The Best Smart TVs for the Big Game … and Everything Else
7 February 2021
I’m a little late to the Super Bowl party on this one but think of this as preparation for next year. As we’ve all been encouraged to avoid large parties due the pandemic and social distance there’s no reason not to have a great picture and sound along with smart home integration. Debbie and I are looking forward to hosting a Super Bowl party next year in our new place when we won’t have to worry about social distancing and we’ll have the ideal smart home AV solution to entertain our guests.
The TV market has been changing a lot recently, especially in terms of technology. New types of screens with organic light-emitting diode (OLED) panels and ultra-high definition (UHD, or 4K) is replacing the 1080p standard we’ve become used to. But which one should you buy? Here are the main points to consider when shopping for a new TV.
4K has become the standard for medium-sized and larger televisions from every major manufacturer. Higher resolution TVs no longer command a huge premium — you can now find a 65-inch 4K TV for under $1,000. Realistically, you’d be hard-pressed to find a TV from a major brand larger than 40 inches that isn’t 4K.
Nearly all 4K TVs have connected features that let you stream 4K content. The Roku TV, Amazon Fire TV (a favorite of mine) and Android TV platforms have enabled many TV brands to add smart TV functions without developing their own systems like LG
and Samsung do. These platforms are full of features and offer access to most major streaming services, along with features like voice assistants, local media streaming and a variety of apps. If you can’t find the apps or services you want on your TV, you can connect a separate 4K media streamer to an HDMI 2.0 port.
Most recently, support for Apple AirPlay 2 is being added to several new TVs (as well as older models) from LG, Samsung, Sony and Vizio. This lets you use your iPhone or iPad to stream content from iTunesto the TV. Apple is also releasing the Apple TV app with its Apple TV+ service on many smart TV platforms. This means you can watch Apple video content on nearly any TV without needing an Apple TV 4K, which was previously necessary.
4K content is now freely available on many streaming services and on Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, even if it hasn’t been adopted by broadcast or cable TV services yet. If you have a very fast internet connection, you can watch some great shows on Amazon and Netflix in 4K (and most new original programming on the services is being produced at that resolution). New films are also coming out digitally in 4K through various on-demand streaming services like Vudu.
As far as 8K TVs I wouldn’t hold my breath on them for now. We’re going to wait until later this year to purchase the other TVs we have planned for the house. If 8K is available then it’ll give us more options. The new HDMI 2.1 standard is designed to support 8K at four times the number of pixels of 4K. 8K TVs are currently available as premium models for significantly more money than their 4K equivalents (including OLED TVs, which are already pricier) but they aren’t going to be meaningful for consumers for a few more years, and there’s little reason to consider buying one yet.
There’s currently no consumer-ready 8K media available, and no major studios or distributors have even talked about releasing 8K movies or shows so far. There aren’t even physical or streaming media standards that let 8K video be commercially released. Currently all you’ll be able to watch is upconverted 4K video on it. So for the time being, don’t worry about 8K suddenly replacing 4K. It won’t happen anytime soon.
Thanks to new LCD and OLED panel technology, high-end TVs can display wider color gamuts and finer gradients of light and dark than before. High Dynamic Range (HDR) exceeds those limitations and uses expanded ranges with finer values. Basically, this means HDR displays can produce more colors and more shades of gray than standard dynamic range displays.
HDR is still a developing technology, and currently there are two major HDR standards out there with commercially available content: HDR 10 and Dolby Vision. Some newer HDR standards and variants are starting to pop up, but they’ve yet to see the acceptance in TVs that HDR10 and Dolby Vision ha ve. Samsung and Amazon Video are working on HDR10+, which is said to add to brightness, changing the range of bright and dark that video can display from scene to scene.
HDR content is generally rarer than UHD content, but it’s becoming increasingly available. Ultra HD Blu-ray uses HDR10 and will support additional HDR standards, and Netflix and Vudu offer Dolby Vision films and shows digitally. Whether one standard is better than the other is hard to say at this point.
