What to look for in a new TV
Or, I've spent the past 2 years researching a new TV & this is what I learned
I'm kind of an A/V nerd. Now I'm not hardcore enough to have a vinyl collection or have an amp for my TV, but all my headphones cost over $100 and I have a Sonos Playbar so I don't have to put up with crappy TV speakers. What I'm trying to say is that I care about the A/V equipment I use, but not to the extent that money is no object when it comes to my enjoyment of a movie (I'm not that rich and my wife would kill me if I spent that kind of money on electronics). That means I tend to research extensively before making a major A/V purchase since I don't do it very often and I want quality within reason which does not lend itself to impulse buying.
Prior to September 1, 2016, I had a 2011 Vizio television. It was 47", did 1080p, and had passive 3D. When I purchased the TV I was fresh out of UBC having just finished my Ph.D. so it wasn't top-of-the-line, but it was considered very good for the price. I was happy with the picture, but admittedly it wasn't amazing; the screen had almost a matte finish which led to horrible glare. I also rarely used the 3D in the television as 3D Blu-Ray discs always cost extra and so few movies took the time to actually film in 3D to begin with, instead choosing to do it in post-production (basically animated films and TRON: Legacy were all that we ever watched in 3D). And to top it all off, the TV took a while to turn on. I don't know what kind of LCB bulbs were in it, but they took forever to warm up and just annoyed me (yes, very much a first-world problem).
So when UHD came into existence I started to keep an eye on the technology and what television manufacturers were doing to incorporate the technology to entice people like me to upgrade. After two years of watching this space and one of the TVs I was considering having a one-day sale that knock 23% off the price, I ended up buying a 55" Samsung KS8000 yesterday. Since I spent so much time considering this purchase I figured I would try and distill what knowledge I have picked up over the years into a blog post so that when you decide to upgrade to UHD you don't have to start from zero knowledge like I did.
What to care about
First, you don't care about the resolution of the TV. All UHD televisions are 4K, so that's just taken care of for you. It also doesn't generally make a difference in the picture because most people sit too far away from their TV to make the higher resolution matter.
No, the one thing you're going to care about is HDR and everything that comes with it. And of course it can't be a simple thing to measure like size or resolution. Oh no, HDR has a bunch of parts to it that go into the quality of the picture: brightness, colour gamut, and format (yes, there's a format war; HD-DVD/Blu-Ray didn't teach the TV manufacturers a big enough lesson).
A key part of HDR is the range of brightness to show what you frequently hear referred to as "inky blacks" and "bright whites". The way you get deep blacks and bright whites is by supporting a huge range of brightness. What you will hear about TVs is what their maximum nit is. Basically you're aiming for 1000 nits or higher for a maximum and as close to 0 as possible for a minimum.
Now of course this isn't as simple as it sounds as there's different technology being used to try and solve this problem.
Thanks to our computers I'm sure everyone reading this is familiar with LCD displays. But what you might not realize is how they exactly work. In a nutshell there are LED lightbulbs behind your screen that provides white light, and then the LCD pixels turn on and off the red/green/blue parts of themselves to filter out certain colours. So yeah, there are lightbulbs in your screen and how strong they are dictates how bright your TV screen will be.
Now the thing that comes into play here for brightness is how those LED bulbs are oriented in order to get towards that 0 nits for inky blacks. Typical screens are edge-list, which means there is basically a strip of LEDs on the edges of the TV that shine light towards the middle of the screen. This is fine and it's what screens have been working with for a while, but it does mean there's always some light behind the pixels so it's kind of hard to keep it from leaking out a little bit.
This is where local dimming comes in. Some manufacturers are now laying out the LED bulbs in an array/grid behind the screen instead of at the edges. What this allows is for the TV to switch dim an LED bulb if it isn't needed at full strength to illuminate a certain quadrant of the screen (potentially even switching off entirely). Obviously the denser the array, the more local dimming zones and thus the greater chance a picture with some black in it will be able to switch off an LED to truly get a dark black for that part of the screen. As for how often something you're watching is going to allow you to take advantage of such local dimming due to a dark area lining up within a zone is going to vary so this is going to be a personal call as to whether this makes a difference to you.
If I didn't have a budget and wanted the ultimate solution for getting the best blacks in a picture, I would probably have an OLED TV from LG. What makes these TVs so great is the fact that OLEDs are essentially pixels that provide their own light. What that means is if you want an OLED pixel to be black, you simply switch it off. Or to compare it to local dimming, it's as if every pixel was its own local dimming zone. So if you want truly dark blacks, OLED are the way to go. It also leads to better colours since the intensity of the pixel is consistent compared to an LCD where the brightness is affected by how far the pixel is from the LED bulb that's providing light to the pixel.
But the drawback is that OLED TVs only get so bright. Since each pixel has to generate its own light they can't reach really four-digit nit levels like the LCD TVs can. It's still much brighter than any HD TV, but OLED TVs don't match the maximum brightness of the higher-end LCD TVs.
So currently it's a race to see if LCDs can get their blacks down or if OLEDs can get their brightness up. But from what I have read, in 2016 your best bet is OLED if you can justify the cost to yourself (they are very expensive televisions).
