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Cheap LED TVs Buying Guide

The best cheap LED TV, according to our research, is the 48-inch Vizio E480i-B2 (starting at $498). The Vizio E-Series performs exceptionally well by just about any measure while remaining affordable.

The 40-inch Sony KDL-40W600B (starting at $478) is our runner-up. The 48-inch TCL 48FS4610R Roku TV (starting at $448) may not have the best picture, but if you're looking for an Internet-connected smart TV with excellent video streaming, the Roku brand is hard to beat. The 40-inch Samsung UN40H5500 (starting at $499) rounds out our top picks. The LG 47LB5900 (starting at $449) disappoints, with only two HDMI ports and inferior black levels. (For full reviews of these models, click on our picks above.)

High-end TVs have larger screens, more inputs, and more smart TV features than budget models. The colors are sharp and bright, the black levels are deep and dark without losing detail, and the movement on-screen is fluid and free of lag. Meeting all these criteria is more of a challenge for cheap LED TVs. Even the best ones tend to be slightly flawed in one way or another, but our current crop hold their own in terms of features and performance.

What We Looked For

40- to 48-Inch TVs.

A 50-inch screen is about the largest you can expect to find for less than $500, but at that point you're probably sacrificing performance (or getting a spectacular deal). Our top picks measure 40 or 48 inches on the diagonal.

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You might think the larger the TV, the better the experience, but there's more to it than that. The optimal size depends on the room in which the TV resides. If you sit too close, the image will appear distorted and grainy. Sit too far away, and you'll start to lose that immersive, widescreen feel.

Expert recommendations vary, but here's a good rule of thumb for determining how large a screen you need: Divide the distance between the TV and seating area (in inches) by 1.6. A 40- to 48-inch TV should be viewed from a distance of about 5 feet to 6.5 feet. For a larger space, you may want to spring for a larger, more expensive TV. Consumers in search of a smaller model or perhaps a second TV can look to the Sharp LC-32LE551U (starting at $249).

1080p HD.

HDTVs are available with resolutions of 720p or 1080p. The latter is referred to as "full HD" and has become much more common, even in cheap TVs. Most 40-inch TVs and larger, including all our top picks, support a maximum resolution of 1080p. If you're buying a smaller model, 720p may be acceptable; it's harder to see a difference in quality on a small screen.

HD Inputs.

In order to get an HD picture from an HDTV, you need high-definition inputs for a cable box, Blu-ray player, game console, and other sources of HD content. The highest-quality option is HDMI, which supports high-definition video and audio signals. Consumers who want to connect several devices to one TV should look for a model with at least three HDMI ports. That's one strike against the LG 47LB5900: It has only two. After you connect a cable box and Blu-ray player, you'll have no HDMI input left for a game console or streaming device. The Sony KDL-40W600B has four HDMI ports.

Another HD option is a component connection (for blue, green, and red cables). These days TV makers usually combine this with a composite port to take up less space on the back of the TV. Composite ports transmit video in standard definition (via a yellow cable, with red and white for audio) and aren't used as often these days.

Most cheap LED TVs also feature USB ports and a handful support the MHL format. This lets you connect a mobile device such as a phone to your TV and stream content to the bigger screen. It hasn't really caught on, though, so don't worry about finding a TV that supports it.

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Smart TV Features.

Many entry-level LED TVs now sport Wi-Fi connectivity and smart TV functionality, which provides access to online content on a big screen. Most TV brands support the most popular streaming services -- Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, etc. -- but be sure the apps match up with your subscriptions. All the models we recommend include smart TV features; the LG LB5900 series does not.

If you already own a game console, Blu-ray player, or other device that can stream content to your TV over the Internet, you may want to stick with a "dumb" TV. Models without smart TV features tend to cost less, but not necessarily. The starts at $448, the same price as the 48-inch Roku TV. A cheap streaming media player such as a Roku or Google Chromecast can smarten up a TV for less than $100. Keep in mind that you'll have to give up an input to connect the streaming device.

What We Ignored

Contrast Ratio.

This is the spec TV brands manipulate the most. It refers to the difference between the brightest and darkest color values the screen can display at once. Marketing materials often tout a TV's dynamic contrast ratio, which may exceed 10,000,000:1. The more accurate indicator is static contrast ratio, but virtually no manufacturer uses that number anymore, so be wary of outrageous claims about contrast ratios.

