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I Review TVs for a Living: Here’s How to Pick a Budget Model That Isn’t Terrible

Shopping for one of today’s best TVs is like being in the market for a new car. A seemingly endless list of manufacturers produces many different models, with plenty in common regarding performance, add-ons and value. Where do you even begin?

Let’s make one thing clear: Every brand makes one or two duds. And in the case of TVs, these lesser-quality sets aren’t always tied to the price you’ll pay. We should expect more from a higher-priced model, but this isn’t always the case.

I felt inspired to write this budget TV shopping guide after spending several weeks with a 65-inch Amazon Fire TV Omni Series. At $500, the Omni is an ultra-affordable set with an impressive range of features and a picture that doesn’t look half bad. But it’s technically an “entry-level” TV, so shouldn’t I be complaining about a lot more or wishing for things that aren’t there? Not necessarily. (Editor’s note: there’s a reason we named the Fire TV Omni Series the best 65-inch TV under $500.) There are all kinds of give-and-take considerations when shopping for a TV.

The discerning shopper really can score an awesome budget TV that looks and feels more like a mid-tier model than a cookie-cutter markdown. So when you’re shopping for affordable flat-screen TVs, you need to know which features are worth sacrificing, and which features are necesities to avoid getting ripped off.

After reviewing both budget TVs and premium OLED TVs for SPY, I’ve learned how to spot a TV deal that’s too good to be true. Keep reading for SPY’s budget TV shopping guide and find out how to shop for an affordable TV like a pro.


Is Lighting Technology Worth Losing on a Budget TV?

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Courtesy of Samsung

When shopping for any TV, one of the most significant considerations is how big you’re willing to go. While you don’t want a TV that will dominate your viewing space, you also don’t want one that’s hard to watch from a distance or under certain lighting conditions.

One of the biggest selling points of many budget TVs is that you can score a monolithic size for far less than you’d pay for a top-shelf name like Samsung or LG. But in the grand scheme, what are you sacrificing to score a giant screen for only a few hundred bucks? In most (but not all) cases, one of the first things that will fall by the wayside is the type of lighting your TV uses for backlighting.

The best TVs on the market use LED lighting systems, but there are two main styles: fully backlit displays with LED lights placed behind every part of the panel and edge-lit displays that usually have LED light strips along the left and right sides of the screen, and sometimes the top and bottom.

Can you guess which system is better for brightness and colors? Yes, fully backlit displays are the way to go if you want your TV as bright and colorful as possible, especially if it gets a lot of use during daylight hours.

In the case of a reputable lower-priced set like the 65-inch Amazon Fire TV Omni Series, the lighting style of choice is edge-lit LEDs. But at $500, is there a notable difference between the Omni and a TV with a fully-backlit display?

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John Velasco | SPY

Yes and no. Despite its edge-lit configuration, the Omni achieved impressive brightness levels and color volume across multiple sources. However, the tell-tale sign of LED edge-lighting is prominent during darker scenes in movies and TV shows, especially when there’s a black screen.

Blooming and light splotches can be observed, a common issue in many edge-lit sets and a clear indication that while the Omni does its best to deliver lighting to every part of the panel, it can only do so much with the LEDs it has.

So is it worth spending another $500 or more to get a Samsung or LG TV with a full backlighting system? That depends on how much you care about overall picture quality.

In my experience, it was only under specific lighting conditions that the Omni’s LED blooming was somewhat prevalent. And the Omni TV is a set that looks pretty great to begin with, more on-par with an entry-level option from a bigger name like Samsung, Sony or LG.


Does 4K Matter on a Budget TV?

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Image Courtesy of Amazon

We have good news: today, it’s hard not to find a larger-sized TV (typically 46 inches and up) with 4K resolution.

For many buyers, a set like the 65-inch Omni is the perfect gateway into a new age of pixel technology, especially if they’ve been hanging onto an older HD set (or an even older non-HD TV) for many years.

In cases like this, there will be a noticeable upgrade in picture quality no matter what brand or size is chosen, which makes the $500 price of the 65-inch Omni all the more appealing.

But similar to the quality differences between fully backlit and LED edge-lit displays, you can expect the same variances with budget-priced 4K TVs compared to the mid-tier and flagship sets of generally better names.

In terms of processing power and upscaling, higher-priced TVs usually place a bit more emphasis on the way the TV utilizes its UHD resolution to optimize any source imagery. More robust image processors will use all the pixels at their disposal to enhance everything from antenna reception to older DVDs, bringing every component closer to the jaw-dropping quality of a true 4K image.

The big selling point for a TV like the 65-inch Omni is the 4K resolution itself. Aside from some additional add-ons (more on that below), the Omni doesn’t do anything special to enhance SD and HD sources.

In my experience with the TV, I even supplied it with some crystal-clear 1080p HD material straight from my Blu-ray collection. And pixel for pixel, there wasn’t much difference between the Omni’s final processed image and that of my older 1080p HD Samsung 55-inch.

