Choosing a TV
TVs have become more packed with features and less expensive than ever. Not only are internet-connected smart TVs available at prices that appeal to even the most frugal buyers, but consumers searching for an ultra-high-definition 4K TV can find many such models on a budget. Cheapism has tapped expert and consumer reviews to put together a list of top picks that offer a bevy of sought-after features for $500 or less.
TV Brands.Manufacturers of cheap TVs include well-known brands, such as LG and Samsung, that automatically spring to mind when thinking of consumer electronics in general. However, our research suggests that buyers can get more value for their money with a name such as Vizio, the Chinese company TCL, or Best Buy's in-house Insignia brand. Expect more screen when moving beyond the mainstream, too: Whereas a 43-inch model from a big-name brand can push the $500 price ceiling, all our top picks deliver a minimum of 50 inches on the diagonal.
Pricey vs. Cheap TVs.High-end TVs have larger screens, more inputs, and more smart TV features than budget models. Colors appear sharp and bright, black levels are deep and dark without losing detail, and rapid motion doesn’t blur on-screen. Meeting all these criteria is more of a challenge for entry-level TVs. Although the picture quality is better than ever, it’s important to keep expectations at realistic levels. The images, though sharp and rich on the best cheap TVs, simply are not what you’d see on a model costing hundreds of dollars more, experts say. Newer OLED TVs, which boast the very best picture quality, sit well outside our price range; our picks are all LED LCD TVs.
4K TVs.One type of TV now available on a budget is 4K, also known as "ultra HD" or UHD. This technology promises amazingly sharp images with four times as many pixels as 1080p "full HD." In fact, 4K TVs have dropped so much in price that they barely cost more than 1080p HDTVs, and almost all our picks are ultra-HD TVs. Still, there's no reason to be wedded to this resolution upgrade. The fact is that 4K TVs don't boost picture quality as much as consumers might expect. Many experts maintain that it's hard to tell the difference between 4K and 1080p TVs. While some improvements might be noted on a large screen (say, 65 inches and up), in UHD TVs from 50 to 65 inches, gains over 1080p sets are hardly obvious, and in TVs 48 inches and smaller, they're pretty much undetectable.
HDR.High dynamic range technology, on the other hand, noticeably improves color, brightness, and contrast, creating a beautiful, more realistic image, reviewers say. HDR also has recently drifted into the realm of cheap TVs, although the content options are still limited. For now, choosing an HDR TV will get you a relatively future-proof model with support for all the HDR shows and movies that are sure to be released in the years to come.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
TV Reviews: What We Considered
To evaluate the models in our price range, we pored over TV reviews on sites such as Reviewed.com, which conducts extensive testing. LCD TV Buying Guide similarly reviews and recommends TVs based on editors' firsthand experience. It compares many different models and often goes into great technical detail. High-profile technology sites such as CNET and PCMag have also tested and reviewed some of the TVs on our list.
We gave much greater weight to these expert takes than to online reviews from consumers, most of whom have limited knowledge of or access to TVs apart from the models they've purchased. Expert reviewers have the advantage of comparing many TVs side by side, which makes subtle differences between sets more readily apparent. Not surprisingly, picture quality -- particularly resolution, color accuracy, black levels, and contrast -- is paramount in reviewers' minds, but things like the interface used to control the TV and its smart functions are also very important. While the current crop of cheap TVs tend to be slightly flawed in one way or another, the best ones hold their own in terms of features and performance.
Color Accuracy.This is a critical element of picture quality. The colors on the screen should be vibrant, not under-saturated, and neither too warm or too cool; skin tones should look natural. Perfect color accuracy is hard to find even in pricier TVs, and many cheap models struggle on this front, reviewers say. The colors may be just a little off, but most of the budget TVs we recommend have pretty good color accuracy from the get-go and require very little fine-tuning.
Black Levels.Ideally, black levels should be deep and dark -- truly jet black, never gray -- without losing detail in the shadows. This is one area where budget TVs tend to underperform. Viewers are more likely to see dark grays than inky blacks. A few of our top picks have a feature called local dimming, which makes different portions of the screen brighter and darker as needed to improve contrast. They also have full-array backlighting, or LED lights across the entire back of the screen, to make the local dimming more effective. Full-array local dimming helps deepen black levels, and reviewers rave about the difference this technology makes. While pricey TVs have hundreds of different zones that can be manipulated for ultimate picture quality, even the limited dimming capabilities of our budget picks produce noticeable results.
Screen Uniformity.This is another steep challenge for cheap TVs. Most budget models have at least a little inconsistency, meaning that some parts of the screen, usually around the edges or corners, appear a smidge brighter or darker than other parts of the screen. This can obviously be distracting and is noted in reviews by experts and some discerning buyers.
Motion Blur.Reviewers look for on-screen movement to be fluid and free of lag, particularly in sports and video games. To ensure good performance in this area, experts generally recommend looking for a high refresh rate, which indicates how often the TV redraws the image on the screen. Refresh rates of 120 Hz or higher improve the fluidity of movement onscreen and reduce the likelihood that blur will become an issue, but TVs with 60 Hz refresh rates may suffer from occasional motion blur. Some manufacturers use digital processing techniques to reduce or eliminate motion blur on 60 Hz screens, so they become, as a TV maker might say, "effective 120 Hz" displays. The success of these kinds of processing tricks varies, however, and some of the claims made by manufacturers are pure marketing gimmicks, so we relied on expert reviews for feedback on this aspect of performance. Reports of noticeable motion blur were few in reviews of our picks.
Smart TV Platform.Smart TVs are now firmly entrenched in the budget price range. Almost all the TVs we reviewed are smart TVs, although the platform varies depending on the brand. Roku-based TVs, such as those from TCL and Insignia, provide the best overall smart TV experience, according to most experts. The simple and responsive interface allows users to control the TV's settings and manage thousands of apps and streaming channels with ease. Vizio's low-end D Series TVs rely on the brand's proprietary VIA Plus platform. Other Vizio models feature the SmartCast platform -- essentially Google Chromecast built into the TVs. SmartCast requires users to download an app to a mobile device and isn't as well-liked as Roku.
Connections.Smart TVs need an internet connection to stream video and audio directly to the TV from online sources such as Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Amazon, and Pandora. The best cheap smart TVs support newer 802.11ac Wi-Fi connections while other cheap TVs are limited to 802.11n. Most also have Ethernet connections.
Most cheap TVs feature several types of inputs and outputs, including old-school component and/or composite ports and often USB ports. HDMI inputs are generally required to connect devices such as a Blu-ray player or video game console. The better low-cost TVs have at least three HDMI connectors for transmitting HD video and audio signals (including 4K signals via the relatively new HDMI 2.0 specification).