LED TV Reviews

To make our picks, we pored over LED TV reviews on sites such as Reviewed.com, which conducts extensive performance testing. LCD TV Buying Guide likewise reviews and recommends models based on editors' firsthand experience with the TVs, although it doesn't convey quite the same authority; it's less transparent in its authorship and methodology. Still, the site compares many different models and often goes into great technical detail. High-profile technology sites such as CNET, TechRadar, and PC Mag have also reviewed some of the TVs on our list. We gave much greater weight to these expert takes than to online reviews from consumers, most of whom don't have knowledge of or access to TVs apart from the ones they've purchased. They generally lack the expertise to provide detailed feedback on this complex product.

TV reviewers focus on one overriding performance criterion: The picture should look fantastic. In general, a $500 TV can't deliver the stunning image quality of a $2,500 TV, but it can still display nice-looking video. Specifically, reviewers look for accurate, saturated color; deep black levels; and minimal motion blur from the best cheap TVs.

Color Accuracy.

This is a critical element of picture quality. The colors displayed on the screen should be vibrant and accurate and skin tones should look natural. Perfect color accuracy is hard to find even in pricier TVs, and many cheap models struggle on this front. The Sony KDL-40W600B seems to have especially accurate colors. An expert from Reviewed.com notes that the settings were spot-on right out of the box, no calibration required. With other TVs, be sure to follow the advice of experts: Don't settle for the pre-set, out-of-the-box settings. Take a little time to calibrate the contrast, sharpness, color saturation, color tint, and other settings to suit the viewing environment and your own preferences, rather than a brightly lit store.

Black Levels.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for inexpensive LED TVs is displaying deep black levels and depicting shadowy areas without losing any detail. Oftentimes cheap models display more of a dark gray than a deep black. Most of the TVs we looked at did receive some criticism for less-than-stellar black levels, although the Vizio E480i-B2 performs very well in this regard. Reviewers credit the type of LED backlighting on the Vizio model. Many cheap TVs are edge-lit models with LEDs built into the edges of the screen, which allows for a very thin profile. Direct-lit or full-array LED TVs, such as the Vizio E480i-B2, have lights across the entire back of the screen. The Vizio also features local dimming, which improves black levels by darkening specific areas of the screen. It's the only model among our picks that uses this combination of techniques to display uniform brightness and deeper black levels.

Motion Blur.

Any on-screen movement ideally should be fluid and free of lag. The best way to ensure good performance in this area is to opt for a TV with a refresh rate of 120 Hz, such as the Vizio E480i-B2. The Samsung UN40H6350 also has a 120 Hz panel, but it's a bit outside our price range (starting at $549). The typical refresh rate among cheap LCD TVs is 60 Hz. As a result, most suffer from motion blur occasionally. If you're watching a fast-paced basketball game, for example, you might notice a bit of "ghosting" as the players run around the court. That said, a 60 Hz refresh rate is perfectly fine for most programming, and LED TV reviews highlight some 60 Hz models with minimal motion blur, even during sports or fast-paced films. The Sony KDL-40W600B is a notable example.

If you come across a cheap LED TV advertising a 120 Hz refresh rate, be aware that many of these low-cost models are actually 60 Hz TVs that use processing tricks to try to achieve the desired effect. A CNET review points out that the TCL 48FS4610R Roku TV claims a 120 Hz refresh rate, but it's technically a 60 Hz panel and behaves like one. Terms such as Clear Motion Rate (Samsung) and Motion Clarity Index (LG) are telltale signs that a 60 Hz model is posing as a 120 Hz TV.

Some of these do a pretty good job minimizing motion blur, but others do not. Sony's Motionflow XR 480 technology seems to be effective in the KDL-40W600B, while multiple reviewers say Samsung's Clear Motion Rate 120 doesn't always prevent "juddering" on the UN40H5500. Likewise, the Clear Motion Rate 240 on the Samsung UN40H6350 doesn't have much effect on performance, according to CNET, although the 120 Hz panel handles motion admirably. If you don't watch a lot of action films, sports, and other fast-paced content, you can get by just fine with a 60 Hz screen.

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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap LED TVs
  2. Discount Cheap LED TVs Features Comparison Table
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