Over the last few weeks, I've been testing several of the newest TVs that promise HDMI 2.1 support in combination with NVIDIA's 30 Series graphics cards, the Xbox Series X and the PlayStation 5. It's time to try things out because this generation of systems are the first ones truly ready for 4K (and higher), our first high frame rate experiences on TVs and positional audio that surpasses anything we've heard before.
The good news? When everything worked, it could be an amazing experience but getting there can be difficult, or in some cases, impossible with missing features and incompatibility that early-adopting owners can only hope will be resolved in future updates.
I've tried TVs from LG, Vizio, Samsung and TCL so far. Because of time and space constraints, I haven't been able to test every possible combination, but overall what I've found comes down to one simple thing: the technology isn't quite there yet.
What to look for in a gaming TV
If you can get your hands on a new game console or a next-generation PC graphics card then that's just the beginning of your journey. The GPU technology they possess is powerful enough to render games at higher resolutions and frame rates than ever before, all at the same time.
A new connector has also started to roll out, with more bandwidth and additional features. HDMI 2.1 brings options for features like variable refresh rate, which allows your display to sync up directly as frames are rendered, more colors than ever, and 120 FPS gaming at 4K resolution.
However, the reality of the situation is a little more complicated. Just as we've seen in previous years, even though these specs and certifications are supposed to mean that everything will work when you plug it in, that's not always how it goes.
Before we get started, if you haven't already immersed yourself in the new generation of TV technology, there are a few terms you'll need to know.
HDR - High Dynamic Range
This refers to a TV's ability to have a wider range of contrast between the darkest and brightest parts of a picture. Having more range can bring out details that would otherwise be missing, in both very dark and very bright areas of an image. It also improves the color reproduction that's possible, ideally presenting the viewer with something that's much closer to the original vision.
While there's one base standard we'll usually see in the US for delivering HDR content that's known as HDR10, it's not the only one. Dolby Vision HDR and HDR10+ expand on HDR10 with additional information that does even more to make your TV show each scene at its best, however most brands only support one or the other.
Also, not all HDR-ready TVs are created equally. Some are much better at displaying the brightest light sources and clearest white colors, while others excel at pulling out every detail available in dark scenes.
The same goes for HDR content. Just because something says it's available in HDR it might not be - the Akira Ultra HD Blu-ray release, for example - or it may not take advantage of the brightest/darkest potential settings available. The Mandalorian season one faced some criticism for this.
And in gaming? Good luck. Sometimes HDR settings are just broken - see Red Dead Redemption 2 or last year's Cyberpunk 2077. You can also run into trouble configuring them, either because of inadequate settings (Cyberpunk again) or as TVs adjust their own settings switching into and out of low-latency game modes.
HGiG - HDR Gaming Interest Group
HGiG stands for the HDR Gaming Interest Group. Sony and Microsoft are both members, as well as many TV makers and game developers. What this means for you is that, ideally, all the groups communicate information so that you can start up a new game on a console or PC and have it automatically recognize your display. Once that happens, it can adjust the internal settings to adjust for the display's capabilities and give you the best picture quality possible, without losing details in extremely bright or extremely dark areas of the screen.
The reality, so far, is a bit more complicated. Only some TVs highlight HGiG compatibility in their settings (LG and Samsung do, for instance), and while both PlayStation and Xbox consoles are ready for it, only certain games follow the guidelines and recognize the settings. If it's listed in your TV's tone mapping settings, you should turn it on prior to running the console's settings. Then if you're playing a game that supports HDR if it supports HGiG you should be in good shape without having to adjust the various luminance levels again.
ALLM - Auto Low Latency Mode
This is a simple one. It allows a source (like your PS5 or Xbox) to tell the display to switch into a mode that reduces lag between receiving each frame of an image and displaying it on the TV, cutting out additional processing that could be the milliseconds of difference that keeps you from landing a shot or precise jump. All of the TVs we tested could automatically switch to game mode, and then back out of it when you'd rather watch a movie.
VRR - Variable Refresh Rate
This term is more familiar to PC gamers, but is new for most TVs. Most gamers have experienced slowdown, tearing or stutters that can happen as your system struggles to render each frame at the target speed, which is usually 30 or 60 FPS on a TV. If the game stutters, then the TV either stays on the same frame, or displays part of two different ones, which is the visual artifact of tearing.
With VRR, everything stays in sync - your display won't show the next frame until it's ready, which can make things feel smoother and more responsive, even if the system fails to deliver on its target of 30, 60 or even 120 fps.
What we tested
So far, the TVs we spent time with came from Samsung, Sony, Vizio and LG. They're four of the biggest names in the space, and their sets have spec sheets that tick off everything we're looking for. Samsung's lineup was represented by a 55-inch Q70T, for Sony we have the 55-inch X900H, LG with a 48-inch CX OLED and Vizio's 65-inch P-Series Quantum.
