4K and smarts are a must — here's your guide to buying a TV in 2019

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Tue July 2, 2019

Story highlights

  • Here's your go-to guide for buying a TV in 2019
  • We rank our favorites from Samsung, Amazon Fire TV Edition and TCL

There are tons of TVs to choose from in 2019. As the technology has advanced (and boy oh boy, has it advanced in recent years!), the many different models have become confusing and the lines between them are blurring.

With HD models, there are different variants of HD, and the same goes for 4K and the approaching arrival of 8K as a mainstream technology. On top of that, each brand has a different design methodology and allegiance for the smart OS. The result is a confusing market that might end up with you spending a whole lot of dough on a new screen.

At the end of the day, you want a TV that fits you and your lifestyle, one that allows you to easily watch your content with a clear picture that delivers crispness and vibrancy.

We'll be diving into specifics like 4K, refresh rates, number of ports and smarts. But if you're in a hurry, here's a quick summary:

  • 4K makes sense now more than ever. Sure, there isn't a lot of 4K content readily available yet, but you're future-proofing yourself with these models. Plus, the price has come down considerably since these first arrived.
  • Plenty of ports is always a good thing. Chances are you have a cable box, a streaming box and maybe a DVD player or gaming console. And you'll want to have plenty of HDMI ports so that you can plug them all in.
  • Opt for a smart TV. Most of the TVs you're looking at will have a smart functionality built in. This means you can stream from Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and many other providers right out of the box with no third-party box. However, do a little research and pick a smart OS that works for you. TCL's Roku TV provides a ton of channels, but Amazon's Fire TVs are great if you're invested in that ecosystem.

With those basics out of the way, you can scroll down to see our top models, or keep reading our deep dive into these points.

4K is the way to go

It's been a few years since 4K models started hitting the market, and that is a good thing. As these TVs have become more common, the price has come down, and availability is plentiful. Samsung, Vizio, Sony, LG, Amazon and TCL, just to name a few, all offer 4K models. Another name you might see is UHD (ultra high definition), and this is just another term for 4K. With either of these, you get four times as many pixels as on a traditional 1080p HD panel.

The result is an image that's much sharper and crisper, and you'll probably notice it as soon as you watch just a few frames. You'll see the biggest difference when watching 4K content, but there isn't a whole lot of it available currently. Cable companies aren't broadcasting every channel in ultra high definition yet, and a lot of the content is found on streaming services or YouTube. Many Netflix or Amazon Prime originals go up to 4K, and your 4K TV can take advantage of these.

Even so, there is a gap between HD and 4K content. To help solve this, TV brands offer 4K upscaling through proprietary algorithms and software built into the panels. This allows the TV itself to make HD content look better, and most models will allow you to customize this to your liking.

Alongside 4K, you'll likely see the term HDR, which stands for high dynamic range. This is not the same thing as 4K, but essentially a technology that can work alongside it. HDR delivers a better image that lets more light and color into the frame. It's not just software that goes on top of all content. You'll need an HDR panel and HDR content for this to come through. Simply put, if you want more colors, HDR is a good feature to get and has the same advantage as 4K as far as future-proofing.

The higher the refresh rate the better.

When you start shopping for a TV, you'll see specs of 60Hz, 120Hz or even 240Hz. These numbers are the refresh rate of the TV -- essentially, how many times per second the panel will refresh itself. This is crucial for fast-paced action movies with car chases, watching sports, and of course gaming. But for all kinds of viewing, the higher the refresh rate, the better the panel, as it affects what you're seeing by reducing motion blur.

A good rule of thumb is to get 120Hz or above. You're setting yourself up for the future and you'll enjoy the content a bit more.

You can never have enough ports.

The number of ports on the back or side of your TV ultimately decides the number of external devices you can have plugged in. And sure, you can get a switch down the line to turn one port into two or three, but it's a native experience. Think about it this way: If you subscribe to cable, you'll need to plug in a cable box, so that's one HDMI port down. You might also have a streaming box, a game console and a DVD player. Just like that, you have four devices that require four HDMI ports.

There's a pattern here, and it's good to set yourself up with a little wiggle room. I'd say three or four HDMI ports is a good way to go, and most TVs will hit this requirement.

