If you’re looking to buy a TV this Black Friday, you need to be careful not to get screwed.
By screwed, I mean you could very easily buy a TV that doesn't give you what you expect, or as critically, what you need to play games on it without sucking. And you could get stuck with a big, crappy thing you hate or barely tolerate that keeps you from buying a much better set for similar money later.
Right now, there are only two TVs I would feel comfortable advising someone who plays games and wants a 4K/HDR display to buy: the Samsung KS8000 or the 2016 Vizio P-Series. Of the two, the Samsung is the better display, but the Vizio is slightly cheaper. Almost every other 4K/HDR TV out right now feels like an enormous compromise at best, and a giant waste of money at worst.
That’s a damning statement, I realize. Below, I’ll explain 1) why most 4K/HDR TVs aren’t worth your money, 2) why the Samsung KS8000 and Vizio P-Series probably are, and 3) some potential alternatives with bigger caveats. If you see these TVs on sale this Black Friday or over the holiday, they might be worth jumping in on.
What you need to know before you buy
Here's a quick primer on what you're looking for.
4K usually means 3840 x 2160 pixels on a display, as opposed to the previous standard of 1080p, which is 1920 x 1080. But most of the stuff you’re watching is still going to be 1080p. Consoles like the Xbox One S and PS4 Pro will convert 1080p stuff to a proper 4K signal with pretty OK results.
However, cheaper TVs — even some not-cheap TVs! — are really bad at converting content to 4K. If you buy a 4K TV that doesn’t do this “upscaling” well, 1080p content might actually look worse on it than on your existing TV.
Then there’s HDR. HDR means two things, for practical purposes: how dark and bright the TV can get, and the range of color it can display. There are TVs that have great HDR capabilities, with brilliant picture quality, deep blacks and bright whites — HDR10, the most widely adopted format of HDR, supports brightness of 10 times that of the calibration standard for non-HDR TVs.
When HDR is working, it’s brilliant, and immediately apparent. It’s like someone put, say, the LED lights from a car’s brights on top of your screen (in a good way). But even if a TV says it “supports HDR,” and can accept an HDR signal from your device, if the TV can’t get bright enough and it can’t display a very deep black — that is, the darkest darks on the display aren’t cloudy, uneven, or grey rather than black — then HDR doesn’t really work.
This is where gamers are even more likely to get screwed. HDR is a new, cool thing in a lot of games, because it looks great, and it’s much easier to see than the jump from 1080p to 4K. But even on TVs that have great HDR capabilities, there’s another possible problem: input lag. Input lag is caused by the time it takes your TV to generate a picture from the signal your game console is sending. The longer the delay, the more time between what you do on your controller and what you see on the screen (and the longer the delay between something happening in the game, say, in multiplayer, and you seeing it happen). Many TVs with great pictures have input lag higher than you'd want, though your sensitivity to it might vary.
Look at it this way. It takes a game running at 60 frames per second 16.7 milliseconds to generate a frame. A 30 fps game takes about 33.3 milliseconds to generate a frame. This is why games that run at 60 fps feel more responsive — because they are more responsive. Any latency from your TV is added to how long the game takes to generate an image. Some displays get as low as 15-20 ms of lag; others hit around 30 ms. Higher than 30 ms, and you might really start to feel it. Many 4K/HDR TVs have latency sitting around 60 ms or higher.
Almost every modern TV has a "game mode" to compensate for this. Game modes disable a lot of the picture processing that adds time to how long your TV takes to generate an image. The result is faster, though not as good-looking. But some 4K/HDR TVs don't support HDR and game mode at the same time.
If I've just convinced you not to buy a 4K/HDR TV, well, maybe that's not a bad thing. It's the second half of November when I'm writing this. In less than seven weeks, every TV manufacturer is going to announce and shortly thereafter release new, better displays at CES 2017. No matter what TV you buy right now, there are better ones almost literally around the corner.
Also, prices on 4K/HDR TVs have fallen through the floor in the last six months, in part because of a lot of disruptive competition in the space. Prices on this year's TVs are going to drop even more once next year's models are announced. So maybe take a deep breath and think for a minute.
