How to find the best TV to watch the big game

The Super Bowl kicks off this Sunday. While I’ll spend the day devouring nachos, millions of other Americans will actually follow the big game on TV.

If you want to watch the game on a new big-screen, you’re in luck, because retailers across the US have annual Super Bowl TV sales. But buying a new TV can be frustrating. You might see a solid set at a ridiculously low price, get it home, and find out it’s a dog — no offense to dogs.

To make sure you get the big screen TV that fits your needs, and budget, I’m breaking down exactly what you should look for in a new TV.

Ignore the jargon

One of the worst aspects of TV shopping is the corporate jargon manufacturers use to describe industry-wide technologies. Whether that’s a special name for a display’s refresh rate or how they market 4K resolutions, it just makes things more complicated for you, the consumer.

The main specs you want to look for when buying a TV are its size; the type of display technology it uses; and, if it’s LED, the kind of backlighting it uses; and its refresh rate.

Get a TV that fits your space

I’ve been nagging my wife forever about how I want a TV large enough to blot out the sun. Barring that, I’d settle for a 75-inch set. But my Astoria, Queens apartment isn’t big enough for either of those.

I'd love to pack this 75-inch TV into my apartment, but it'll simply be too large for my space.  (Picture: LG)

I’d love to pack this 75-inch TV into my apartment, but it’ll simply be too large for my space. (Picture: LG)

That said, a 32-inch set would be far too small for my living room, making the players in Sunday’s game look like ants rather than 300-pound monsters.

The point is, before you buy your new TV, make sure it fits your space. Buy a TV that’s too large, and too close to your couch, and you’ll crane your neck to see the entire picture. Get a TV that’s too small, and you’ll squint to watch your favorite shows.

Display types

When it comes to TVs, you can find two types of screen technology: LED and OLED. The most common models on the market, LED TVs also cost less than OLED models. They’re great if you’re watching TV in bright environments, but they don’t offer the same contrast and color as OLED-based models.

The basic difference between the two models is that LED TVs passively light up the screen’s pixels by passing light through filters. OLED panels, meanwhile, light up individual pixels on their own. The idea is that while LED TVs can be brighter, OLED screens can create pitch black colors, since they can literally turn off individual pixels.

While LED panels are less expensive than OLED models, there are a few different ways that manufacturers use LEDs to light up their TVs. Some sets use edge lighting, which means that strips of LEDs run along the left and right sides or top and bottom of the TV.

TV's with LED backlights are generally good choices for any lighting environment.  (Picture: Vizio)

TV’s with LED backlights are generally good choices for any lighting environment. (Picture: Vizio)

Edge lighting, though, can create areas where light bleeds into scenes where it shouldn’t otherwise be. I’ve got an edge-lit LG TV, and while watching “Yellowjackets,” night scenes with campfires looked washed out due to the light from the fire bleeding into the dark surroundings. It’s not a killer deal, but if you want the best picture, it could be a turn-off.

Other types of LED TVs use a full-array backlight, which helps with this issue, but it’ll never look as perfect as an OLED TV.

Companies like Samsung also offer what’s called QLED TVs, which add a layer of quantum dots that allow for improved color and contrast. They’re certainly an upgrade over standard LED TVs, but they’re still not going to match the capabilities of OLED.

Finally, there are new mini OLED TVs. These are TVs that, you guessed it, use smaller LEDs in their backlights. As a result, manufacturers can pack in more mini-LEDs into a TV than they would with regular LEDs, making for better color and cutting down on light bleed. They do this using a technique called local dimming, which means that the LEDs that produce light in a darker section of an image are dimmed, giving your content a better overall contrast.

This exploded view of a TCL television shows how mini-LED technology uses smaller LEDs packed closer together to allow for better control of the TV's backlight.  (Picture: TCL)

This exploded view of a TCL television shows how mini-LED technology uses smaller LEDs packed closer together to allow for better control of the TV’s backlight. (Picture: TCL)

Then there’s the mother of all TV display technologies: MicroLED. This uses millions of individual LEDs to power each on-screen pixel, allowing for perfect blacks and bright whites. It’s the best of both LED and OLED, but it’s also incredibly expensive. So chances are you’re not going to snag one of these unless your bank account has three commas in it.

If money is no object, go with an OLED TV. If you’re looking to save, then check out a mini-LED TV or QLED with a full-array backlight. Opt for a standard edge-lit LED if you’re on a budget.

HD, 4K, and 8K

A TV’s resolution measures the number of pixels that make up its display from left to right and top to bottom. The higher the resolution, the more pixels a screen has, and the sharper details look. So you should buy a TV with the most pixels possible, right? Not really?

Full-HD TVs have a resolution of 1920×1080, which is a little more than 2 million pixels. A 4K TV has four times the number of pixels as that, while 8K TVs have 16 times the number of pixels than full-HD TVs.

But to get the most out of a 4K TV, you’ll need a screen size of roughly 50 inches. Any smaller and you won’t notice any real difference between a full-HD panel and a 4K display while sitting on your couch simply because all the pixels are so jammed together. You’d have to get real up close and personal with your TV to actually see any real difference.

Looking at a 55-inch TV? Then go for 4K. When should you get an 8K TV then? Probably never.

Refresh rates

This last major spec to watch for is your TV’s refresh rate, or the number of times a screen updates with new information per second — listed as hertz. A standard TV has a refresh rate of about 60Hz. High-end TVs can have refresh rates of up to 120Hz, so the screen will refresh 120 times per second.

A higher refresh rate means a crisper image. That’s especially important if you’re going to be gaming on your new TV. If you want the best image, go for 120Hz. If you don’t need it, and are fine with the way a 60Hz model looks, grab that instead.

Finally, manufacturers find different ways to make their TVs’ refresh rates sound faster than they really are. Your best bet is to do your research and check a manufacturer’s site for the TV’s native refresh rate.

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