Best Cheap TVs
Published on By Michael Sweet
TCL 55S405 Review
From $400 Best
- Built-in Roku streaming platform is easy to use and offers access to lots of content.
- Inexpensive for a 4K TV that includes HDR, which delivers very good contrast.
- Excellent color accuracy, according to expert reviews.
- Screen uniformity is a little uneven; some parts of the screen appear brighter than others.
- Not as bright as competitors overall.
Takeaway: The 55-inch model in the TCL S405 series is our pick for the best TV under $500 overall. It's widely praised by reviewers because of the excellent Roku streaming platform, many features for the price, and very good picture quality.
Vizio E55-E2 Review
From $500 Best
- Excellent contrast helped by full-array local dimming.
- HDR content looks especially bright and colorful on this cheap 55-inch TV.
- Vizio's SmartCast interface supports Google Home voice commands and is updated more frequently than most built-in streaming platforms.
- Excellent color accuracy and outstanding screen uniformity, according to reviews.
- Recommended by Digital Trends.
- SmartCast requires a second screen, such as a smartphone or tablet, and isn't as well liked as the Roku streaming platform.
- No tuner, so there's no support for over-the-air channels.
Takeaway: Our other pick for best cheap TV has a better smart TV platform, but the 55-inch Vizio E55-E2 has the most impressive picture quality among the models we researched. HDR and full-array local dimming contribute to the best-looking screen under $500.
Insignia NS-50D510NA17 Review
From $280 Good
- Very low price for a 50-inch HDTV.
- Easy to set up, buyers say.
- Sharp, clear picture, according to reviews.
- Simple, easy-to-use remote.
- Better overall quality than expected for the price.
- 1080p display feels dated now that 4K resolution is available under $500.
- No internet connectivity or smart TV streaming features.
- Color is okay but not great, experts say.
Takeaway: This cheap 50-inch TV from Best Buy's Insignia brand may not be a 4K smart TV, but at less than $300, who cares? Experts say the difference between 1080p HD and 4K is hardly noticeable on a screen this size, and buyers can add streaming capability with a device such a Roku Streaming Stick for less than $50.
Samsung UN50MU6300FXZA Review
From $480 Good
- Supports 4K and HDR content and does a nice job upscaling 1080p content to 4K, experts say.
- Reviewers admire the color accuracy and screen uniformity.
- Smart Hub streaming interface offers many popular apps and supports voice commands.
- Display isn't especially bright.
- HDR content isn't as vibrant as expected.
- Lower contrast than cheaper competing TVs.
Takeaway: Samsung is one of the most respected TV brands, and the 50-inch MU6300 model offers lots of features at a competitive price, including 4K resolution and HDR, which amps up contrast and color for a better, more realistic image.
Vizio D55-E0 Review
From $498 Good
- 55-inch screen with 4K resolution.
- Full-array local dimming helps improve contrast and overall picture quality.
- Supports popular streaming services including Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, Amazon, and Google Play.
- Built-in tuner for over-the-air signals via antenna, a major boon for some consumers.
- Vizio Internet Apps Plus streaming interface feels outdated to expert reviewers.
- Picture quality is middling in experts' eyes; colors are sometimes undersaturated and limited in range.
- Input lag, the time it takes the TV to display a signal from a source such as a video game console, is higher than average.
Takeaway: The Vizio D55-E0 is one of the few cheap TVs that includes full-array local dimming, although it has fewer zones than pricer models. Spending a little more to step up to our pick from the brand's E-Series also gets you a better streaming platform and HDR -- but no tuner.
Samsung UN55J6201AFXZA Review
From $497 Think Twice
- Overall picture quality is very good, reviewers say -- sharp and clear with dark black levels.
- Pretty good sound for a budget TV.
- Easy to set up and control.
- 1080p resolution; most TVs these days are 4K.
- Relatively limited number of streaming apps and outdated 802.11n Wi-Fi.
- Only 2 HDMI ports.
Takeaway: The 55-inch model in the Samsung J6201 series has great picture quality, buyers say, but only 1080p resolution. With 4K TVs being so cheap and offering more features, it makes little sense to spend $500 or more on this model.
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.
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).
Sound.Don't expect too much from any budget TV's audio system. The audio quality is usually middling, and in some cases it's simply not good at all. Regardless, no one will mistake TV speakers for a home theater system. Any cheap TV will benefit from the addition of a good sound bar.
Additional Products We Considered
Insignia NS-39DR510NA17 Review
- Roku smart TV interface is favored among expert reviewers.
- HD picture is clear and brighter than average.
- Wide viewing angles.
- Buyers are satisfied with the picture quality and overall value.
- 1080p resolution feels dated, although experts say 4K wouldn't make a noticeable difference on a screen this size.
- Color accuracy is a little off with the default setting, though much better when using Movie mode.
- Backlight is a little dim around the edges and corners of the display.
Takeaway: If you need a spare TV on the cheap, perhaps for the kids or for a bedroom, this cheap 39-inch TV from Best Buy's in-house Insignia brand has surprisingly good picture quality for just a little over $200, and it's a Roku smart TV to boot.
LG 43UJ6300 Review
- Supports 4K and HDR content; many competitors at this price do not.
- Picture is sharp with bright colors and good contrast.
- Easy to set up and use.
- Surprisingly good audio quality.
- 4.5 out of 5 stars from more than 1,500 reviewers on the Best Buy website.
- Picture deemed a little too dark in expert testing.
- Settings may need to be tweaked to make the picture look just right.
- Some reviewers find the instruction manual lacking.
- WebOS smart TV interface includes ads.
Takeaway: For those who want a smaller but still sizeable smart TV with HDR and an impressive 4K display, the LG 43UJ6300 is a good choice. It's surprisingly cheap given its features, picture quality, and premium brand name.
Vizio M65-E0 Review
- Excellent overall picture quality for the price, with very good contrast and range of color in expert testing.
- Support for 4K and HDR content, which looks great to experts' eyes.
- Smart TV with built-in Chromecast system.
- CNET Editors' Choice.
- PCMag Editors' Choice.
- Limited number of streaming apps available through the TV interface, although users can access more using Vizio's SmartCast on a mobile device.
- No tuner built in, so no direct access to over-the-air programming.
- Smart TV interface is a little sluggish.
Takeaway: The Vizio M65-E0 impresses experts with amazing picture quality, especially when showing HDR content. Although its streaming platform isn't as robust as Roku, this TV outperforms competing sets that cost much more. (For an even cheaper 65-inch TV, look to Vizio's D-Series and E-Series; the 65-inch models are bigger versions of our top budget picks from Vizio.)