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23 Oct 2020

Why small TVs aren't good enough any more

Our expert tests show the quality of 32-inch TVs has dwindled, but the size of a typical living room means most people shouldn't have to make do with a small TV

We haven't found a Best Buy 32-inch TV in six years of trying. We've tested 81 of them since the Samsung UE32H6410 wowed us in 2014 and few have even come close to the quality required to me made a Best Buy.

What size TV you buy is, of course, personal preference, but it might be time to sense-check those preferences. For example, how far you sit from your TV can have a big impact on what size offers the best viewing experience.

We use a team of experts to gauge at what distance each size of TV looks its best. For a 32-inch TV, that distance is seven feet.

That's not very far - about the length of a king-size bed. But in a recent survey of Which? members, we found that the vast majority sit further away from their TV.

Wondering what size TV is right for you? Use our guide to see what size TV you should buy.

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Decline in small TV sales, decline in quality

It's a bit of a chicken and egg situation: did a decline in small TV sales lead to less effort from manufacturers or vice versa?

It's not an easy question to answer, but manufacturers consistently tell us that demand for bigger TVs increases year-on-year. They pay particular attention to 65-inch models, which, for now, are the biggest models we test.

In the past 10 years, demand for a home cinema-style experience has grown. Cheap surround-sound systems brought a taste of the immersive theatre experience to the home and the rise of streaming services has meant there's plenty of HD, and now 4K, content that's able to make the most of high-resolution screens.

Huge films, such as Martin Scorcese's The Irishman, made their debuts on streaming services. The closing of cinemas during lockdown has blurred the lines between cinema and home cinema even further, as distributors look to maximise profits and continue to release films on streaming platforms during the pandemic.

4K needs a big screen

The other major factor is the rise of 4K. It's still not as common as HD, but Amazon Prime Video and Netflix have hundreds of hours of this ultra-high-resolution content to watch for around £10 per month.

There are no 4K 32-inch TVs because their small screens mean the increase in detail isn't visible. Manufacturers have been focusing their attention on 4K sets for most of the last decade, so it was inevitable that TVs not really capable of showing it off would fall by the wayside.

Is it time to buy a bigger TV?

At Which?, it's our job to unearth and recommend the best TVs. We're proud of what we do and have absolute confidence in the models we name Best Buys.

We'd love to have a 32-inch TV blow us away, but at this point it seems unlikely; the average Which? test score for small TVs is a measly 49%. We could adapt our test programme to be more lenient on them, but then we wouldn't have that same confidence in our recommendations.

Of course, you may have a good reason for wanting a smaller TV; perhaps for a bedroom or kitchen, or maybe you simply don't want a big black box dominating your living space (if this sounds like you, take a look below for more on TVs that are the masters of disguise).

But if you want a top-notch TV viewing experience, consider a bigger model for your living room.

Do you have the right-sized TV?

While we can't account for personal preference - or the space you have - we can recommend TV sizes based on optimal viewing distance. This is the distance you should sit from a TV to see it at its best.

For a 32-inch TV that distance is seven feet. Sit further from it and you'll lose detail and the picture won't look as crisp as intended. Colours will lose their lustre and the screen will start to look washed out.

Sitting too close to a TV isn't recommended, either. You'll struggle to take everything in at once and it won't be as comfortable to watch. This is true of TVs of any size; there will always be an ideal distance to sit from it.

Optimal TV viewing distances

TV sizeOptimal viewing distance
32-inch7 feet
40 to 43-inch8 feet
40 to 43-inch9 to 10 feet
55-inch11 to 12 feet
65-inch13 to 14 feet

Some 71% of 32-inch TV owners sit too far away

We're not suggesting you rearrange your living room to accommodate a massive TV, but measure the distance from your TV to your sofa and see whether you fall into the same camp as some of the 1,012 Which? members we surveyed earlier in 2020.

Our survey found that 71% of 32-inch TV owners sit further away than ideal. Some 25% of them would be better served by a 43-inch TV, while 19% would be better with a 49 or 50-inch TV.

It's not just 32-inch TV owners that could get a better viewing experience, our survey found that 39% of 40 to 43-inch TV owners should consider making the jump to a 49 or 50-inch screen the next time they upgrade.

How big is the average living room?

We used the government's English Housing Survey, last conducted in 2017, to determine the average size of a UK living room.

The average square footage of a semi-detached living room was 183 feet, while a detached one was 226 feet; the size was similar in both older homes and new builds. Assuming most living rooms are roughly square, this would make the length of the walls in a semi-detached home around 13.5 feet; they would be 15 feet in a detached.

With a TV on one wall and a sofa on the other, that's a gap between sofa and TV of roughly 11.5 feet. That would make a 55-inch set your best bet for a great viewing experience.

Perhaps it's surveys like this one that have led to manufacturers focusing on larger TVs for the UK market.

Living room, not television room

Having a bigger TV doesn't mean it has to dominate your room, while not all smaller TVs necessarily fade into the background. That Best Buy 32-inch UE32H6410 we tested all those years ago had a shiny metal bezel and was designed to be the focal point of your room, whether it was on or off.

Regardless of size, TVs aren't like that any more. Bezels are narrow, sometimes barely visible on high-end sets, while the stands are understated and subtle. They are designed to fade into the background when not in use.

Some models take this even further by becoming masters of camouflage. Many of LG's TVs can display beautiful landscapes from around the world courtesy of its partnership with TripAdvisor, and its GX OLED range can display bespoke works of art.

Samsung's QLED TVs have a feature called ambient mode that can display personal photos or art, or even copy the pattern on your living room wall, such as brick, wood, paint or wallpaper.

Will small TVs ever get better?

With the decline in sales of small TVs and the rise of 4K (and even 8K), we don't see 32-inch TVs making a comeback. Even based on visitors to our TV reviews we can see that interest is waning; 49-inch sets are the most popular and there are numerous Best Buys at this size.

And manufacturers are doing what they can to make larger TVs more discreet and more interesting to look at when they aren't on, so it might be time to rethink your definition of 'too big'.

Take a look at our guide to the best TVs of 2020 to see our expert's pick of some of the best we've tested, ranging from 43 to 55-inch TVs.