Why you should trust us
I’ve reviewed TVs and home-theater equipment since 2008. I am an ISF Level II certified calibrator, so I am aware of what makes for a good TV image and how to get those things out of a TV. I have all the necessary test equipment and software to provide the objective measurements to back up my subjective opinions.
Although most TV reviews involve scrutinizing one display at a time, we actually compare the models we’re reviewing right next to each other so that we can see exactly how they differ.
Who should get this
If your TV works and you’re happy with it, stick with what you have. If your TV is dying or has already died, or if you’re looking for something a little larger, the 4K TVs covered in this guide offer great performance at a budget-friendly price, with integrated streaming services to watch your favorite movies and shows. If picture quality is your top priority and you’re willing to pay more to get a better performer, check out our best LCD/LED TV guide:
Right now the TV industry is promoting three technologies that didn’t exist a few years ago, and unlike the curved screens or 3D technology of years past, these features do provide an obvious benefit, depending on the types of sources you plan to watch. One of them—Ultra HD resolution (four times the resolution of an HD or 1080p TV, also referred to as 4K)—is common on budget TVs. The other features—high dynamic range video (HDR) and wide color gamut technology (WCG), which give you, respectively, brighter, more lifelike highlights and more colors—are less common in lower-priced models, but they’re worth looking for.
How we picked
TVs in this price range all make compromises to get the cost down, but some compromises are more noticeable than others. Our goal was to find the best 50- to 55-inch TV for under $500 that delivers a satisfying experience with the fewest drawbacks. Having darker blacks produces better contrast ratios and leads to an image that seems to offer more pop than other displays. Accurate colors that look natural are preferable to a TV image with unrealistic, oversaturated colors. A wider viewing angle makes it easier for a group of people to watch the TV while still enjoying a good picture. You won’t find a budget TV that excels in all these areas, but we wanted something that balanced affordability with performance and user-friendliness.
Because we were looking for user-friendliness, the quality of a TV’s integrated streaming platform was more important here than it is for our best LCD/LED TV picks. For TVs in this price range, the need to buy a separate streaming device might add 20 percent to the overall cost, so we favored TVs with an excellent system built in.
We looked for budget TVs with HDR and wide color gamut support, but these features weren’t essential. Even if a budget TV can accept an HDR signal, it’s usually not going to produce true HDR—because that requires more expensive local dimming functionality. Though we consider local dimming to be the most important feature on a high-end LCD/LED TV, it doesn’t always impress when implemented on budget models because it offers fewer dimming zones and is therefore less precise and effective. So the inclusion of local dimming wasn’t a requirement for our budget picks. Wide color gamut support is easier to implement, but unlike local dimming, it won’t improve the image quality for non-HDR content.
To help us whittle down the list of TVs to test, we relied on reviews from sites we trust—like Rtings, which does a very good job of providing a large number of objective measurements for TVs and direct comparisons between other models across all price ranges. Reviewed.com also has lots of reviews, but not the same depth of objective measurements that Rtings provides. I also talked with CNET’s David Katzmaier, who does more in-depth TV testing than those other sites do.
For our latest round of testing, we called in 10 4K TVs, including 2019 models from TCL, Vizio, Toshiba, LG, Samsung, and Hisense.
How we tested
The best way to compare TVs is to put them side by side and look at them using the same content, so we did just that with the budget models we tested. We also considered how they performed in relation to the more expensive TVs we tested for our best LCD/LED TV guide.
Each TV was taken out of the box, set up, measured, and calibrated using SpectraCal’s CalMAN software, along with the X-Rite i1Pro 2 and SpectraCal C6 meters in conjunction with a Murideo Six-G test pattern generator to measure color, color temperature, light output, and more. This let us acquire before-and-after calibration measurements for each TV to assess its accuracy right out of the box and how close it could be brought in line with HDTV standards. If the TV supported HDR or WCG, we used an HDfury Integral box to produce HDR and WCG test patterns to measure those.