While having inky blacks and bright whites are nice, not everyone is waiting for Mad Max: Fury Road in black and white. That means you actually care about the rest of the rainbow, which means you care about the colour gamut of the TV for a specific colour space. TVs are currently trying to cover as much of the DCI-P3 colour space as possible right now. Maybe in a few years TVs will fully cover that colour space, at which point they will start worrying about Rec. 2020 (also called BT.2020), but there's still room in covering DCI-P3 before that's something to care about.
In the end colour gamut is probably not going to be something you explicitly shop for, but more of something to be aware of that you will possibly gain by going up in price on your television.
So you have your brightness and you have your colours, now you have to care about what format all of this information is stored in. Yes my friends, there's a new format war and it's HDR10 versus Dolby Vision. Now if you buy a TV from Vizio or LG then you don't have to care because they are supporting both formats. But if you consider any other manufacturer you need to decide on whether you care about Dolby Vision because everyone supports HDR10 these days but no one supports Dolby Vision at the moment except those two manufacturers.
There is one key reason that HRD10 is supported by all television makers: it's an open specification. By being free it doesn't cut into profits of TVs which obviously every manufacturer likes and is probably why HDR10 is the required HDR standard for Ultra Blu-Ray discs (Dolby Vision is supported on Ultra Blu-Ray, but not required). Dolby Vision, on the other hand, requires licensing fees paid to Dolby. Articles also consistently suggest that Dolby Vision requires new hardware which would also drive up costs of supporting Dolby Vision (best I can come up with is that since Dolby Vision is 12-bit and HDR10 is 10-bit that TVs typically use a separate chip for Dolby Vision processing).
Dolby Vision does currently have two things going for it over HDR10. One is that Dolby Vision is dynamic per frame while HDR10 is static. This is most likely a temporary perk, though, because HDR10 is gaining dynamic support sometime in the future.
Two is that Dolby Vision is part of an end-to-end solution from image capture to projection in the theatres. By making Dolby Vision then also work at home it allows for directors and editors to get the results they want for the cinema and then just pass those results along to your TV without extra work.
All of this is to say that Dolby Vision seems to be the better technology, but the overhead/cost of adding it to a TV along with demand will ultimately dictate whether it catches on. Luckily all TV manufacturers has agreed on the minimum standard of HDR10 so you won't be completely left out if you buy a TV from someone other than LG or Vizio.
Where to go for advice
When it comes time to buy a TV, I recommend Rtings.com for advice. They have a very nice battery of tests they put the TV through and give you nice level of detail on how they reached their scores for each test. They even provide the settings they used for their tests so you can replicate them at home.
You can also read what the Wirecutter is currently recommending. For me, though, I prefer Rtings.com and use the Wirecutter as a confirmation check if their latest TV round-up isn't too out-of-date.
Ultra HD Premium
If you want a very simple way to help choose a television, you can simply consider ones that are listed as Ultra HD Premium. That way you know the TV roughly meets a minimum set of specifications that are reasonable to want if you're spending a lot of money on a TV. The certification is new in 2016 and so there are not a ton of TVs yet that have the certification, but since TV manufacturers like having stamps on their televisions I suspect it will start to become a thing.
One thing to be aware of is that Vizio doesn't like the certification. Basically they have complained that the lack of standards around how to actually measure what the certification requires makes it somewhat of a moot point. That's a totally reasonable criticism and why using the certification as a filter for TVs consider is good, but to not blindly buy a TV just because it has Ultra HD Premium stamp of approval.
Why I chose my TV
Much like when I bought a soundbar, I had some restrictions placed upon me when considering what television I wanted. One, the TV couldn't be any larger than 55" (to prevent the TV from taking over the living room even though we should have a 65" based on the minimum distance people might sit from the TV). This immediately put certain limits on me as some model lines don't start until 65" like the Vizio Reference series. I also wasn't willing to spend CAD 4,000 on an LG, so that eliminated OLED from consideration. I also wanted HDR, so that eliminated an OLED that was only HD.
In the end it was between the 55" Samsung KS8000, 55" Vizio P-series, and the 50" Vizio P-series. The reason for the same Vizio model at different sizes is the fact that they use different display technology; the 50" has a VA display while the 55" has an IPS display. The former will have better colours but the latter has better viewing angles. Unfortunately I couldn't find either model on display here in Vancouver to see what kind of difference it made.
One other knock against the Vizio -- at least at 55" -- was that it wasn't very good in a bright room. That's a problem for us as our living room is north facing with a big window and the TV is perpendicular to those windows, so we have plenty of glare on the screen as the sun goes down. The Samsung, on the other hand, was rated to do better in a glare-heavy room. And thanks to a one-day sale it brought the price of the Samsung to within striking distance of the Vizio. So in the end with the price difference no longer a factor I decided to go with the TV that worked best with glare and maximized the size I could go with.
My only worry with my purchase is if Dolby Vision ends up taking hold and I get left in the cold somehow. But thanks to the HDR10 support being what Ultra Blu-Ray mandates I'm not terribly worried of being shut out entirely from HDR content. There's also hope that I might be able to upgrade my television in the future thanks to it using a Mini One Connect which breaks out the connections from the television. In other TVs the box is much bigger as it contains all of the smarts of the television, allowing future upgrades. There's a chance I will be able to upgrade the box to get Dolby Vision in the future, but that's just a guess at this point that it's even possible, let alone whether Samsung choose to add Do
It's been 48 hours with the TV and both Andrea and I are happy with the purchase; me because the picture is great, Andrea because I will now shut up about television technology in regards to a new TV purchase.