But guess what? There's never a good time to buy a TV. There's always going to be a better model and a cheaper option around the corner. It's always going to be a risk. So with that in mind, the following is a list of good 4K TVs with proper HDR support, along with their caveats. These are the TVs I think you won't hate yourself for buying in six months, massive price shifts notwithstanding. They won't always be the cheapest, but they're good deals for what they are.
The following impressions and recommendations are the result of months of research on audio/visual forums, CNET reviews and other home theater enthusiast sites — perhaps most importantly, the website Rtings.com. You’ll see numerous mentions of technical specifications and measurements of each TV’s performance, each of which comes from Rtings. It’s a great site with thorough reviews and information on 4K displays, and if you’re shopping for one this fall, I highly recommend consulting Rtings for information on the model you’re looking at. And also, as always, look at the one- and two-star reviews for the TV in question on sites like Amazon to know what can go wrong.
The Samsung KS8000
49” price (as of Nov. 21): ~$899 (Amazon)
Full disclosure: The Samsung KS8000 is the TV I bought in June of this year, after doing weeks of research. After months of use, price drops and additional research into other options, I remain satisfied with it.
The Samsung KS8000’s peak brightness is extremely high, well over the requirements listed in the HDR10 specification, and its black levels are very good. It's a great-looking TV from an aesthetics perspective, and the picture quality is excellent. It performs well in dark rooms and in bright rooms, the latter in part because of how incredibly bright the screen gets.
No, really. The KS8000 can get uncomfortably bright, with a peak brightness rating of 1472 cd/m^2. That’s in comparison to the calibration reference of 100 cd/m^2 on standard dynamic range sets.
As importantly, under game mode at 1080p, Rtings rates the KS8000 at just 20.1 ms of input lag — just over a frame. This is very good. And unlike some other displays, the KS8000 supports 4K and HDR with game mode enabled, with a display latency of 21.1 ms (or a decent 37.6 ms at 4:4:4, which doesn't matter to you if you don't understand what that means).
It's also extremely competitive on price, even if it might cost a bit more than other sets on a given day — assuming it isn't cheaper. This is a “get what you pay for” situation in many respects, one of which could be important to users without a separate AV receiver: All HDMI inputs on the Samsung KS8000 are HDR-capable, and also support game mode. Many televisions only support low latency over a specific HDMI input, such as the Vizio P-Series.
Other nice bonuses include pretty good app support, which is important — TV manufacturers are currently receiving streaming app improvements at a much more rapid clip than console manufacturers and set-top boxes. Amazon 4K content is available on Xbox One S, for example, but HDR isn't yet. The KS8000's remote also supports universal remote functionality that works fairly well.
Like a lot of current 4K/HDR sets, the Samsung KS8000's display has only decent viewing angles. This means if you're sitting across from the TV, everything should be fine. If you're, say, 6 feet or more to either side of the TV's edges and looking at it, the picture quality is not as good. The speakers are also not great.
The Vizio 2016 P (C1)
50” price (Nov. 21): ~$799 (Best Buy)
[Note: This is specifically in reference to the 2016 Vizio P model, the C1. Be sure of the year and model before you buy. Best Buy has an exclusivity agreement for online retailers and the Vizio P series. You can also buy directly through Vizio.]
If you've been paying any attention at all to 4K TVs in the last six months, discussion of the 2016 Vizio P-Series televisions has been unavoidable. When the set was announced, it shocked everyone with its full support for Dolby Vision (a competing HDR standard with currently lower adoption than HDR10, but superior potential performance), a great screen, and the inclusion of a small tablet instead of a standard remote — all at a price well below its competitors. The Vizio P-Series was so aggressively priced that it sent a series of shockwaves through the retail environment, forcing a steady, significant drop in price for just about every 4K TV on the market.
The Vizio's display is capable of really great black levels because of a technology called local dimming, where the display is lit in zones across the TV. This allows for better control of light levels and deeper blacks. The input lag on the P-Series sets is also very low, with a fantastic result of 19.1 ms at 1080p and 19.2 ms at 4K.