If you’re buying your first 4K TV, chances are it will look lightyears better than your last set. But if you’re the kind of person who notices picture defects, the processors and upscaling you’ll lose with a budget TV may not align with what you’re expecting, so you’ll probably want to spend a few more dollars to get a higher-quality set.


What Motion Capabilities Do You Need?

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John Velasco | SPY

Diehard action-movie buffs, heavy gamers, and sports fanatics will want a big TV with fantastic motion capabilities. And guess what? Most larger budget-priced TVs are not going to deliver.

I found that even the 65-inch Omni struggles in this department, which I was expecting in the first place. You see, there are two native refresh rates that you’ll find on all TVs today: 60Hz or 120Hz. Get the latter if you want motion blur and image tearing to be a thing of the past. The trouble is that if you’re looking to save every penny, so is the manufacturer.

After 4K, HDR options and future-proofed HDMI inputs, one of the last things that many brands choose to optimize is how efficiently a TV handles motion. I would say that most entry-level (and even mid-tier) TVs struggle with motion in one way or another. And don’t buy into all of the “480 Motion Boost+” lingo. These are digital motion enhancers that many TV makers boast about, claiming that certain sets can deliver refresh rates higher than 120Hz. It’s either 60Hz or 120Hz, plain and simple.


Know Your TV Inputs

Buying a newer TV doesn’t automatically guarantee that its HDMI inputs will be cutting-edge and future-proofed. And in many cases, budget TVs will have less-capable HDMI ports than their higher-priced siblings, as well as fewer physical inputs overall. 

In the case of the 65-inch Omni, the TV is equipped with four HDMI inputs, with three being classed as 2.0 ports and the last as a 2.1 eARC port. While a higher-priced set may have four HDMI 2.1 inputs and an eARC option, the Omni’s aforementioned HDMI specs aren’t too shabby, especially considering the price.

Think about your TV needs both now and in the future. Are you constantly buying the latest and greatest game systems, streaming devices and disc players? If so, spending more on a TV with two or more HDMI 2.1 ports may be better. In terms of ancillary ports, you’ll find USB, digital optical and various analog outputs on most of today’s sets (although analog connections are fast becoming a thing of the past). But exactly how many of these inputs and outputs do you want your TV to have?

In my experience, it doesn’t matter if you’re spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on a modern 65-inch TV because whether or not the set will feature more than one set of USB ports or a dedicated set of RCA outputs boils down to the manufacturer.


Consider Additional Picture Perks

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John Velasco |

HDR (High Dynamic Range) is a big-ticket picture feature you’ll want to watch when shopping for your new TV. HDR allows an HDR-capable TV to deliver movies and TV shows with added brightness and color volume, making for a final picture miles above what you’d get from a regular HD or UHD source.

Even budget TVs should be capable of tackling one or two HDR formats, and the 65-inch Omni doesn’t miss a beat on this. This TV can decode Dolby Vision, HDR 10 and HLG codecs, which is pretty much on par with the kind of HDR skills you’ll find on most higher-priced sets.

And in my experience with the set, there was a pretty notable difference between HDR and non-HDR content — certainly enough to justify caring about the picture standard and making that $500 buying price look like a steal. But this isn’t always the case with a budget set. Heck, for any TV. Some sets are designed to handle fewer HDR formats than others, so keep that in mind when shopping.


What Smart Features Do You Want in a Budget TV?

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Courtesy of Amazon.

Similar to how the vast majority of TVs sold today are 4K sets, it’s hard to find a TV that isn’t “smart” in some way. But like all other shopping criteria we’ve discussed, there’s a big difference in the types of smart features a budget TV can handle.

In the case of the 65-inch Omni, this is a great smart TV (even better considering the price). Not only did I have instant access to a content-packed app store that covered everything from movies and TV show platforms to news and games, but the Omni also can be used as an Alexa-powered “hub” to control all of your home’s smart devices, such as door locks, security cameras and web-connected plugs.

This was something I was looking forward to trying out, seeing as an Alexa ecosystem powers my existing smart home devices. And trust me, it was a thrill to be able to aim voice commands to the TV and watch the smart lights toggle on and off throughout my apartment.

That being said, a handful of budget TVs will only give you the basics when it comes to smart stuff, which might be as simple as access to Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, a wonky web browser or even less. Of course, the higher-priced models should give you an experience closer to the Omni (or better). But if all you care about is your Netflix subscription and the size of your set, a budget TV with basic smart options may not be that bad of a deal for you.

Like everything else, it’s a matter of balancing the features you can’t live without with the add-ons and specs you don’t need.


Our Top Recommendation: The Amazon Fire TV Omni Series 65-Inch TV

As soon as a better budget smart TV comes out, we’ll let you know. Until then, this Amazon-brand line of smart TVs is your best bet on a budget. For the record, TCL, Vizio and Toshiba all make solid TVs that won’t cost you a ridiculous amount. In addition, while Samsung does specialize in high-end QLED (and now OLED) TVs, the company does have some solid mid-range and budget offerings worth a closer look. You can find more shopping recommendations in SPY’s many TV shopping guides:

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Courtesy of Amazon


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