A Black Friday cheat sheet for buying the right TV

Buying a TV is bizarrely complicated, but we break down some of the key features.

Pile of TV sales
TV sale ads can get complicated, but you can cut through the jargon with this handy guide.PopSci Staff

Picking a TV is hard, especially when the Black Friday advertisements are plastered with a seemingly infinite checkerboard of displays that promise crazy prices, and sport cryptic, jargon-filled names that are almost possible to decipher. Consider this your decoder ring. We’ll help you cut through the jargon that’s standing between you and the best television for you this Black Friday. Each subheading on this page contains common TV terms that you might find in a sale listing or hear a salesman say, so it’s easy to search on a PC or see at a glance if you’re looking on your phone. Be prepared!

Size

  • To get the right size TV for your room, take the distance from the TV screen to the place where you'll sit to watch it. Multiply that by .84 and you'll get a roughly 40-degree viewing angle, which is optimal according to the home theater mad scientists at THX.
  • When the word “class” follows the measurement, it’s actually slightly smaller than the number. So, a 37-inch class TV measures roughly 36.5 inches diagonally. It won’t matter from a practical standpoint unless you have some kind of innate TV-measuring vision superpower.

Backlight (LED, OLED, Local Dimming, LCD)

  • Since the death of plasma TVs several years ago, just about every TV you'll find in the store is some kind of LCD screen. LCD isn't something you have to specify. It's the default option.
  • LED: Standard LED is the basic backlight tech in most TVs. There's nothing wrong with it, but don't let the salesman try to sell it as a special feature. Unless noted, the backlight comes from the edges of the screen which may cause an uneven look.
  • LED with local dimming: This is a step up from regular LED that gives darker blacks than standard LED, which usually translates to better picture, but it can have its own issues, like streaks of light across the screen. It's not always a strict upgrade, so see it in person first if you can.
  • OLED: This is the top-notch backlight that offers the darkest blacks. It's great for contrast, but some viewers don't like the colors, which sometimes favor vibrance over accuracy. Scope it out in the store before Black Friday to see if the difference is worth paying for.
  • QLED: Quantum dots use different tech than OLEDs, but they can produce extremely high-quality picture that rivals its organic counterparts. There’s a solid explainer on how the quantum dots actually work here. Samsung’s QLEDs are some of the best TVs around, so if you find a solid deal, don’t let the fact that it’s not an OLED dissuade you from it.

Resolution (HD, UHD, 1080p, 4K, 2160p)

  • 1080p (High-definition, or HD): 4K has become the standard, but you might see a few 1080p options kicking around in the cheapest segments of the market. This is fine if you watch a lot of older content (like DVDs), have a slow internet connection that’s bad for high-res streaming, or you’re just trying to get the lowest possible price. The term 1080p means that there are 1080 rows of pixels measured vertically up the screen.
  • Ultra high-definition, or UHD (4K or 2160p): Higher- resolution screens have four times the pixels of 1080p sets. By now, streaming services are slinging 4K streams and upscaling technology has gotten good enough that you can watch regular HD content without noticing much degradation.
  • 8K: It’s unlikely that you’ll encounter any 8K TVs on sale for Black Friday since there are only a few models on the market and they sit firmly in rich person territory. 8K is coming, but it’s still yearso off from booting 4K out of the spotlight, so don’t let the eventual transition stop you from buying a good 4K TV today.

Smart TV

  • “Smart” means the TV can connect to the web and run apps natively to watch content without the need for an external box like a Roku, Apple TV, or gaming console. (You can make a standard television “smart” by just plugging one of those in it.) Samsung uses its own platform called Tizen. LG employs a platform called WebOS. Sony typically uses Google’s smart TV platform. They all have their advantages and disadvantages, so if there’s a specific app you want to use, check its availability before making a purchase.
  • Some TVs use third-party streaming platforms like Toshiba and Insignia’s panels that use Amazon’s Fire TV OS. TCL also makes displays that natively run Roku’s software, which makes for an easy transition if you’re already using an external Roku box.

HDR (High-dynamic range, Dolby Vision, HDR10)

  • High-dynamic range offers expanded colors and more details during playback. If you're moving up to 4K, this is worth some extra cash, as it makes a noticeable difference.
  • The two major HDR protocols are Dolby Vision and HDR10 (which includes HDR 10+). From a practical perspective, both are fine and many sets support several protocols. If you’re attaching a streaming box you already own (or you plan on buying), check its compatibility just to be safe.

HDMI (HDMI 1.4, 2.0, 2.0a, 2.0b, 2.1)

  • You can never have too many HDMI ports. Count the things you want to plug into your TV and don't go lower.
  • The two common types of HDMI port you'll encounter are 1.4 and 2.0. For UHD televisions, you want at least 2.0 to get maximum color, resolution and framerate. For 1080p, 1.4 will work fine, but may have compatibility issues with newer, UHD media sources.
  • HDMI 2.1 is the newest protocol. It’s futureproof for a bunch of crazy stuff that won’t be real for a long time, like 10K resolution. It’s not bad to have, but probably not necessary.
  • Cheap HDMI cables are still fine. Look for the "high-speed" designation, but don't pay extra for a cable just because it says "4K" on the box. You don't need it.

Motion smoothing (60 Hz, 120 Hz, 240 Hz)

  • This refers to the number of times the screen refreshes in a second.
  • 120 Hz is standard, but 60 Hz is still common on cheaper sets.
  • "Motion smoothing" often makes content look like a soap opera and is best left off, so paying extra for high refresh rates is often a bad investment unless you're a heavy gamer, where smooth motion is better.
  • Some TV’s like LG’s high-end panels support technology like Nvidia’s G-Sync. This is useful if you’re using your TV as a monitor for PC gaming and you have a compatible graphics card.

Pricing

  • Retail prices on TVs are all over the place, so check a site like Amazon to make sure an inflated original number isn't making it look like a bigger deal than it is.
  • Paying extra for a specific brand is a bad strategy unless you have a compelling reason. Companies make wide ranges of TVs, some of which are better than others. Some brands like Westinghouse, Element, and Polaroid are exclusively value brands (and their performance shows it), but the heavy hitters like Samsung, Sony, and LG also make cheap TVs meant for low price points.
  • Don't forget to check for deals on things like mounts and other accessories you might need to accommodate your new TV, especially if it's a lot bigger than your old set.
  • If you miss out on the TV you want on Black Friday, hold out until Super Bowl season rolls around. Mid-January to early February is one of the best times to buy a TV, other than the day after Thanksgiving.