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Buying a New TV? Here Are the Phrases You Need to Know

All the acronyms can be confusing as you shop for your next television

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AP Photo/David Zalubowski

While most of us enjoy watching TV, buying a television can be overwhelming.

If you know when to shop — in November through Black Friday and Cyber Monday, before the Super Bowl, around the spring and summer holidays such as Memorial Day and Fourth of July — you can get a high-quality big-screen smart TV for a few hundred dollars. Prices pop up much higher when you want a screen size more than 50 inches on the diagonal. 

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But all the jargon can make your head spin: 4K? HDR10+? QLED? You might need a geek-to-English dictionary just to keep up. The following primer includes some of the buzzwords you’ll likely find today.

4K should be a minimum

Your next TV will be a lot sharper. Referred to as “4K,” or sometimes ultra-high-definition TV (UHD TV), these televisions offer four times the resolution of a 1080p high-definition television (HDTV).

Instead of a screen that has roughly 2 million pixels — the little dots that make up the image — these televisions boast more than 8 million pixels.

The “p” in a 1080p HDTV doesn’t stand for pixels but for progressive scan, which renders a picture in the same way as your computer screen. Each line of these digital images is created in sequence, in contrast to old analog TVs that drew every other line and then filled in the blanks, called interlaced video.

Many TV providers and almost all streaming services now support 4K content, so the timing is right to pick up a 4K TV. But one caveat: If you’re buying a TV that’s 42 inches or smaller, it doesn’t pay to go with 4K. The screen size isn’t big enough to appreciate the extra detail unless you plan on sitting really close.

spinner image Televisions featuring 8K technology are displayed at the TCL booth during CES 2020 at the Las Vegas Convention Center on January 7, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. CES, the world's largest annual consumer technology trade show, runs through January 10
David Becker / Stringer / Getty Images

8K holds promise

Some newer TVs already have leapfrogged to deliver 8K resolution. Instead of the 8 million pixels that make up a 4K image, more than 33 million pixels result in an unbelievably lifelike and clear picture with a resolution best appreciated on a massive screen of up to 85 inches.

8K TVs are relatively expensive, and you won’t find a lot of 8K content right now. The videos are mostly limited to a handful of YouTube channels, but it is the video quality that newer smartphones can record.

Until 8K content becomes more readily available, these new televisions can “upscale” HD or 4K content to near 8K resolution. But you might want to save your money and skip 8K for now.

OLED, QLED and mini LED refer to lighting technology

Instead of a light-emitting diode (LED)-backlit liquid crystal display (LCD) television — the most popular type of panel today — some TVs use OLED (pronounced “oh-led”) screens for a superior image. LG, Samsung, Sony and Vizio all make OLED TVs.

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Televisions packed with organic light-emitting diodes are incredibly thin because each pixel is its own light source; therefore, no backlighting is required. Along with sharp color and contrast with super-dark blacks, these televisions are more energy efficient than other TV types.

But expect to pay a premium for these televisions.

Other TV makers are offering televisions powered by quantum dot technology, microscopic dots as small as one-billionth of a meter that make up the picture. These TVs generally deliver a wide, more true-to-life color palette than TVs without this technology.

While not quite as thin, quantum dot TVs generally don’t cost as much as OLED TVs. Some TV makers may brand their quantum dot TVs as QLED, such as models from Samsung, TCL and Vizio.

One more lighting-related phrase that has become a big deal is mini LED, which you might see styled as mini-LED or MiniLED. As its name suggests, mini LED televisions house tens of thousands of tiny lights behind the screen to produce a bright and even picture.

More lights packed into a small space result in more precise control of lighting levels. So you won’t see “blooming” issues the way you do with some other TV technologies, when part of a screen that’s supposed to be dark is lit up because a nearby element is brighter.

Mini LED TVs maintain their brightness even in a well-lit room and have a high contrast ratio — the difference between the least bright areas of a monitor and the brightest. Many have a “low latency” mode for smoother rendering of fast-moving scenes in action movies, sports and video games. TV manufacturers that offer mini LED TVs include Hisense, LG, Sony and TCL.

HDR offers brighter whites, darker blacks

While 4K or 8K refers to the resolution of the television picture, that isn’t the whole story. Many of today’s televisions also offer high dynamic range (HDR), which reproduces a wider range of brightness levels, has richer and more realistic colors, and features higher contrast between the brightest whites and the darkest blacks.

When seen side by side with non-HDR content, HDR-enhanced video is incredibly bright and vibrant. You also might see more televisions branded with technologies called HDR10+ and Dolby Vision, which are two improved types of HDR.

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Another feature worth looking for is local dimming. As the name suggests, local dimming can dim an area of an LED screen that calls for it while keeping the bright parts of the screen brighter.

5 Smart Features for Your Next TV

Smart TV features will be built in

Even entry-level TVs allow you to connect to the internet via Wi-Fi.

These smart TVs let you access streaming video across many services, including paid giants such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ and Hulu and free ad-supported video on demand channels such as the Roku Channel, Tubi, Peacock and Pluto TV. And often you can access video on social network sites such as Facebook and TikTok, music on services such as Spotify and Pandora, and online photo galleries.

In most cases, you choose which apps you want to see on your screen, like icons on a smartphone. Some smart TVs give you a full web browser, too, so you can use a search engine, play interactive games or visit websites.

Also, many TV companies are integrating voice-activated personal assistants, such as Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. Users can press a button on the remote to ask a question or give a command. The voice request could be TV-related: “Play The Bear,” “Launch puppy videos on YouTube” or “Who directed the Barbie movie?” Or it could be something else altogether: “What will the weather be like on the weekend?”

Other things to consider

  • Have a “dumb” TV? A streaming box or stick, such as those from Amazon Fire, Apple TV, Google Chromecast or Roku, can transform a regular TV into a smart TV and cost as little as $25.
  • Higher is better. A TV with a 120 hertz (Hz) refresh rate is better than a 60Hz rate, which refers to how smooth quick motion will render on your TV. If you’re into sports or video games, opt for 120Hz or 240Hz, if offered.
  • Get more ports. Look for at least three or four HDMI ports on the side or back of the television, because this will give you more options for connecting components such as a cable box, DVD or Blu-ray player, game console and soundbar to your TV.
  • Buy a soundbar. As TVs get thinner, the audio tends to get thinner, too, lacking in a well-rounded sound that includes enough bass. A soundbar can boost the audio significantly.

This story, originally published Jan. 19, 2021, was updated to reflect advances in technology.

Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies.

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