall mount and take up more space - avoid the curve.

One last thing to consider - sound: The speakers on new TVs these days are very good and audio technology like Dolby Atmos will you give you a surround sound quality without needing to deck out your room with speakers. But few TVs, particularly as they have become much thinner, can offer the rich sound of external speakers. At the very least, consider pairing your TV with a soundbar and accompanying subwoofer. Most of these devices can sync wirelessly to your TV, so you should only need a power cable for your soundbar, which can also be synced to other devices, such as your smartphone to play music independently of the TV.

My picks

LG C8 55 inch OLED: The 2018 OLED TVs from LG are seriously impressive and the C8 sits at the sweet spot - not super expensive, but in the premium category all the same. The screen boasts High Dynamic Range in multiple formats, LG’s new artificial intelligence features and the OLED picture quality when displaying a quality UHD image is simply stunning.

Price: From $4,958

Samsung NU8000 55 inch LED TV: It isn’t one of Samsung’s fancy QLED TVs but for the price you are getting a quality ultra high-definition screen. A few new flourishes such as improved voice control and easy set-up via Samsung’s SmartThings app make in a particularly user-friendly TV.

Price: From $2,900

Samsung 43 inch The Frame TV: A smaller format, but high performing UHD LED TV from Samsung. The key difference here from regular TVs in the Samsung line-up, is that The Frame is disguised with an attractive trim and is wall-mounted to resemble a painting. Images appear on the screen in low-energy mode when the TV isn’t in use. I love how it is adding versatility to the TV screen which no longer needs to be a black mirror in the lounge when not in use.

Price: From $1,980

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