Also, did I mention it's cheap? The price advantage Vizio commanded at launch with the P-Series has been drastically reduced, but it's still there. The 50-inch Vizio P display sells for about a hundred dollars less than the 49-inch KS8000, for example.
In some ways, with the Vizio P-Series, you get what you pay for — and not for the better. Its display is very good, but its image processing is less so. With 1080p and below sources — say, if you don't own a PS4 Pro or Xbox One S — the Vizio P's conversion to 4K leaves a bit to be desired. Its peak brightness is significantly lower than that of the KS8000 and other TVs, though better than some competitors. Its color performance is also not as good as Sony or Samsung, though, again, it's still quite good.
But Vizio's biggest problem with the P currently is HDR performance. The P-Series launched without support for HDR10, the HDR standard being used by both Microsoft and Sony in their respective 4K/HDR-capable consoles. Vizio patched in HDR10 support over the summer with a firmware update, but there's a pretty big catch.
To get the Vizio P's awesome low-latency performance, you need to use its fifth HDMI port specifically — a port that does not support HDR. Input latency on 4K/HDR sources with the Vizio P's other HDMI inputs measures at at least 63.2 ms. That's … not ideal. Vizio is promising additional firmware updates for this issue, but for now, you should be checking online and deciding whether or not this is a deal-breaker for you on an otherwise pretty decent TV.
Oh, and the included speakers are pretty bad. Maybe take the money you conceivably save on the set and spend it on a sound bar.
The Sony X930D
55” price (Nov. 21): ~$1499 (Amazon)
Sony's X930D model has excellent picture quality and great viewing angles, so for movies and TV in big rooms, it's a great set. It has the best brightness and contrast of Sony's sets. In fact, going by brightness measurements at Rtings, it's the only set with brightness output that properly supports HDR. For games, however, it's a different story. Input lag at 1080p is acceptable, at 36.2 ms in game mode, but all 4K content on the display has a minimum of 58.8 ms of display lag. The display doesn't support game mode at 4K at this time. There are worse TVs out there to be sure, but for games, this one has some pretty big compromises. And to boot, it’s generally more expensive than many of its competitors.
That said, the X930D does have one trick that virtually every other competitive 4K/HDR set lacks: 3D support.
The LG E6 and B6 OLED displays
LG's pricey OLED televisions have been renowned for years now as the best-looking sets out there because of their black levels (note: they're also some of the few 4K/HDR displays that support 3D). With LED TVs, the pixels generate color, and a light is shined through them (this is simplifying things, but it's basically how it works). This leads to great colors but can lead to black areas in the image being "polluted" by that light, producing blacks that look more like grays of varying darkness. OLED pixels generate their own light, and blacks are created by shutting pixels off.
OLED screens don't get quite as bright as other HDR-compliant screens, but the blacks they can display make up for it (contrast is comparative, after all), at least for the E6 model. In fact, the UHD Premium Alliance certification standard — an industry agreement reached by electronics manufacturers in order to standardize HDR and 4K specifications across devices and media — has an exception for OLED screens specifying a lower required brightness, due to the deepness of their blacks.
LG's OLEDs can also be viewed from just about any angle and retain their picture quality, something even high-end TVs from other manufacturers struggle with. Other OLEDs don't get quite as bright, which is a bit of a problem. But there's a bigger issue: input lag.
LG's OLEDs have middling to bad input lag performance, despite a recent firmware update from LG. At 1080p, the E6 manages 34.2 ms in game mode, which is actually perfectly fine. But at 4K/HDR, the input lag can be considerably higher, even with the recently added game mode, and, more confusingly, the lag seems to be variable. The cheaper B6 model offers much lower brightness levels, but its input lag can be lower.
The short version? LG's OLEDs are great TVs with major caveats for gamers. And it's unclear if LG can fix the problem with firmware updates. A highly anticipated software release for the 2016 OLED models this month failed to address the issue.