Gamers must navigate a delicate cycle every time they’re in play mode: the fragile feedback loop between your game controller, your brain, your fingers and the action on the TV screen. The thrilling immediacy and gaming performance of the playing experience can be diminished by any delay. In some games, that delay in response to your reactions can get your character killed.
The biggest source of those delays — with online games at least — is latency between your console and servers on the internet, which is largely out of your control. But another source of lag, for all types of games, has to do with the gaming TV itself.
It takes mere milliseconds for a video signal to travel from your console through the HDMI input on your TV to display on the screen, but too many milliseconds can be noticeable to your brain, or downright deadly to your in-game character. Those milliseconds are known as input lag.
Happily, most TVs have a picture mode specifically designed to minimize input latency, generally called game mode. One of the tests I perform for every TV I review for CNET measures that lag time. I also like to consider gaming experience, viewing angles, picture quality, screen size, contrast, brightness, color gamut, frame rate, smart features, refresh rate and support for high dynamic range content.
Here are the TVs I’ve tested so far, ranked for input lag. Lower numbers are better.
The first column links to the full review, the second to a retailer selling that particular model.
TV input lag with game mode on and off (milliseconds)
The top 5 in 2020
The following five TVs, featured at the top of the page, deliver the lowest lag we’ve measured among 2020 TVs.
The TV with the least lag we’ve tested is this TCL Roku QLED TV from 2019. Thanks to its QLED technology and price, this gaming television with low input lag also happens to be the best TV value of the year.
Read our TCL 6-Series (2019 Roku TV) review.
The smart TV with the second-least lag we’ve tested is this 2019 LG OLED screen TV, which also happens to have the best OLED display picture quality, period. It boasts a wide color gamut, four HDMI inputs and a 65-inch screen size for the ultimate gaming experience.
Read our LG OLEDC9P series review.
Like the LG OLEDs this Samsung has lots of other gaming-friendly features too, like variable refresh rate and Auto Game mode. It also costs a lot less than those OLEDs.
Read our Samsung Q70 series (2019) review.
Read more: Best 75-inch TVs for 2020
Our favorite OLED alternative for the money, this Vizio has a weird quirk: only Input 5 has this stellar lag score, and that input only works with 1080p sources. The 4K-compatible inputs have higher lag (28.87ms).
Read our Vizio P-Series Quantum X review.
What else you need to know about input lag
How to turn it on. In most cases, viewing in game mode isn’t automatic so you’ll have to turn it on manually, and sometimes the gaming monitor setting can be difficult to find. Many use a picture mode called “Game” while some, like Samsung and Vizio, let you apply game mode to any setting (Samsung buries it deep in the menus, as seen below, while Vizio calls it “Gaming Low Latency”). Check individual reviews for details.
Read more: The best gaming laptop performers of 2020
Game mode makes a difference, except when it doesn’t. As you can see, many TVs cut lag substantially when you turn on game mode, but plenty don’t. In general, expensive TVs with elaborate video processing get more of a benefit when you engage game mode.
Most TVs’ game modes are good enough for most gamers. No matter how twitchy you are, it’s going to be tough to tell the difference between 15 and 30 milliseconds of input lag. Many gamers won’t even be able to discern between game mode on and off — it all depends on the game and your sensitivity to lag.
Read more: Best TVs for 2020
Turning game mode on can hurt image quality (a little). TV makers’ menus often refer to reduced picture quality. Reduced picture quality is generally the result of turning off that video processing. In my experience, however, the differences in image quality are really subtle, and worth the trade-off if you want to minimize lag for a great gaming experience.
Just finished my first four 4K HDR input lag tests, thanks to Bodnar/HD Fury setup advice from @Vincent_Teoh and @rtingsdotcom Game mode results:LG OLED65C8P: 30msSony XBR-65X900F: 23.4msTCL 65R617: 17.5msSamsung QN65Q8F: 14.3ms #BetterLateThanNever
— David Katzmaier (@dkatzmaier) May 10, 2018
4K HDR gaming lag is different from 1080p. The display resolution you game at has an impact, and since consoles such as the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X prominently feature 4K HDR output for games, I started testing for 4K HDR lag in 2018. In general, the numbers are similar to the lag with standard 1080p resolution, but as you can see from the chart above, there are exceptions.
Vizio’s Input 5 is weird. The fifth HDMI cable port on the Vizio P-Series and PQ TVs (both 2018 and 2019) have different input lag characteristics than its other HDMI ports. It’s superb for 1080p gaming, but can’t accept 4K HDR content sources. No other TV maker we’ve tested has different lag and capabilities for different inputs.
Testing is an inexact science. I use a Leo Bodnar lag tester. Here’s how it works, and how I use it. You might see different lag test results from different review outlets, which may use Bodnar or another method.
Read more: Best TVs for picture quality
Is the Xbox One X worth it?
What’s the best TV for gaming, period?
In my opinion, the best TV for gaming is one that has the best picture quality for viewing everything else, too. Games benefit from deep black levels, bright highlights and uniform screens just as much as movies and TV shows do.
Yes, there are other factors, but they don’t apply to most gamers. If you play the same game constantly on your smart LED TV and never put anything else on the screen, and that game as a bright static element that stays in the same place on the screen (like a HUD or other status display), you might be at risk for OLED burn-in. But most gamers don’t have to worry about OLED burn-in.
If the TV input where your console is connected is shared with other devices and you don’t want to remember to re-engage game mode all the time, an auto game-mode feature might be useful. And some cutting-edge PC and Xbox One X gamers might appreciate variable refresh rate. Auto game mode and variable refresh rate are found on Samsung’s 2018 TVs, and many appear on other 2019 TVs with HDMI 2.1, including sets from Samsung, LG and Sony.
Most gamers, however, will find that the best TV for gaming is the best high-end TV, period.
I’ll continue to test TVs for input lag as I review them.
Originally published last year.