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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 internet-enabled smart TVs

A couple discuss televisions while shopping at Best Buy

Boston Globe/Getty Images

En español | Now that most of us have been forced to spend more time at home for nearly a year — yes, it has been that long — many are considering an upgrade to that one window on the world mounted to the wall.

After all, you're probably watching more news than ever before, not to mention sports that has returned to TV. Plus several streaming services have content worth bingeing.

But TV terminology probably has changed since the last time you purchased a television, especially if you bought in anticipation of the end of analog TV broadcasts in 2009. And it can be overwhelming to wrap your head around the latest phrases, acronyms and industry jargon. Here's a handy glossary to help you take advantage of sales before the Super Bowl or any time of the year.


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4K should be a minimum

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

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 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. (But the number of pixels vertically in a 1080p HDTV is 1,080, so that can add to the confusion.)

Many TV providers and almost all streaming services now support 4K content, so the timing is ripe 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.

8K holds future promise

Some newer TVs already have leapfrogged to deliver 8K resolution. So 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 large television.

Another way to think about it: 8K TVs offer four times the resolution of a 4K TV and 16 times the resolution of a 1080p HDTV. It's so clear that it's like slipping on a pair of prescription glasses for the first time.

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

But 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 quality of video 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.

HDR offers brighter whites, darker blacks

While 4K or 8K refers to the resolution of the television picture, that isn't the whole story. The latest televisions also offer high dynamic range (HDR), which reproduces a wider range of brightness levels, has richer and more realistic colors, and 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.

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.

Thin OLED, vibrant QLED colors

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, Sony and Vizio all make OLED TVs.

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 unprecedented contrast with super dark blacks, these televisions are more energy efficient than other TV panel types.

As you might expect from new technology, 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. Some TV makers may brand their quantum dot TVs as QLED, such as models from Samsung, TCL and Vizio.

Smart TVs almost standard

Most new TVs today, even entry-level models, allow you to connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi. A label of smart TV allows you to access online content, be it for video streaming on services such as Amazon Video, Apple TV+ and Netflix; social networking sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter; music services such as Pandora and Spotify; and photo galleries that you might have in the cloud.

In most cases, you choose which apps you want to see on your screen, not unlike icons on a smartphone. Some smart TVs give you a full web browser too, so you can use a search engine, visit websites or play interactive games.

Also, many TV companies are integrating voice-activated personal assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant to allow users to press a button on the remote to ask a question or give a command. The voice request could be TV-related like “Play The Queen's Gambit,” “Launch cat videos on YouTube,” or “Who directed Nomadland?” or something else altogether, like “What will the weather be like on the weekend?"

A few other things to consider:

• Note that a TV with a 120 hertz refresh rate is better than 60Hz, which refers to how smooth quick motion will render on your TV. If you're into sports or video games, opt for 120 Hz.

• 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 player and soundbar to your TV.

• Consider a soundbar. The thinner TVs get, the thinner the audio tends to get, too. A soundbar can boost the audio significantly.

Marc Saltzman has been a freelance technology journalist for more than 25 years. His podcast, Tech It Out, aims to break down geek speak into street speak.

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