Cord Cutter: Navigating TV Choices in 2021

What’s On TV

If you haven’t noticed, while you are becoming a cord cutter for viewing mainstream TV, technology moving from high definition to ultra high definition and even creeping towards 8K.

A quick history of TV formats in the United States

The easiest way to categorize the different models available is by the image resolution displayed on the screen.

Traditional analog broadcast TV had 525 lines of resolution and is the baseline everything else is compared with.

High Definition Digital TV has 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution. This is typically called HD or 1K television.

The new Ultra HD (or 4K) TV’s feature 3840 x 2160 resolution which is four times the pixel resolution – that’s 400% more!

New TV’s bring even more confusing image choices for cord cutter

With technology it is too easy for manufacturers to avoid making hard decisions.

Engineers and designers love to put multiple features and capabilities into a product and leave it up to the consumer to sort it all out.

So HD and 4K televisions have many confusing options – multiple resolutions, different refresh rates, contrast ratio, color rendering, color range, and that’s just the beginning.

HD televisions are available in both 720 and 1080 resolution, both interlaced (“i”) and non-interlaced (“p”) versions, and 4K provides even more choices for refresh rates.

As if that wasn’t enough, the new crop of 4K televisions brings new whiz-bang features including wider color gamut, high dynamic range (in multiple flavors – HDR, HDR10, HDR10+, DolbyVision).

Don’t forget the “Talkies”

But televisions also have sound, not just video. Choices include mono, stereo, surround sound, Dolby Stereo, DTS, THX, Dolby Atmos, and more.

Add-on sound bars or full-fledged audio systems have become de rigeur because the thin-screen TV’s we relish have tiny built-in speakers that aren’t up to the job of providing decent, let alone, great sound.

Looking Behind The Screen (Tech)

The displays themselves have evolved from heavy glass cathode ray tubes (CRT) to thinner and lighter weight panels.

Just as we were getting comfortable with esoteric technical terms like liquid crystal displays (LCD) and digital light processing (DLP), the industry moved to light emitting diodes (LED) and quantum dot (QLED).

Now the industry is enticing us with the next big thing in screens being organic light emitting diodes (OLED) and micro LED.

Cord Cutter “Stream-In-A-Box” Choices

Most televisions are now smart TVs with Internet streaming built-in.

Advanced consumers will still want to purchase their own AppleTV, Roku, FireTV, or Chromecast, but basic streaming functionality is now included so you can get started cutting the cord without extra equipment.

Out Of Control?

Managing all the capability of today’s televisions is a nightmare. There are a slew of remote controls using a mix of technology – infrared (IR), radio frequency (RF), and Bluetooth (BT).

Some remotes have a built-in keyboard and even mouse pointer features, too!

For compatibility with home automation and smart home systems, many televisions include a traditional RS-232 serial communications port and most offer some kind of control via built-in WiFi and Ethernet networking.

How To Choose A TV When You Are A Cord Cutter

With so many options, changes in technology, and conflicting features, how do you choose? Let me be so bold as to provide some practical guidance.

Narrow things down right away

Eliminate a lot of the confusion and save yourself time by understanding your goals or constraints.

How is the tv going to be used?

Are you shopping for the primary television for your media room / family room or an extra TV for the kitchen or bedoom?

Are you replacing an existing TV or adding a new one?

What do you like to watch? News, Sports, TV shows, Movies, Streaming, and/or DVD’s?

How long do you watch? Every day, only a few hours?

How many people will be watching at the same time?

What is the lighting in the room – Daytime, nighttime, mixed-use, or dedicated home theater?

How much do you want to spend? Knowing how much you will spend greatly helps narrow the choices, too.

Let’s Make A Deal!

With the cost and usage defined, you can make a first pass to greatly narrow the selection by picking the approximate screen size.

Small screens (42” or less) are the most affordable and if usage is light you’ll probably shop primarily based on price – not technology or features.

Medium screens (50” to 65”) are the sweet spot with the best bang for your buck.

As this is most likely your primary family room solution, you’ll want to weigh the differences between LCD, LED, and OLED balancing cost against image quality and brightness.

Large screens will be the most expensive as you’ll want the highest quality LED or OLED technology for the best picture.

Cheap large screens are not a good value. For bigger home theater or dedicated media rooms, it may be worth considering a projector instead.

Things To Avoid As A Cord Cutter

You’ll probably connect the television to a sound bar, traditional audio video receiver (AVR), or Sonos wireless speakers for stereo or surround sound, so don’t pay a lot of attention to the built-in speakers from the manufacturer.

Avoid HD (1K) televisions. 4K has become the mainstream technology and has a lot of future growth built-in. As of now I would only advise buying a 1K TV if you have a very limited budget, see an incredible sales price, or are buying an extra TV as an impulse purchase.

Similarly, I would stay away from 8K. It is an emerging technology and may become mainstream in the future. For now it is incredibly overpriced, immature technology, and there is truly nothing available in native 8K format.

There is also discussion about whether 8K will even be viable for home use or end up as a commercial / industrial solution only. But to be fair, that’s what pessimists said about 4K when it was first introduced.

Understand That Feature Packages Are Marketing Decisions

The biggest lie in the TV industry is that you need higher resolution. For the typical American family room or bedroom, the image quality provided by a 4K television versus a 1K may not be visible to your eyes.

You must be in a larger room and further away from the TV in order for the higher resolution to make a difference. (There are industry charts and graphs that explain all this if you want to nerd out on the details.)

So why am I recommending 4K over 1K? Simple! The added features of more colors (wider color gamut) and high dynamic range (HDR) included now with almost all 4K televisions makes a huge difference in image quality.

When you go “Ooh and Ahh” comparing the 4K and 1K televisions in the store side-by-side the difference you are seeing in those perfect demonstration videos is due to HDR and wider color range – not resolution.

Bait And Switch?

The TV industry could have added HDR and wider color gamut to 1K televisions, but they decided to hold those features back and only put them into the 4K sets.

Why? The transition from analog to digital HD TV took a lot longer than expected even though the picture quality difference was huge.

The industry didn’t want that to happen again. They felt the difference between HD and 4K resolution might not be enough so they loaded 4K sets with lots of extra pizzaz to jump start sales.

Watch out for low prices on first-generation 4K televisions that do not have HDR or wider color range. Some retail chains and distributors are still trying to unload these early 4K models on unsuspecting consumers by slashing prices.

Confused Yet?

This is getting long so I won’t even start to talk about the differences between the built-in SmartTV features versus using external streaming devices such as AppleTV or Roku.

I also haven’t delved into the options for universal remote control or smart home control systems integrated with your television – that’s a huge topic unto itself for a cord cutter to control their system.

But I do want to say that I hope having read this far you understand the value of hiring a professional smart home / custom integrator. My firm, DoItForMe.Solutions can help guide you through the confusing array of choices and products.

It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. I work with clients both locally and across the country. I’ll help you help you navigate the jungle of products, choices, and options.

A quick telephone consulting session is often enough to help you understand your options. You so can do-it-yourself buying and installing the right products while saving hundreds or thousands of dollars and hours of your time.

Naming Names!

I get annoyed when my questions get answered from other experts with “it depends” or “they are all good”, so with all the usual disclaimers implied here’s what I am buying for myself these days:

Screen size – 65” for general use, 77” or larger for family room / media room

Screen technology – OLED when I can afford it, high quality LED otherwise

Manufacturer – I am having great results with LG right now

Streaming boxAppleTV 4K (We’re a big Apple household)

Control systemLogitech Harmony Elite/Pro (but others too)

What Do You Think?

Are you considering a 4K television?


Automation technologist and problem solver

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