Buyer's guide: TVs

samantha smith
By Samantha Smith

sports tv

IN 2014, the average person in the UK watched three hours, 44 minutes and 30 seconds of TV per day, according to figures from Thinkbox.

That's more time than we spent in front of the TV in 2004.

And despite the spread of decent quality video on tablets and other devices, the TV is still how we choose to watch more than 83% of the video content we consume.

So if the old set is looking a little dated, or you just want to see Strictly Come Dancing in better detail, here's our guide to buying a shiny new TV.

1. Budget

Things to consider
  • Size isn't strictly the key - prices can range from £120 to £1000 for a 32" screen
  • A good quality 42" TV will cost between £40 and £700
  • Bigger brands will have more budgetary options for each screen size

This may sound obvious, but TV prices can vary vastly. It's possible to get a 32" TV for as little as £120, or splash out up to £1000 on one.

Brand names cost more, although they'll also have wider ranges with cheaper and more expensive models - and build quality will play a part in price too.

But as a general rule, good quality 42" TVs cost between £400 and £700. Any more than that and they should be packing some serious extra features - like being waterproof, for example.

Bearing that in mind, work out how big a screen the TV should have, then set a realistic budget and shop around.

2. Size

Things to consider
  • Most important: where is the TV going to go?
  • Allow up to five inches of screen size per foot of distance between viewer and TV
  • Bigger is only better with higher quality pictures

Many people are tempted to buy the biggest screen they can afford, only to find it doesn't fit - or it does, but it just doesn't look right in their home.

There are two basic rules to follow here. The first is the obvious and most important: Don't buy anything bigger than can fit comfortably in the space you have for it.

For more than 90% of us, that means something between 20 and 50 inches. According to BARB [pdf], just over half of British households have a TV with a screen sized between 33 and 50 inches; only 3% have a monster screen of more than 53 inches in size.

That's because they have to fit in smaller rooms than they once did, and comfortably.

So if it's going in a specific place - within a media centre, for example, or over a fireplace of a certain width - measure the space, measure again, and limit yourself to a screen that will fit with a good few inches of clearance all around.

The second rule of thumb is to let the distance most viewers will be sat from the screen guide how big it should be.

For every foot from the screen people will be sat, allow at least 4.25 inches and up to five inches of screen size.

So in a room where people sit four feet from the TV, a screen between 17 and 20 inches will be fine. In a room where they're at least eight feet from the screen, a 32" screen might feel a little small, but a 40" screen may feel a touch too large.

3. Plasma, LCD or LED?

Things to consider
  • Edge-lit LED screens most common, also the thinnest available
  • LCD used to be cheapest but now being replaced by LED
  • Plasma considered best for picture quality, but almost three times as power hungry
  • OLED screens are the next development but hugely expensive as yet

What's probably more important when considering screens at the top and bottom of the size range for the space is the picture quality.

Plasma screen TVs are older technology now. When flatscreen TVs came in, they were hailed as giving truer colours and blacker blacks, but technology has advanced to the point where there's not that much difference between them and LED screens.

They're also less energy efficient than LCD and LED TVs - with even the most modern plasmas costing almost three times as much to run per year as comparable LED TVs - and most manufacturers are scaling down or phasing out plasma production.

LCD TVs and LED TVs are very similar - the main difference is how the screens are lit.

Both use a Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) to create the main image, but the light being shone through those cells is either in the form of a number of small lamps, or lots of much smaller LEDs.

LCD screens use small lamps, which make them cheaper to produce and buy, but at the cost of being somewhat bulkier than an LED-lit TV.

But LED TVs vary in thickness too, depending on whether they're backlit or edge-lit. The LEDs in a backlit screen cover the whole of the back of the screen, creating extremely consistent light but adding a little more depth to the TV.

Edge-lit screens have a smaller number of LEDs fitted very neatly around the edge of the screen, making them incredibly slim and a little cheaper. Early edge-lit screens didn't offer such consistent colour or light, but most are now pretty good.

As they're cheaper and the technology's improved so much, edge-lit LED screens make up the majority of the market now.

The next development is OLED TV - organic LED TV. Each cell that makes up the LCD screen is its own light source - which does away with a layer in the TV set, making them much slimmer.

Then there's the fact that when the signal coming through to a particular cell says "black", it doesn't emit light at all. It adds a degree of depth and contrast that even plasma screen devotees should be satisfied by.

But this is very new technology and it has a price tag to match - we're talking thousands. We don't want to say it'd be wasted on a TV being used to watch Pointless and Brooklyn 99, but it probably would be.

4. HD-ready, HD-1080p or 4K?

Things to consider
  • HD-ready means a resolution of 720p - about twice as good as SD; good enough for smaller screens
  • "True HD" or HD-1080p is about four times better than HD-ready - will look its best on at least a 30" screen
  • 4K HD / Ultra HD very expensive, and needs a much larger screen

Instead consider putting your money towards a "true HD" or HD 1080p TV - or if you're planning on creating a full-on home cinema experience, start saving for a 4K upgrade.

Pretty much all TVs sold now are at least HD-ready, also known as HD 720p. These have screens with about twice the resolution of standard definition TVs.

