HDMI and Connections: Go for More

It may seem like an afterthought, but pay attention to the number of HDMI inputs a set has. Manufacturers looking to shave costs may offer fewer HDMI plugs on the back. These ports can get used up quickly: Add a sound bar, a Roku or Chromecast and a game console, and you’ve used three ports already.

If you have decided to take the plunge and get a 4K Ultra HD, make sure the set’s ports support HDMI 2.0 to accommodate future Ultra HD sources. Many TVs on the market have only one port that supports the 4K copy-protection scheme known as HDCP 2.2 (high-bandwidth digital content protection).

Bottom Line: Look for at least four HDMI ports; 4K shoppers should ask about HDCP- compatibility.

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Refresh Rate: Faster Is Better

The refresh rate, expressed in Hertz (Hz) describes how many times per second a picture is refreshed on the screen. The standard refresh rate is 60 times per second, or 60 Hz. However, in scenes with rapidly moving objects, a 60 Hz refresh rate can make things look blurry or jittery, particularly on LCD HDTVs. So, to create a more solid picture, manufacturers doubled the refresh rate to 120 Hz (and in some cases up to 240 Hz).

Since there aren’t that many per-second images in original video content, TVs handle the faster refresh rates in different ways. One method is to simply insert black images between the original pictures, tricking the viewer’s eyes into seeing a less blurry, more solid picture. Another technique is to generate and insert new images — showing a state of movement in between the two adjacent pictures — to display more realistic-looking motion. However, depending on how the video-processing is done, it can make a movie or sitcom look flat, or as if it were a poorly lit, old-time soap opera.

A word of caution: beware of terms like “effective refresh rate,” which means the actual frame rate is half  the stated rate (e.g., a “120 Hz effective refresh rate” is actually a 60 Hz refresh rate).

Bottom line: Don’t buy a TV with less than a 120 Hz refresh rate.

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HDR: Get It If You Want the Most Colors

HDR is a new feature of 4K Ultra HD sets and it stands for high dynamic range, a reference to its ability to deliver more colors, more contrast levels and increased brightness. HDR is essentially an upgrade of the 4K, or Ultra HD, format (it is not applicable to 1080p HD sets). For this new feature, TV makers are christening new monikers for the sets to distinguish them from standard 4K Ultra HD TVs.

Ultra HD Premium is the name being adopted by UHD Alliance, an industry trade group. Dozens of companies are supporting this basic minimum specification for HDR compatibility, so you will see “Ultra HD Premium” on a growing number of sets this year.

Dolby Vision is a more demanding version of HDR, created and licensed by the folks that brought us Dolby noise reduction and surround sound. In theory, a Dolby Vision set has to meet a stricter set of criteria to display HDR content, but until we’ve tested a number of sets this year, how that translates to visible performance differences remains to be seen.

There continues to be some HDR confusion. Some TVs are Ultra HD Premium-compatible (like Samsung), others are Dolby-Vision-compatible (like Vizio and Sony) and some are compatible with both standards (like LG). Technicolor has brought its own standard to the market, called Technicolor Advanced HDR, which is expected to compete with Dolby Vision in the premium HDR space.

There’s not much HDR programming available, but it’s starting to look a bit better. There are a few dozen movies in the new 4K Blu-ray disc format,  with a growing number of HDR shows available via streaming services, like Amazon Prime and Netflix. Some new 4K Blu-ray players also promise to be upgradable to handle the new HDR discs, but check before you buy. Finally, some cable and satellite are getting their own form of HDR, called Hybrid-Log Gamma (HLG), so you should start seeing HDR pop up now and then for movies and even live TV.

Bottom Line: Don’t choose a set just for its HDR support because the standard has not yet been settled. However, if you want the best, buy an HDR set that is compatible with Dolby Vision, as that format seems to be gaining momentum.

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Screen Resolution: 4K or HD?

Resolution describes the sharpness of the TV picture, usually in terms of horizontal lines of pixels. They’re very rare at this point and should be avoided, but a bargain HD set may support only 720p, which means the set displays 720 lines scanned progressively (or in a single pass). Other HDTVs support the 1080p HD format, also called full HD, which has 1,080 lines of resolution. But at this stage, we’d skip 1080p sets, too.

That’s because TV manufacturers are rapidly shifting  from HDTVs to Ultra HD sets (also called 4K). These 4K models have four times the number of pixels as current HDTV screens. We’re talking 2,160 horizontal lines, or 3840 x 2160 pixels. The biggest benefit of 4K TVs is that small objects on the screen have more detail, including sharper text. Overall, images appear richer and more life-like than on an HDTV, but the benefits can be subtle.

Ultra HD video looks great, if you can find it — there are no 4K broadcast or cable channels and  only a handful of streaming options available so far (most notably, a few programs from Netflix, rentals from Amazon and specialty services such as UltraFlix; Dish Network and DirecTV are rolling out 4K download services). Although Ultra HD sets can upscale existing HD content, the results can be mixed and do not look as sharp as original 4K programming.

With those provisos, ultra-HD TV models are supplanting conventional HDTVs. Vizio, for example, has only one HDTV line left.

Bottom Line: Full HD 1080p is still the most common screen resolution today, but 4K is increasingly becoming the standard, and it’s a better choice if you want to future-proof your investment.

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Screen Size: Finding the Sweet Spot

Whether you’re looking for a basic or high-performance TV, the biggest factor in your decision will probably be screen size. Consider how many people in your family typically watch at once and where you’re going to put your new set. Then pick the largest screen size that will fit comfortably into that space — and your budget. The sweet spot today, considering price, performance and the typical living room, is between 55 and 65 inches.

Screen size also depends on how close you sit to the TV. Basically, if you can see the individual pixels of the screen, you’re too close. A good rule of thumb is that you should sit at a distance from the TV that is three times more than the height of the screen for HD and just 1.5 times the screen height for 4K Ultra HD. In other words, you can sit twice as close to a 4K UHD TV.

Here’s a more in-depth guide to calculating the proper TV screen size based on the dimensions of your room, as well as the resolution of the TV.

If you have the opportunity, go to a store (and maybe bring your family) and look at the TVs. Even though 4K content is still rare, you may want that higher-resolution technology if you plan to sit close to a very large screen.

Bottom Line: Choose a screen size and resolution appropriate for the distance you will sit from the screen. We’d start at 55 inches.

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