We recognize that it’s highly unlikely that someone shopping for a budget TV will spend the $300 (or more) it costs to get a TV professionally calibrated. As such, all of our side-by-side comparisons were done with the settings reset to factory defaults. The only adjustments made to the TVs involved the basic user-menu picture settings, using patterns from the Spears & Munsil HD Benchmark Version 2 Blu-ray disc. For $30, this disc lets you correctly set the main controls (contrast, brightness, color, tint, and sharpness). This basic setup is what we hope most of our readers will do (see Care and maintenance, below). You’d need calibration hardware to set more-advanced controls correctly. When we refer to how accurate a TV is for this guide, we are talking about the performance when calibrating with a Blu-ray disc, not with instruments. If a TV offers self-calibration, as TCL is starting to do, then we performed that as well, since it can be done for free.
During comparison viewing, we did use the C6 meter to get the backlights of the TVs to the same level, so no TV was brighter than the others.
We placed three TVs next to each other on tables of the same height. We made sure each TV was placed at an angle so we could look at them dead-on from our fixed viewing position. This prevents the image on the side TVs from looking washed-out due to changes in viewing angle (giving an unfair advantage to the center TV). Using an HDMI distribution amp, we sent the same signal from a Blu-ray player or Roku player to each TV.
Additionally, we evaluated the TVs with the lights on and off and looked at them all straight on and at angles (to see how well they would work for larger seating arrangements). We also rotated the order from left to right, so we could view each one next to different competitors, to see how that impacted our preferences. We used a large variety of content, including TV, movies, and test patterns, to compare the displays and assess their abilities.
Our pick: TCL 5-Series
The TCL 5-Series is the best budget 4K TV, combining good performance and a strong list of features in an affordable, easy-to-use package. Its native contrast ratio is better than that of most budget TVs, and it offers superb streaming features (thanks to the integrated Roku service). And you get wide color gamut support and incredibly low input lag with automatic low-latency mode for gaming. Plus, setup is very simple. The 5-Series includes four screen sizes: 43, 50, 55, and 65 inches. This TV supports HDR content in both the HDR10 and Dolby Vision formats, although the TV’s lack of local dimming means you’re not getting true HDR. Still, we thought the 5-Series looked better overall than many of the budget models we tested that included local dimming.
A high native contrast ratio makes the biggest improvement in the image quality of a TV. With a contrast ratio above 5,000:1, the TCL 5-Series is almost as good as you can get without paying more for effective local dimming. Nighttime scenes looked much darker than on comparably priced displays, but bright scenes also remained bright (we measured a maximum brightness of 320 nits), which gives the image more pop and helps it to avoid looking washed-out.
By using Roku as its streaming platform, TCL has integrated our favorite media-streamer box into its TV. The interface is straightforward and much more responsive than other systems, like Android TV. Roku has the widest selection of content available, along with effective voice and text search. Unlike Apple’s tvOS, Amazon’s Fire TV, or other platforms made by companies with services of their own, Roku doesn’t prioritize one service over another and instead shows search results based on the apps you have installed and the lowest price, exactly what most people are looking for.
The TCL 5-Series uses the classic Roku remote control, with volume and mute buttons on the side. The remote isn’t backlit, so using it at night in a dark room can take some practice until you learn the button layout. It also lacks numbers for direct channel access, but you can set up favorite channels and quickly see an on-screen list of only favorites or all channels, and navigate through them with the remote’s up/down rocker button.
This TV can correctly display the richer colors in Ultra HD sources that have been specifically mastered with a wide color gamut. Wide color gamut support lets you see colors in Ultra HD movies that other TVs just can’t produce. Compared side by side with a TV that lacks wide color gamut support, the TCL 5-Series produces far richer, truer reds, greens, and blues that stand out. The 5-Series even supports Dolby Vision HDR. Although you won’t get the full HDR experience due to the TV’s lack of local dimming, you’ll still get better performance with Dolby Vision HDR sources, since the TV will better know how to display it on the screen.
The 5-Series has a built-in TV tuner for watching your local channels. This doesn’t matter if you have cable or satellite or use only streaming services, but it’s necessary if you want to use an HD antenna to get local channels. The TCL set even lets you pause live TV if you insert a 16 GB or larger flash drive into the USB port. It can’t work as a DVR, but it’s perfect for pausing the show you’re watching when you head to the bathroom or to the kitchen to get a drink.
For gamers, the 5-Series’s game mode lowers the input lag with 1080p signals to 11 milliseconds. Even with 4K HDR signals, the input lag remains below 15 milliseconds, making this one of the better gaming TVs available. The 5-Series doesn’t have as many gaming-friendly features as the TVs in our best TV for video games guide, but the addition this year of automatic low-latency mode means the 5-Series will automatically kick into game mode when an Xbox One X starts playing a game—and future consoles should support this, as well.
