Between Black Friday sales and new console launches, everyone’s talking about buying a new TV this year. It seems everyone—including our own WIRED reviewers—are extolling the virtues of modern panels when paired with the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. But do you really need a new TV, and if so, what about these new screens is so special?
If You Don’t Have a 4K HDR TV, You’ll Be Missing Out on a Lot
For the past few years, TV tech has been in the midst of a big transition with two main improvements to picture quality: 4K and HDR. Without getting too technical, these can improve the sharpness, color, and general “pop” of your TV’s picture, and both the PS5 and Xbox Series X are primed to make the most of these technologies. If you’re still using an older 1080p set, the new consoles will still contain some improvements—see below—but they’ll feel more like incremental upgrades if you don’t have a relatively recent set.
Technically, last generation’s mid-cycle refreshes, the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro, also made use of 4K and HDR, though the Xbox Series X takes it even further with its Auto HDR feature that adds those bright highlights to backwards-compatible Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One games. The disc-based versions of both consoles also contain 4K Blu-ray players, which is a nice value-add if you have a capable TV.
Smoother Gameplay and Fast Loading Times Will Benefit Any TV
That’s not to say these new consoles are entirely about new TV tech. The beefier hardware inside the PS5 and Xbox Series X can play many games at higher frame rates, which means you’ll get smoother motion and more responsive controls no matter what TV you use—even if it’s an older 1080p set. Some gamers may not notice or care about the added smoothness, but I’m of the opinion that 60 frames per second is a huge improvement over the 30-fps gameplay of last generation. (Some next-gen games will even have options to play at 120 frames per second, which may require a more recent TV.)
Plus, both consoles have added features that have nothing to do with your TV—like the Xbox’s Quick Resume feature, or the PS5’s improved haptics and 3D audio for headphones. Both consoles also sport super-fast SSDs, meaning load times will be blazing fast compared to the Xbox One and PS4. These features are nice to have, even on old or cheap TVs.
HDMI 2.1 Features Are Nice, but Not Urgent Upgrades
Finally, if you’ve seen any TV buying guides this year, you’ll notice “HDMI 2.1” mentioned as a gaming feature to look for if you plan on buying a PS5 or Xbox Series X. HDMI 2.1, introduced in 2019, adds a few handy gaming features:
Variable Refresh Rate (VRR) allows your TV to “sync” the number of times it refreshes per second to the number of frames being output by your console. This can reduce screen tearing and certain types of motion stutter. Note that the Xbox Series X can use a less powerful version of VRR called FreeSync on certain Samsung and LG TVs that don’t have HDMI 2.1.
Auto-Low Latency Mode (ALLM) automatically puts your TV into Game Mode when it detects a game signal. This, coupled with HDMI 2.1’s Quick Frame Transport (QFT), can reduce input lag without you having to manually turn Game Mode on every time you fire up the ol’ PlayStation.
Enhanced Audio Return Channel (ARC) allows your TV to send higher-quality audio to a receiver or soundbar. This isn’t a gaming-specific feature, but is handy if you want to pass Dolby Atmos through your TV (the PS5 supports Atmos for Blu-ray discs only, while the Xbox Series X supports it in some games).
All of these are useful features, but none are must-haves for a good console experience just yet. HDMI 2.1 is still in very early stages: Only a few TVs and receivers have it, and the PS5 doesn’t even support variable refresh rate yet (Sony says it’s coming in a future update). In fact, some implementations of HDMI 2.1 have even been a bit buggy, so if you’re feeling pressured to upgrade for these features alone, it might be worth waiting a bit to see how things smooth out with different manufacturers.
So Do I Need a New TV or What?
The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X will provide a better gaming experience than last generation’s consoles, no matter what TV you have. However, if you have an older TV that can’t do HDR, those improvements are a bit more incremental, and they may not be worth the console’s $500 price tag on their own.
If you’re still rocking an old 1080p set, you’ll get far more out of the PS5 and Xbox Series X by upgrading your TV now or soon. HDR is a huge improvement to picture quality, and it’s one of the most noticeable upgrades you’ll see over the older PlayStation 4 and Xbox One—and if you can get one with HDMI 2.1, all the better.
If you already have a 4K HDR TV, but it doesn’t have HDMI 2.1, I wouldn’t rush to upgrade to a 2020 model just yet. You’ll still get the vast majority of the new consoles’ benefits on your existing set—provided it has enough peak brightness and local dimming to do HDR justice—without HDMI 2.1. If you’re in the market for a new TV anyway, HDMI 2.1 is definitely worth having, I just wouldn’t upgrade for HDMI 2.1 alone. You can feel safe holding off for a few years before you get those extra niceties.