Another smart home TV consideration is placement. A big TV that’s too close can be just as uncomfortable to watch as a small one that’s too far away, so don’t assume that the biggest screen available is the best choice. There are a few different rules of thumb regarding TV screen size based on your distance from it.
Generally, the distance of your couch to your TV should be between 1.2 and 1.6 times the diagonal measurement of your screen. So if your couch is 6 feet away from your screen, you can comfortably watch a TV between 42 and 60 inches. If your couch is 5 feet away, a 37- to 52-inch screen should work well. If you’re going for absolute biggest picture possible, you should think about getting a projector. Many produce massive, bright 100-inch native 4K pictures that no consumer LCD or OLED can offer. I have a friend who recently outfitted his home theater with projection and loves it.
Almost all TVs now offer web apps and built-in wifi. These features let you connect your television to the internet and access online services like Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, Sling TV, and YouTube. Many also integrate social network services like Facebook and Twitter, and many manufacturers offer entire downloadable app ecosystems with other programs and games you can use on your TV. Some manufacturers like LG and Samsung develop their own connected platforms for their smart TVs, while others like Insignia, Sony, and TCL use third-party systems like Roku TV, Amazon Fire TV (a favorite of mine) and Android TV to give their TVs apps and online services.
The perfect TV for your smart home should provide enough video connections not only for now, but for the foreseeable future as well. The most important input is HDMI, which supports all forms of digital video sources like Blu-ray players, game consoles, set-top boxes, cameras, camcorders, phones, tablets, and PCs through a single cable. Most TVs have three or four HDMI ports, but many only have two. It’s the best way to send 1080p video from your devices to your screen with a single cable. HDMI will be the primary way you connect your main sources of entertainment to your TV. If you want a 4K screen, make sure at least one of the HDMI ports is HDMI 2.0. It’s the latest standard that supports 4K video at 60 frames per second; older HDMI ports can only handle 4K up to 30 frames per second, at best.
As for the cables connecting the devices to your TVs, unless you have a huge home theater system and plan to run cables at distances longer than 25 feet, brands and prices don’t matter. The performance of high-end cables and inexpensive ones all carry digital signals similarly. More expensive cables might have a better build quality but you won’t see any performance advantages. Save some money and shop online and find the least expensive cable at the size you need.
Regarding audio, TVs have built-in speakers that function well enough in the sense that you can understand dialogue, but beyond that they’re typically pretty underwhelming. Many smart home and home theater enthusiasts improve their movie and gaming experience by getting an add-on speaker system, like a soundbar or a dedicated multi-channel home theater system.
If space is at a premium or your budget is limited, a soundbar is your best bet. Soundbars are long, thin, self-contained speakers that sit under or over your TV. Small and simple to set up, they’re also less expensive than multi-speaker systems. Soundbars generally don’t separate the channels enough to accurately place sound effects, but they’ve become quite good at producing a large sound field around you.
Besides inside the house, Debbie and I are planning to mount a smart TV on our patio. Normal consumer-grade TVs aren’t designed to be rugged and you shouldn’t use them outside. They aren’t built to handle extreme temperatures or any significant amount of moisture or dust. If you want a TV to put on your porch or deck, you need a specialized one designed for that location.
Companies like SunBriteTV make rugged TVs that can function in a much wider range of temperatures than most consumer TVs, and are protected against the elements. They’re built to be left out in the rain and snow, with a heavy chassis and shielded connection bays. That extra protection will cost you, though. Be prepared as most rugged TVs cost at least twice as much as comparable indoor TVs.
As you can see, there are a lot of things to consider when adding TVs to your smart home plan. Hopefully I’ve been able to explain and simplify the process for you a little here. As with all technology, it changes every day so don’t be in a rush to purchase a TV unless you’re ready to put the pencil down for a while and be satisfied with your decisions. Budget will probably also play a role in your choices so make sure to scrutinize all the different details of your potential choices to maximize your investment.
If you have questions or comments please share here as we’d love to hear about your thoughts or experiences regarding smart TVs. I’ve got to run now as the game’s going to kick off shortly …