Whether you’re gearing up for the return of live sports or gaming on your new PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X, you’ll want a good smart TV set up in your living room. Now’s a great time to consider your options given the upcoming Amazon Prime Day 2021 sales event, too. But with literally hundreds of TV models to choose from, however, it’s hard to know where to start. While you might have an idea of the basic features you want from your TV, like size or resolution, those are likely available from a variety of brands. So which one is right for you? To help you navigate the messy world of TVs in 2021, we put together a brief starter guide to the leading TV brands, their similarities and their differences.
The best TV for you: How much does brand matter?
As a tech writer, I’m constantly testing new TVs and home theater equipment. When my friends and family are ready to buy a new TV, they often start with a simple question: Which brand is the best? And if you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet you asked Google the same thing.
Brand is not as big a signifier of quality as you might expect, though. Sure, there are budget-focused brands out there like Insignia or Element, which are noticeably lower quality than the well-known names like Samsung, LG and Sony. But each of those big brands has high-end models and low-end models, and the TV you choose likely has more to do with the individual set’s features rather than the name on the bezel.
That said, there are some small patterns among how each manufacturer develops their TVs. So let’s talk about where those big brands excel, which might help you narrow down your search — if you want to dig deeper, check out our full TV buying guide.
LG TVs: Best OLED TVs for movies and gaming and decent budget LED models for big groups
LG is the perfect example of “brand isn’t everything”: Its top-end models are some of the absolute best TVs you can buy today, while their midrange and budget models are a bit less enticing (in most cases).
LG’s CX OLED TV is widely regarded as the best TV you can buy today, even though it’s last year’s model. It boasts perfect black levels that make the picture pop right off the screen (with incredible clarity for gaming, to boot). If you can afford it, it’s hard to go too wrong with this self-lighting OLED. While it’s certainly an investment, the slim design, detailed picture and Dolby Vision IQ and Dolby Atmos compatibility come at a price—but it’s still more affordable than its nearly-identical successor, the C1.
LG’s midrange TVs use a different type of panel than most LED TVs from other brands. These panels provide better viewing angles — colors don’t look “wrong” when you’re sitting off-center — at the cost of worse black levels. As such, they aren’t ideal for movies in a dark room. For watching daytime shows with lots of friends sitting around the TV however, they’re a solid option. And that lower price point doesn’t keep the LG from coming with some nice perks, like compatibility with smart assistant devices like Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa and Apple AirPlay 2.
Samsung TVs: Best for bright rooms and unique sets
Samsung’s TVs are all well-made, but like LG, their top-of-the-line models are where the good stuff is and their midrange models provide less value than competing brands.
Samsung is known for its QLED panels, which use Quantum Dots for fantastic color performance. Its blacks aren’t as deep as its OLED competition (namely spotted in TVs from LG and Sony), but it has a much brighter picture, making it ideal for rooms with a lot of sunlight streaming through. With Samsung’s 4K AI upscaling, the TV’s software can make non-4K content look a lot closer to its high-res counterpart. And its adaptive picture properties are designed to adjust automatically as your room gets darker or brighter.
Samsung 65-Inch Class The Frame QLED Smart 4K UHD TV (limited availability)
Samsung has also made a splash with unique TVs like The Frame, which acts as a TV when it’s on, and art when it’s off. Like other smart art frames, it offers a small selection of paintings for free (a few hundred, by my count), and a larger selection for a monthly subscription fee of $4.99/month. (I personally own this TV, and I love having something other than a black slab to look at on my wall when the TV is off.)
Sony TVs: Fantastic color accuracy and smooth motion for movies and sports
Sony offers some of the most color-accurate TVs you can buy today, with a solid smart TV interface (Google TV), good HDR performance, and incredible processing power.
Last year’s X950H is Sony’s best non-OLED TV, providing excellent brightness and color accuracy. If you like motion smoothing, it may be a better choice over Samsung’s Q90T thanks to Sony’s class-leading processing. Sony’s TVs also do a good job of “improving” low-quality video better than other brands thanks to its upscaling software, powered by the 4K HDR X1 Extreme Processor, which aims to chart objects in the images on your TV and adjust contrast for them in real time, among other things. This year’s X95J has an even better processor, but it’s not due until a bit later this year.
TCL TVs: Best smart TV platform at unbeatable prices
If you’re upset with the lack of budget-friendly options on this list, don’t worry: There’s a reason for that. While LG, Samsung, and Sony all make superb high-end sets, their budget and midrange sets are often outshined by up-and-comer TCL, which offers great picture quality for the price and a built-in Roku media player.
The TCL 6 series has, for the past few years, been widely considered the best TV you can buy for the money. It has excellent colors thanks to its QLED panel, alongside fantastic brightness and black levels for HDR movies. It also boasts next-gen gaming features for the upcoming PS5 and Xbox Series X, like variable refresh rate and auto low-latency mode. All put together, it beats out many sets twice the cost.
The 5 series is a mild step down from the 6 series, with less impressive brightness and motion, and none of the gaming features — albeit with an even more enticing price. You’re still getting 4K UHD. You’re still getting a QLED panel. You’re still getting Dolby Vision HDR and, of course, built-in Roku TV with a relatively sizable price cut.
Vizio TVs: Great performance without the bells and whistles
Vizio sets may not boast the extra features of their competitors, but if you’re watching movies on Blu-ray or through a separate streaming box, they’re great for the price.
Vizio’s P Series offers picture quality comparable to higher-end sets without the higher-end price tag. Its smart apps are lackluster and its motion smoothing isn’t as good as Sony’s, but if you don’t use these features anyway, why pay extra for them? The panel’s Quantum Dot tech promises enhanced color and the TVs also arrive with Chromecast built in.