Shopping for a TV

I’ve been shopping for a new large screen TV to replace a twelve year old Samsung, and it’s been quite an ordeal. Remember the book, Paradox of Choice? It’s about having so many choices that it’s impossible to reach a decision. That’s what I faced.

I did quite a bit of research in an effort to find a 55-inch set that provides excellent picture quality at my target cost (~$1000) from a brand with good reliability. Compared to just a few years ago where it was easy to understand the several types of displays, there are now hundreds of sets at a price range from a few hundred dollars to many thousands, offered from about a dozen brands. And not only are there 2023 models, but models from 2022 and even 2021 still being offered by the manufacturers.

I poured through the various reviews on line, and the best source I found was with extensive reviews of dozens of sets. It was far better than the other tech reviews sites. Consumers Report was less helpful since many of their reviews were for discontinued sets, but it did rate Sony , Samsung and LG highest for reliability. I also read dozens of reviews on Amazon. Anecdotally, the cheaper sets from HiSense, TCL, and Vizio, seemed to have more complaints about sudden failures.

All things being equal, I also preferred a set that used the Google TV operating system, matching the operating system on my other two sets. That meant Samsung and LG with their own OSes would be lower on my list. I also didn’t want a set with Roku, because of my poor experience using it on my current Samsung set. It’s been slow, often loses its WiFi connection, and has a confusing operating system filled with ads.

I visited Costco, since they offer some of the best consumer-friendly policies of any retailer: a long return window and additional years of warranty at no extra cost. But Costco had only a few sets that met my criteria. No upper-end Sony or HiSense TVs – the two brands that use Google TVOS. 55-inch sets appear to be less in demand than 65 and 75 inch screens.

What I discovered as I did my research is there are about 4 or 5 levels of image quality based on the panel technology and the electronics. There are a range of LED models with names like Crystal UHD, HDR LED, QLED, Mini-LED QLED, NEO QLED, etc. that range in price from a few hundred dollars to over $1000, and then OLEDs that range in price from about $1500 to close to $3000. OLED TV panels use a totally different technology that provides deeper blacks and better contrast. It’s the same technology used in iPhones. Just a few years ago 55-inch OLED TVs were priced in the $3K-$5K range.

I decided to visit Best Buy that had the most models of any local retailer, at least according to their website showing what was in stock at my local store. But that turned out to be a big disappointment. The TVs were arranged haphazardly, neither by screen size, price or brand, and the signage was so tiny that it was impossible to know the prices of the specific sets. I was particularly interested in viewing one of the new highly rated sets, a HiSense U8. But it wasn’t on display. The sales person suggested I could bring it home and if I didn’t like it, just return it. Right!

In terms of picture quality, the lower-end sets have pictures that fall off in brightness and contrast as you move off axis, have more image smear, and suffer from other screen artifacts, especially when watching action sports and movies. The mid-range sets have more advanced LCDs and localized backlighting to create a sharper, more contrasty image.

OLED TVs are in a class of their own in terms of contrast and consistent quality off-axis. But they have their own issue of burning in of images when a set is left on wth a fixed high contrast subject (such as a CNN bar running under the image.).

I never did find that set that met my criteria and ended up spending several hundred more for Sony’s entry level OLED set, because I often watch from a seat off to the side. I ordered it from Costco on-line, sight unseen.

After my experience at Best Buy I sent their CEO and a short note commenting on my experience at their store, explaining how I was ready to buy a set from them, but found the experience wanting. It’s been two weeks and no response.

by Phil Baker