Opt for a smart TV.

In 2019, it might be a little difficult to find a TV without some smart functionality. Whether it's a full-on smart hub, Google Cast or AirPlay 2 support, or even just a few streaming apps available, almost all brands provide something. And this is good for you, as it's one less thing to worry about.

Samsung's smart TVs not only offer easy access to streaming services, but they integrate with SmartThings. This is the company's smart home control panel and is a nice feature. Plus many Samsung models offer support for Google Cast and Apple AirPlay 2, which allow you to stream content from your phone to the TV.

Vizio also offers AirPlay 2 support on select models, which is terrific for those in the Apple ecosystem. Plus it has a full smart hub with access to streaming services and a companion app for iOS and Android. Sony and LG models also offer proprietary smart TV interfaces, each with its own twist.

Roku partners with a plethora of brands, including TCL, for Roku smart TVs. Essentially you get a Roku box with all the channels and streaming services built right into the TV. And the TCL models pair it with a very simple remote and a huge value. On the other side, Amazon works with Insignia and Toshiba for Fire TVs. These televisions run on Amazon's Fire OS and feature Alexa.

Now let's walk through our top picks. We'll be adding to this article in the future, as we test more models.

Affordability and Smarts: Amazon Fire TV Edition with Dolby Vision

Amazon's latest Fire TV Edition brings a higher end feature down to an affordable price. The new 43-inch, 50-inch and 55-inch models feature Dolby Vision on top of 4K UHD at 60Hz. And at $329.99, $379.99 and $449.99, that's an impressive value even with a slightly lower refresh rate. These TVs have the smarts of Fire TV streaming stick or box built in, and yes, that means Alexa is inside. You also get three HDMI ports on the back.

Sure, it's a bit of a thicker TV, but at this price point, you can't really argue with the design too much. It's a value model that brings a lot to the table. I got to try one at the launch event and it worked pretty well, with clear imaging. One thing to note is that as with HDR, in order to take advantage of Dolby Vision, the content needs to be made for it. Even so, this is a great starter 4K TV that would be perfect for a dorm room or family room.

Impressive Value: TCL 6-Series Roku TVs

  • 55-inch ($499.99, originally $799.99; amazon.com)
  • 65-inch ($699.99, originally $1,299.99; amazon.com)
  • 75-inch ($1,399.99, originally $1,599.99; amazon.com)

TCL has certainly made a name in the United States for providing an impressive value at the price point. And the brand's 6-Series Roku TVs fit the mold -- especially right now, when. Amazon has slashed the prices for some excellent buys. I've been testing the 55-inch model and it performs pretty well.

For starters, these are all 4K UHD models with both HDR10 and Dolby Vision. Both of these standards work to deliver an impressive image for eligible content. It has four HDMI ports and a 120Hz refresh rate.

Whether it was a movie, a favorite TV show or even gaming, the 6-Series did well. TCL has some other customizations at work to deliver solid contrast and accurate color reproduction. All in all, this TV does a great job producing an image that is enjoyable to watch, plus you can access plenty of streaming services with Roku OS onboard.

Stunning Picture: Samsung QLED Q60R 55" ($899.99, originally $1,199.99; samsung.com)

Samsung's QLED or Quantum Dot models offer an incredibly high level of detail in colors, vibrancy, contrast and just the pleasure of watching content on these TVs. The Q or Quantum Dot series is the top of the line for Samsung and is broken into the Q6, Q7 and Q8 models. This 55-inch TV meets the standard for 4K UHD with 240Hz and Quantum HDR 4X. These specific names are Samsung's own customizations and proprietary tweaks to deliver a sharp and vibrant picture. You can control this TV via SmartThings, Amazon Alexa and even the Google Assistant. Plus you can access tons of content through the smart hub and even control your smart home through SmartThings.

If you care about the picture and want it to be the best possible, Samsung's QLED line is worth a look. Samsung's Q60R also comes in 43-inch, 49-inch, 65-inch, 75-inch and a massive 82-inch model. But for most users, the 55-inch or 65-inch model will likely do just fine.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailers' listed prices at the time of publication.