Let’s take a moment to thank the early-adopters, those obsessive — and often deep-pocketed — heroes who pay a premium to field-test the most cutting edge tech before it filters down into more mainstream products. They’re the reason that high definition is now the default image resolution for TVs, and why most new displays are WiFi-enabled. Soon, those intrepid pioneers might usher ultra high-def into ubiquity, or convince every flatscreen-maker to curve their screens.
But the biggest trickle-down effect in TVs is the sheer quality of today’s bargain-priced models. Here are the flat screens you can now get for less than half a grand, and with zero regrets.
Best for Smart Features
LG LF5900 43-inch LED
Tons of new TVs are smart, meaning they can sync to your WiFi and access streaming video services, such as Hulu and Netflix, without a separate device (like a Roku or Apple TV). But a manufacturer will usually use its own, proprietary interface. And most of those, based on our testing, are horrible, with layer after layer of menus, and enough hurdles to make the feature useless. LG’s webOS interface is the rare exception. It’s a joy to use, with a pane of frequently and recently-used options that pops up on the bottom of the screen, and the ability to quickly switch back and forth from streaming to live TV options. You don’t have to dig through menus or hunt down another remote. It’s the best smart TV interface anywhere, and it’s now available even on TVs at this price point. [$450; lg.com]
Best for Screen Size
Vizio E-Series 48-inch LED
Vizio has long been considered to have the best overall value in the affordable TV segment, and though it’s now branching out into premium sets — its biggest 4K display costs $4,000 — Vizio still focuses on bargain-minded models. This E-Series display is a prime example, with a 48-inch screen that’s backlit with LEDs, which has greater brightness levels and lower energy usage than traditional LCD screens. Other companies offer 48-inch TVs for the same amount, but with less screen resolution (such as 720p, instead of this one’s full 1080p HD), or without smart features. This model is smart, and though its interface isn’t as amazing as LG’s, Amazon Instant, Netflix, and Hulu are all right there, on a similar lower-screen pop-up pane. [$450; vizio.com]
Best for Even More Screen Size
TCL FS3800 50-inch LED
If 48 inches isn’t big enough, how about 50? Those two extra inches make more of a difference that you might think — screens are measured diagonally, so any increase boosts the display’s total dimensions considerably. Like our Vizio pick, this model is LED-backlit and smart. Its only drawback is image quality. TCL sets aren’t as consistently well-made as Vizio’s, so particularly eagle-eyed viewers might take issue with its slightly muted colors, and shadows that appear more gray than black. But not everyone is a stickler for saturation and contrast, and you can always play with the settings to tune the picture to your taste. This is a quality big-screen TV, for a small-screen price. [$440; amazon.com]
Best for Under $350
Samsung H5003 40-inch LED
If a price ceiling of $500 is too high for your budget, you’re going to have to sacrifice screen size. Then again, depending on the size of your last or current TV set, or your plans for a new one, 40 inches might not be a downgrade at all. This LED set skips the smart features, also not a problem if you have an existing streaming device or game console, or have convinced yourself that Netflix isn’t your thing (an honorable delusion). It also has a refresh rate of 60Hz, so the images on-screen appear at half or a quarter as quickly as many present-day TVs. This, believe it or not, is a bonus — high refresh rates are sold as a feature, but do more harm than good, turning everything that isn’t broadcast live, such as sports, into an artificially smoothed, yet also herky-jerky mess. This is often referred to as the soap opera effect, and it’s the biggest scam in the consumer electronics industry since 3D TV. A limit of 60Hz is preferable to being forced to dive into the settings, and hope that a higher refresh rate can be turned down. [$330; samsung.com]
Best for Under $200
Vizio D-Series 32-inch LED
The pickings at this price level are pretty slim. Major players like LG and Samsung are nowhere to be seen, and if you wander into a big-box store looking to spend less than $200, you might wind up leaving with something from a manufacturer you’ve never heard of, because it’s the store’s execrable, failure-prone house brand. Vizio is the safest bet, and its 32-inch D-Series LED is a solid choice for smaller room applications. Dorm rooms, bedrooms, but not bathrooms — this model is too big for quarters that close. Plus, bathroom TVs are just an urban legend, right? [$190; vizio.com]
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