First up, I'll give my impressions of LG's much-lauded OLED, mostly because it represented the best promise of the new TVs and some of the frustrating issues that cropped up repeatedly throughout testing. While trying to use NVIDIA's 30 Series graphics cards with the 48 CX, I ran into repeated issues trying to enable VRR or 120Hz refresh rates. A software update resolved that, mostly, but in just the last few days another issue has cropped up robbing players of brightness when Game Mode is enabled.
In my experience, even that represented the best of the current experience while trying to enable HDMI 2.1. LG's TV was largely flawless while I tried it with either the Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5. Running games like Dirt 5 at 120 FPS or playing Gears 5 was as smooth as I expected, and didn't crash either the system or the television.
I was never able to get 120 FPS output with HDR working from the PS5 to Samsung's TV, and it appears that's due to a glitch affecting the company's entire line of 2020 TVs - at last update, Samsung expects it will be fixed with a PS5 patch that's due later in March.
I had to choose between HDR or 120 Hz output in Call of Duty, which isn't quite the premium experience I was hoping for. The TV worked smoothly enough with the Xbox Series X - as you'd expect, considering it's the official TV of the brand - allowing HDR and 120 FPS 4K output at the same time in Dirt 5 and Call of Duty. Picture calibration on Samsung's TV was unexpectedly tricky due to the way it engages dynamic tone mapping, but after getting some help I was able to tweak the picture to my liking.
Sony's X900H arrived neatly packed, and with a high-quality AV experience for movies and TV shows. The bad news is that right now, it doesn't support key features like ALLM and VRR, although the company has said those will come in future updates. The quality of the TV and the compatibility is more than up to par, if that's what you're looking for. Once it's updated to support HDMI 2.1 features that are important for gaming, then it will be easier to recommend as an option. Currently, its lack of those options and a higher price than other TVs in the same range push it down the list.
Vizio's 2020 P-Series Quantum X promises HDMI 2.1 support on all four HDMI inputs, however if you'd like to use premium features like 120 FPS, you're still stuck plugging the system into one of the two ports that support that. And in my experience, while features like 120 FPS 4K, VRR and HDR were beautiful when they all worked together, I had several instances where trying to enable them on either of the new consoles resulted in a rebooting TV or lost picture. I did successfully get them working after a fashion with Xbox Series X, and the TV's implementation of VRR worked well enough to make a game like Cyberpunk 2077 seem smoother even in its 30 FPS mode.
....Until Vizio pushed an update that seems to have fixed almost everything, at least for now. Suddenly the TV is properly recognized by my PS5 and Xbox Series X, and 120Hz switching happens without glitches and with HDR support every time. Call of Duty in high frame rate is one of the most responsive experiences I've ever had, and it felt like it changed the way I played the game. I could play Dirt 5 without the game crashing or losing connection with the display, with one exception that I'm not sure is the TV's fault. According to the company, the latest software also addresses NVIDIA G-Sync compatibility and adds support for NVIDIA cars outputting 4K at 120 fps, although I wasn't able to test that.
In their current state, I'd put Vizio's P-Series Quantum X and LG's CX OLED at the top of the list of options for 4K gaming right now. The CX features unmatched picture quality in dark scenes, and LG has been particularly aggressive about addressing compatibility issues as they crop up. Vizio's high-end LCD, meanwhile, is cheaper at large sizes and possibly easier to find. Additionally, with the latest software updates, it delivers everything we've hoped to see from next-gen gaming consoles without the headaches.
The one feature that I thought made the most sense to pay for is VRR. While it can be tricky to get working (or to know what's supported, between the HDMI Forum standard options, G-Sync, and different flavors of AMD FreeSync) when it functions properly it makes all of the effort worth it, as PC gamers have known for a while.
Samsung's TV is pricey and still has a few problems to iron out, while Sony's 4K set doesn't support key features. That might be less important if you're on PS5, where VRR support isn't enabled on the console yet , but I'd like to have it in hand before making a choice on a TV.
Should you buy a gaming TV?
Even after spending hours going back and forth between different displays, settings and content, it was still hard to know what might work and when. Since I started testing these TVs, LG has broken (and then fixed) game mode on its OLED models, Sony has recommitted to promises of VRR & ALLM support on its 2020 lineup, and a tricky incompatibility issue has cropped up between the PS5 and Samsung TVs.
All of that said, despite the glory of ultra high resolution, high frame rate gaming, the most relaxing experience came when I plugged the PC or consoles into the 2019 TCL 6-Series I already own, or a newer TCL 5-Series TV that I also tested. They don't have flashy headline items like VRR, but did reliably enable game mode and played everything without ever crashing entirely, and there's something to be said for that. Even if you're on older systems there are things to consider - a launch PS4 can play games in HDR, while Xbox One X / S systems can take advantage of VRR.
If you're willing to deal with the issues, and aren't put off by the idea that another upgrade could be necessary sooner rather than later, then jump in. The impending arrival of 2021's TVs could bring an improved experience if you can wait, but it's also dropping prices of last year's sets to their lowest levels. Plus, as manufacturers shift to their new lineups, supplies of the current TVs could dry up before prices drop much further, so if you're particular about your choice it's a good time to make a move.