Setting up and using the 5-Series is very easy. The Roku startup process is quite simple and lets you add the streaming apps you want; it even logs you in to some of them automatically. If you already own a Roku and have an account, the process is even easier, and the system will install all of the channels you already use. If you want to improve the sound quality, you can use the Roku TV Wireless Speakers to do so with no extra remotes or cables.
Four HDMI inputs (three on the 43-inch model) offer enough expansion for almost anyone, especially since you don’t need to use one to attach a media streaming device. There’s a composite input available with an included adapter, plus Ethernet for a hard-wired Internet connection. One HDMI input also supports ARC, but not the updated eARC found in some HDMI 2.1-friendly TVs.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The TCL 5-Series doesn’t have any sort of local dimming, so you get only the native contrast of the panel and nothing better. We don’t consider this a big drawback because this TV’s native contrast ratio is good enough, and the poorly implemented local dimming solutions we saw on some budget TVs looked worse than none at all.
The viewing angle on the 5-Series is only fair, and well behind TVs with IPS LCD panels or OLED displays, which cost more. We would still prefer the 5-Series over a cheap IPS LCD TV because its contrast ratios are much better, and an OLED usually costs $2,000 or more, pushing the price considerably outside the budget range.
The 5-Series panel has only a 60 Hz refresh rate, so motion isn’t as fluid as it can be on a 120 Hz panel, which offers faster pixel refresh and reduced motion blur. Getting a 120 Hz panel requires spending more.
TCL has chosen to go with the claw-foot stand design, in which the two feet are spaced far apart, so the 5-Series needs a table or stand that’s as wide as it is. We prefer a TV with a center stand, but almost every TV we looked at this year had the same type of design.
With some darker scenes in HDR content, you might find shadow details hard to make out in a brighter room. You can adjust this to use the Bright HDR preset mode, but then you’ll lose some dynamic range. For those who want to calibrate their TVs, we wish there were a 2-point white balance control available, but Roku doesn’t let companies offer that at the moment.
Runner-up: Vizio M-Series Quantum
The Vizio M-Series Quantum (specifically models M657-G0, M557-G0, M507-G1, and M437-G0) actually has a better-looking image than the TCL 5-Series, thanks to the addition of local dimming and the use of quantum dots to produce an even wider color gamut. However, the improvement is not that dramatic given the M-Series Quantum’s higher price, and we found the overall experience of using the M-Series Quantum to be a step down. The integrated SmartCast streaming platform isn’t as full-featured and easy to use as TCL’s Roku system, and the input lag isn’t quite as low for gaming. But if you’re just looking for good picture quality at a good price, the M-Series Quantum delivers. (The M-Series Quantum line includes other models that offer different performance, and we discuss those in the Competition section, below.)
With 16 zones of local dimming and a peak brightness of 350 nits, the M-Series handles HDR video better than the TCL 5-Series, but not as well as more expensive TVs that have more dimming zones. Reds and blues in Ultra HD movies looked richer and more saturated here than on the TCL 5-Series, and HDR highlights had a bit more pop. With SDR content, we found that the local dimming didn’t perform as well, so we wound up leaving it disabled. The Low local-dimming mode made the whole image dimmer, even bright scenes. The Medium mode was too aggressive and started to crush lots of shadow details in darker scenes.
Even though this TV has only a 60 Hz refresh rate, it does include a black-frame insertion mode to help reduce motion blur, and the TV automatically increases the brightness in this mode so that the image doesn’t get too dim. Input lag for gaming is around 21 milliseconds in game mode, which is plenty fast for most people, although slower than that of the TCL 5-Series. The connection panel includes four HDMI inputs, but none of them support HDMI 2.1 features like eARC and automatic low-latency mode.
The main drawback to the Vizio M-Series Quantum is the SmartCast streaming interface. The app selection is more limited than the TCL’s Roku platform, although major services like Netflix, Hulu, and Prime Video are here. However, this content is served up using a Web interface, instead of through apps that are integrated natively into the TV—so the interface isn’t as responsive as the Roku OS. Although we haven’t experienced it ourselves, we’ve heard many reports of Vizio’s SmartCast servers going down, disabling the internal streaming services. But if you’re using a different device for your media streaming, such as an Apple TV, Roku stick, or game console, this downside won’t matter to you at all.