For a little more money, though, you can get an HD 1080p screen, with a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080. That's a good five times more information than a standard definition TV can handle.

You won't notice when watching standard definition programmes - but switch to one of the free-to-air HD channels (more on those here), and the difference can be breathtaking.

HD screens look best when they're of a reasonable size - there's little point in the TV receiving all that extra picture information if it's squashed into a 17-inch display - so this is when bigger is indeed better.

This is particularly the case when considering 4K HD, also known as Ultra HD. Screens have a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160 pixels - that's four times as much information as, ahem, standard HD TV.

If HD is breathtaking, 4K HD is mind-blowing.

It might seem that 4K is a bit wasted on the British viewing public at the moment, as very little is filmed and broadcast even in true HD - but the technology in these TVs can boost normal HD to pretty impressive levels.

It's also worth noting that some streaming services such as Netflix have already begun to offer 4K subscriptions - so you can go back and watch Breaking Bad in even more detail.

Meanwhile the first 4K Blu-ray discs are expected to appear for Christmas 2015. Whether that's enough to justify spending at least £1,000 on a 42-inch TV is up to you.

5. 3D

Things to consider
  • Two types: Active and passive
  • Passive is cheaper and simpler, but not as detailed. Active requires Bluetooth- or infra-red enabled glasses
  • Relies on having 3D content, or other 3D-capable equipment. Not as big a deal to the manufacturers any more - greater focus on HD and 4K

The other big ticket feature these days is 3D. Again, the viewing technology is some way ahead of the amount of content available - and unlike HD, which everyone can enjoy, 3D TV relies on there being enough pairs of glasses for every viewer in the room.

Most of the time, the 3D TV will look and act just like a normal 2D TV.

It's only when a 3D channel is selected or the TV is connected to a 3D-capable Blu-ray DVD player with a 3D disc that the feature will come to life - or rather when all of the above has been done, and you've put on the specs.

Make sure they're the right glasses too - there are two types of 3D TV, and they use very different eyewear.

Passive 3D is the sort everyone who's been to the movies will have seen. Each lens is differently polarised, allowing left and right eye to see different layers of the image onscreen, which the brain puts back together with added depth.

The glasses are light and simple; passive 3D TVs will come with at least two pairs, and extras should be fairly cheap.

Active 3D requires far cleverer glasses, using Bluetooth or infra-red to synchronise with the TV and blink the images from left to right eye.

The chip and tech means the glasses are heavier and much more expensive - at least £15 a pair - but the image is more detailed.

But in their May 2015 report, BARB said: "It is with great sadness that we can confirm the continuing demise of 3D TV", saying that the major manufacturers were now focusing on 4K HD instead.

It may be worth keeping the silly specs solely for the cinema.

6. Smart TVs

Things to consider
  • Not all TV catch-up services available on all makes
  • Social media and Netflix apps available on almost all TVs

Finally, most TVs are now smart - which means they can connect to the internet to offer access to catch-up TV, streaming services and various apps.

Not all brands of TV offer the same services: earlier and cheaper smart TVs may have a more limited range, although most offer the ability to download further apps.

Most smart TVs can connect to the household wi-fi network, but there are still some that will require an Ethernet cable or dongle.

But oddly not all makes of TV offer all the different channels' catch-up services. For example, LG and Sony smart TVs don't have access to ITV Player or 4OD, but most makes provide Demand 5.

Netflix is available on almost all smart TVs, but subscribers to other services, Amazon Instant Video, Cinema Now (formerly Knowhow Movies) and Now TV, will need to find another way of watching via their TV.

There's more in our guide to smart TV here - including how to boost the services available if your chosen TV is perfect in every other respect.

To sum up

Hopefully the information above has helped you decide which features are most important to you when it comes to buying the new TV.

If it feels like there's a lot to take in there, we've brought together the basic need-to-know information here as a reminder.

Happy viewing!

Things to consider...
Budget Size isn't strictly the key - prices can range from £120 to £1000 for a 32" screen

A good quality 42" TV will cost between £40 and £700

Bigger brands will have more budgetary options for each screen size
Size Most important: where is the TV going to go?

Allow up to five inches of screen size per foot of distance between viewer and TV

Bigger is only better with higher quality pictures
Plasma, LCD or LED Edge-lit LED screens most common, also the thinnest available

LCD used to be cheapest but now being replaced by LED

Plasma considered best for picture quality, but almost three times as power hungry

OLED screens are the next development but hugely expensive as yet
HD and beyond HD-ready means a resolution of 720p - about twice as good as SD; good enough for smaller screens

"True HD" or HD-1080p is about four times better than HD-ready - will look its best on at least a 30" screen

4K HD / Ultra HD very expensive, and needs a much larger screen.
3D Two types: Active and passive.

Passive is cheaper and simpler, but not as detailed. Active requires Bluetooth- or infra-red enabled glasses.

Relies on having 3D content, or other 3D-capable equipment. Not as big a deal to the manufacturers any more - greater focus on HD and 4K.
Smart TV Not all TV catch-up services available on all makes.

Social media and Netflix apps available on almost all TVs.


» Read more of the latest news


» Search for more guides on broadband and mobile


Follow us or subscribe for FREE updates and special offers