En español | If you’re in the market for a new television, you may find that most sets you choose from will come with the ability to connect to the internet via ethernet cable or Wi-Fi.
That is essentially what manufacturers mean when they talk about smart TVs. That’s because video streaming — watching TV over the internet rather than through a cable or satellite service — has become a standard viewing option in many households.
So if you’re considering an upgrade to your window to the world mounted on the wall, you’re probably going to get a smart TV, whether you want one or not. A smart TV can be your ticket to top-notch movie and TV streaming that’s cheaper than cable TV, or free ad-supported video on demand that comes without a monthly subscription but still lets you watch a favorite show at your convenience.
“For an older audience, a smart TV is really valuable,” says Ty Ahmad-Taylor, vice president of product marketing at Facebook’s parent company, Meta. “It allows them to cut the cord with regards to paying a large cable bill for a bunch of channels they don’t want to subscribe to.”
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.
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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 (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 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 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.
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 not only to access video streaming on services such as Amazon Video, Apple TV+ and Netflix, but also 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 voice-controlled remote also makes switching among services much easier, says Dick DeBartolo, who reports on personal technology for ABC’s World News Now and goes by the Giz Wiz.
“I’m a big train fan, and I can say to my TV, ‘Show me cab-view train videos on YouTube,’ ” he says. “It’ll go find them; it’ll switch the input. It takes everything else off the screen and shows me the video.”
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 transforms a regular TV into a smart TV and cost as little as $25.
• 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 player, game console and soundbar to your TV.
• Buy a soundbar. The thinner TVs get, the thinner the audio tends to get, too. A soundbar can boost the audio significantly.
This story, originally published Jan. 19, 2021, was updated to reflect new information.
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.