First impressions of 2020 TVs
The 2020 TCL 5-Series is the first version of this model to include a full-array local dimming backlight to help improve contrast, but you can see the function in action. More notably this TV uses a different subpixel (the individually colored dots that make up a single pixel on-screen) arrangement than most TVs, which caused solid colors to have an uneven look to them, where we could see texture when it should be smooth. It also led to images having an unnatural sharpness compared to TVs with a standard RGB subpixel layout. We aren’t totally sure about the details on this, so we’ve asked TCL for more clarity about the design of the 5-Series.
The Vizio M-Q7 has local dimming and quantum dots and includes support for HDMI 2.1 features. With the Xbox Series X, this TV supports automatic low latency mode and variable refresh rate, though only a frame rate from 40 Hz to 60 Hz since it doesn’t have a 120 Hz panel. The Vizio SmartCast system is faster and more responsive than before, but HDR content only looks OK since you can’t get highlights much past 400 nits. The step-up M-Q8 offers more zones of local dimming and brighter peak highlights but otherwise should look similar, but we plan to test it very soon to confirm.
The Hisense H8G is the updated version of the H8F that we tested for this guide in 2019. The new version has a much faster Android TV interface, which was one of the worst aspects of the prior version. It has a wider color gamut thanks to the inclusion of quantum dots in 2020 and more local dimming zones, though they made almost no impact at all in viewing or measuring test patterns. Hisense also fixed issues we had with HDR video last year, in which the TV would crush shadow details, but now HDR is a bit too bright. We found a couple of bugs during our initial testing of this TV (it only handled YCbCr color correctly, not RGB, and the BT1886 gamma option interacted incorrectly with some color temperature presets). Hisense resolved these bugs, but in doing so introduced new ones (where the gamma control doesn’t work with certain color temperatures, or causes the temperature to be incorrect). Hisense has also resolved these, but all the issues combined make us wary of the H8G and the reliability of its software.
We also tested the Hisense H9G, which is an improvement over the 2019 H8G model—with a much faster processor that makes the Android TV experience far better than it was before. It also has very good local dimming that’s more precise than that of the 2020 TCL 6-Series. With HDR content, colors were even more vibrant and bold on the Hisense than the TCL. However, we noticed some color issues—for instance, a bright and cloudy sky would have a yellow tint that it shouldn’t have, and skin tones looked too rosy. When we tried to correct this using the calibration controls, it introduced other artifacts that made the picture worse—so we were unable to fix those issues. Overall, while the Hisense can look better than the TCL 6-Series with some content, we were concerned by the issues we couldn’t fix, and the TV lacks HDMI 2.1 support for features like automatic low latency mode and variable refresh rate.
TV features, defined
These are some of the most common features we talk about in our TV reviews:
Full-array local dimming: This term refers to a TV in which the backlight is behind the LCD panel and has individual zones that can turn on and off depending on the content. These TVs are usually larger and more expensive to build and design, and more zones cost more. However, they typically provide the best LCD picture quality by improving contrast ratios and shadow detail.
High dynamic range (HDR): High dynamic range lets a TV display much brighter highlights while retaining deep blacks, although only with special HDR content. In the past, content had a peak brightness of around 100 nits, but high-end HDR sets can have highlights that exceed 1,500 nits. This feature drastically improves contrast ratios and provides a more dynamic image where bright objects (the sun, fire, a photon torpedo) really jump off the screen.
Wide color gamut: Ultra HD content has a wider color gamut than standard HDTV content; right now, most UHD content is mastered with the same DCI/P3 color gamut used in theatrical cinema (the ultimate goal is the even larger Rec. 2020 color gamut). This expanded color gamut allows a TV to display richer reds, blues, and greens than ever before. Some TVs use quantum dot technology to produce this wider color gamut.
HDMI 2.1: HDMI 2.1 is the most recent version of HDMI, adding support for 8K displays, automatic low-latency mode for improved gaming, eARC for better audio when using Audio Return Channel, variable refresh rate for syncing the TV’s refresh rate to a gaming console to avoid stuttering, and dynamic metadata support. Companies are adding support for certain features in HDMI 2.1, but typically not all of them, so it’s important to see which features you need and whether your TV supports it.
