Rich Warren | A little assistance for TV shoppers

Rich Warren | A little assistance for TV shoppers

Here's the most popular reader question of the year so far: "I want to buy a new TV, maybe a 50-inch or so. I had looked forward to the new models that seem to come out around Christmastime, but nothing caught my attention. I do not have any special requirements. It should be reliable, which lets out Samsung in my experience. Simple to use.Modern features. Simple to use (that counts double). Can you recommend a make and model and dealer?"

Small differences separate TVs these days. Even the least expensive models are better than the best comparable screen sizes from five years ago. TVs resemble automobiles in hierarchy and trim levels. The base-level Honda Civic performs pretty much the same as the luxury edition.

You have two choices when picking a TV. You can select a brand the provides good picture quality but is "disposable," or you can pay a bit more for a repairable brand with marginally better picture quality. Among budget TVs, Visio shines. It's available only at big-box stores or on the internet. When the set breaks, find a TV recycler. Visio offers four "trim" levels, and its top-of-the-line P-series delivers an impressive picture.

LG probably is the brand to beat. Although we've given the company hard knocks for service, its sets are serviceable over the long term. LG remains the only company manufacturing large-screen OLED TVs. (Sony uses LG displays in its OLED models.) LG also markets good inexpensive TVs, although you'll pay slightly more than you would for a Vizio, TCL or Hisense with similar picture quality. Incidentally, Chinese TCL manufactures some subassemblies for Samsung, the other major Korean TV brand.

You don't have to spend much for a great TV these days. Since our reader asked about a 50-inch screen size, he can find a premium 4K/UHD model for about $500. If he wishes to forgo 4K, he can find that size for about $350. I recommend choosing a 4K/UHD model.

Nearly all TVs are now "smart" TVs, meaning that they can connect to the internet to stream programming. It also means the TV manufacturer can monitor your viewing habits. The brand of TV determines which online services, such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc., you can receive. Most people prefer to connect using a Roku stick, Amazon Fire or Google Chromecast, which can cost as little as $35.

The bad news is that no matter what TV you choose, it can be ridiculously difficult to operate. Manufacturers populate their remote controls with more buttons than ants at a picnic. It makes you wonder if they price the TV per button rather than screen size. A few premium TVs come with voice-activated remotes or allow using your smartphone as the remote. LG should be embarrassed by the remote control for my expensive LG OLED TV. If automobiles were this difficult to operate, the MTD would be minting money. Then again, cars are becoming this difficult to operate.

Where to buy a TV remains a sensitive question, as any dealer I leave out feels insulted. First and foremost, do not buy any TV larger than 32 inches on the internet. Second, choose a local store over a big-box store. Local dealers provide more hand holding and honest, personalized service. We have four fine local TV dealers in the Champaign-Urbana area. I've been pleased with the service provided by Good Vibes in my recent TV purchase, for which I paid the same price as the big-box store. At the same time, I highly respect Glenn Poor's Audio/Video and Picture Perfect Sound. Both of these shops specialize in elaborate home theater. Glenn Poor's also continues the noble tradition of audiophile sound systems.

Choose a dealer that allows returns if you're not satisfied. What you see in the store isn't always what you'll see at home.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. Email him at hifiguy@mchsi.com.

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