Should You Get an “Ultra HD” 4K TV?


tcl curved 4k tv at ces 2015

Manufacturers have been pushing “Ultra HD” 4k TVs for a couple years now. There are plenty of models available now, and they’re cheaper than ever, too. But should you buy one?

4K isn’t exactly a gimmick like 3D TVs a few years ago or the more recent curved TVs. They offer a clear benefit: more pixels in a smaller area, which means a higher-resolution with more detail.

What 4K Is, and Why You’ll Want It… Eventually

The argument for 4K is very clear. It’s higher resolution than “full HD” (1080p) televisions. This is achieved by packing more pixels into a smaller area. Smartphones, tablets, and laptops are all gaining higher-resolution screens. 4K TVs are just TVs with similar high-resolution displays.

A standard full HD TV you’ll buy right now has a resolution of 1080p, or 1920×1080. A 4K TV has a resolution of 3840×2160. It’s named 4K because a it has about four times as many pixels as a 1080p TV, and us nearly 4000 pixels wide.

More pixels just results in a richer, more detailed image. If you’ve seen a recent Apple device with a “Retina” display or another competing smartphone or tablet with a high-resolution display, you’ll understand. But smartphones, tablets, and laptops benefit more from this because your eyes are closer to the screen. At common TV sizes and viewing distances, the improvement isn’t quite as extreme–in fact, depending on the size of your TV and how far away you sit, you may not notice much of a difference at all.


Yes, 4K (or something like it) is the Future

The idea of 4K is fine. TV screens will–and should–become higher-resolution and more detailed. We won’t all be using 1080p televisions in twenty years, especially as smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktop PC monitors, and other displays become higher-resolution. TV sets and mobile device displays now use basically the same type of technology, so why wouldn’t TVs eventually become higher-resolution, too?

The Content Isn’t There–But Maybe It’s Getting There

The real problem with 4K is that the content still isn’t quite there. 4K content has four times the amount of pixels, which is four times the amount of data. It’s also a lot more work for video game consoles to render. Very little 4K content is currently available, but the content seems to be coming. Companies realize they can charge more for that 4K content and make a bigger profit. Here’s what’s available, and what’s in store:

  • Blu-rays and Other Physical Discs: Blu-ray discs currently aren’t available with 4K, so there’s no way to get a 4K movie or TV series on a physical disc. Multiple studios, including Sony and Warner Brothers, have announced that they’re releasing 4K Blu-Rays this year, however. You’ll the need to buy a new Blu-ray player and newer, probably more expensive 4K Blu-ray discs to get that 4K content on your TV.
  • Cable and Other Traditional TV Services: For a long time, there weren’t any 4K TV channels, either. You’ll need shows filmed in high-resolution as well as a channel to deliver them. However, DirecTV offers a 4K set-top box, and DISH will soon be offering their own. Even Comcast has a 4K box on the way in 2016. So, as long as you have the box and a compatible TV (not all 4K TVs are compatible yet!), you’ll be able to watch some content in 4K.
  • Netflix, Amazon, and Other Streaming Services: Only a select handful of TV shows from only Netflix and Amazon are available in 4K. For example, Netflix requires a few specific 4K TV models, on Internet connection with 25 Mbps or faster download speeds, and a more expensive streaming plan. (See Netflix’s details here.) And, even if you met all those requirements, you could only watch a handful of things in 4K. The vast majority of videos on Netflix would still be in lower resolution 1080p.

  • Movie Download Services: Movie-download services are the place where 4K is currently most practical and available. The idea is that you’ll choose a movie, and your set-top-box will download it ahead of time — perhaps overnight. You’ll then be able to watch the movie in 4K the next day. These services generally only have a handful of movies available, too. This requires a separate box, a different video rental or purchase service you’re probably not already using, and you have to plan ahead when you want to watch 4K content.
  • Home Movies: You can buy video cameras that record video in 4K and then watch those videos in high-resolution 4K on your TV. Not only do you need the 4K TV here — you need an expensive video camera! Most people really don’t need their home movies in 4K. 1080p should be plenty.
  • Video Game Consoles: Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One won’t support 4K any time soon. These consoles often struggle to output content in 1080p, and many new games run at lower resolutions than 1080p;. You won’t see 4K consoles games any time soon — at least until the next console generation.
  • PC Gaming on Your TV: You can connect a PC to your TV, so theoretically you could play PC games in 4K on your TV. This is the only option if you want to play games in 4K on your TV, but most games won’t be optimized for it. And you’d need expensive, powerful graphics hardware and a lot of horsepower to push that 4K display. Even if you had that amount of horsepower, there’s a good chance you’d be happier with a lower-resolution image and a higher frames-per-second than 4K and a lower frames-per-second. At CES 2015, companies showing off 4K gaming are doing it with PCs — not consoles.

TV manufacturers, Netflix, and movie studios announced the “UHD Alliance” last year at CES 2015. This should be an industry-wide push for more 4K content from everyone. While the 4K content isn’t there right now, it seems to be gaining a little steam after not making much progress throughout 2014.

Why You Should Wait

Get a 4K TV if you have money to burn, but you’d just be burning the money until the content is there. All you can do with a 4K TV is watch a handful of things from Netflix and Amazon, use a movie-download service to watch a handful of downloadable movies, and maybe play PC games at a higher resolution than 1080p. More content will be coming this year, but it’s still just “getting there”.

Bear in mind also that services offering 4K won’t just require a lot of bandwidth, they’ll also come at a premium price. You’re paying more for the content as an early adopter.

4K TVs have come down a lot in price. They were tens of thousands of dollars just a few years ago, but now you can often spend a few extra hundred dollars when buying a TV and get a 4K panel. They’re finally at the point where some TV buyers can say, “Oh, what the hell, I’ll spend a few hundred dollars more,” and manufacturers love that. But with standards still evolving–like the new high dynamic range on some panels–we’re likely to see better and better 4K TVs in the next few years, as more content comes out.

Lastly, remember that a cheap 4K TV may be just a bit more expensive than a decent 1080p TV, but that cheap 4K TV may have worse components or other specifications like a slower refresh rate, higher input lag for gaming, and worse color reproduction, for exapmle.

4K is getting closer to ready, but we still recommend waiting for the 4K content ecosystem to mature. If your current 1080p TV is fine, keep that! You can get a 4K TV in a few years when the content is there.

If you absolutely need a new TV now, you can look at the 4K models, but know that you’re still getting in early. Not all 4K services and devices will necessarily work on every 4K TV out there right now, and 4K TVs are bound to improve quite a bit in the next couple years. You might be better off getting a solid 1080p “Full HD” TV for significantly cheaper and enjoying it for a little while longer. There’s no sense in trying to “future proof” yourself by buying a 4K TV now, as you’ll just end up spending more money — or spending a similar amount of money — and having a dated 4K TV when everyone else is using their newer, better, and cheaper 4K TVs in a few years.

The good news is that the industry seems to realize they need 4K content to push the beautiful TV displays they’re showing off. The next year should be interesting, and we should start to see some real progress towards that 4K content we’re all waiting for.

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