HDCP 2.3: This is the most recent version of the copy-protection standard used over HDMI, though for now it’s most important that a TV supports HDCP 2.2. Without HDCP 2.2 support, a TV or other HDMI device (soundbar, receiver) cannot transmit or display Ultra HD images. All of our picks support HDCP 2.2.
24p: With few exceptions, movies in the theater display at 24 frames per second, abbreviated as 24p, which gives movies that “cinematic” look. All TVs now support 24p content, but some TVs maintain that look better than others.
Judder: This term refers to a slightly jerky motion that can occur when 24p film content appears on a TV with a 60 Hz refresh rate. To make 24 frames match up to the 60 Hz display, half of the frames appear two times and the other half appear three times. This display technique causes judder, which is most noticeable on panning shots. Some 120 Hz displays avoid this effect by repeating each film frame five times, while some 60 Hz panels run at 48 Hz to show each frame twice.
Nits: Also called candelas per square meter (cd/m2), this unit of luminance measures how much light a TV can produce. Previously, TVs could output 200 to 300 nits, and SDR content was graded and mastered with 100 nits as the standard. With HDR, content is mastered with 1,000, 4,000, or 10,000 nits as the standard; so the more nits an HDR TV can display, the more accurately it can display the highlights in HDR material without having to reduce the brightness of the highlights or clip them.
Care and maintenance
The most important thing you can do to get the best performance from any TV is to set it up correctly. First, you should set the TCL 5-Series to the movie mode to get the most accurate image without any work. You can eyeball the picture settings to try to improve the image, but we recommend using test patterns to properly set the TV’s brightness, contrast, color, tint, and sharpness. You can learn more about these adjustments here:
Also important: If you have kids and you’re not wall-mounting the TV, you should consider anchoring it. This will minimize the chance of the TV falling over if it’s “accidentally” yanked on (or knocked over in an earthquake, if you’re in an area so prone). An anchor system is cheap (less than $20) and easy to install.
What to look forward to
The Konka brand has returned to the US market with three new value-oriented Android TV lines. The budget H3 series includes the 32-inch 720p TV and a 40-inch 1080p TV. The step-up U5 series includes 4K HDR TVs with wide color gamut support in sizes from 43 to 75 inches. The U7 Pro series adds Quantum Dot technology and is available in sizes from 50 to 75 inches.
The TCL 4-Series also has built-in Roku, but it lacks support for Dolby Vision and a wide color gamut. Most important, its peak brightness is 50 percent lower than that of the 5-Series. In a darker room you won’t notice this, but in a living room or other bright situation, the extra brightness of the 5-Series is easier to see.
The Vizio M-Series Quantum line also includes M8 and M6 models that differ in performance from the M7 models we picked. We tested the M658-G1 from the M8 series, which has far more local dimming zones than the M7 and a higher peak brightness of 560 nits. So the M8 series has a better overall contrast ratio and better HDR performance. However, its price jumps around a lot. When it’s priced similarly to the M7 series, it’s a better choice. But when its price creeps up toward that of the TCL 6-Series, we think the TCL is a better option.
The Hisense H8F offers a very good image for SDR, thanks to its local dimming, but it is too dark with HDR and makes some darker details impossible to see. The included Android TV interface is very slow to respond, which makes for a less enjoyable experience. Hisense plans to release a version of this TV that uses the Roku OS, which might make for a better experience.
The LG UM7300 has an IPS panel, so it has very wide viewing angles compared with the competition, but darker scenes look more dark gray than black. It has fewer HDMI inputs than the competition, and HDR is less impressive because of the IPS panel and the lack of local dimming and wide color gamut support.
With the Samsung RU7100, we had to lower the contrast control a decent amount to remove a red tint from the whites, and doing so reduced the TV’s contrast ratio. This resulted in a flat-looking image that couldn’t compete with those on the other TVs we tested. We could raise the contrast to add pop, but then we noticed that the whites weren’t quite white. This TV also offers no local dimming or wide color gamut support, so HDR looks almost identical to SDR.
The Toshiba 50LF711U20 Fire TV uses Amazon’s Fire TV interface. Although we find this interface to be okay on a media streamer, we didn’t like it as much on a TV. Changing between inputs wasn’t as simple as on other TVs, and adjusting the input settings required navigating deep into the main menus instead of just hitting a button on the remote while we were watching something. The image quality was also mediocre, with crushed shadow details and noticeable artifacts in HDR content.