It’s safe to say that 4K has kind of arrived as the norm now. Propelled no doubt by the 2018 release of 4K variants of the PS4 and Xbox One and the decreasing price point, towards the tail end of 2021 it’s a default format for many at this point.
Now that we’re in 2021, we’re revisiting the big question of 4K TVs: what’s so special about them, and is now the time to buy one?
Point of Entry
The most important thing to get out the way first is that 4K is pretty cheap these days. At this point you can find an entry-level 4K Samsung TV (40-plus inches) in the $300 price range. With that said, 4K is just the resolution, and not the be-all-end-all of image quality.
Other key variables to consider are:
- Refresh rate (the higher the better)
- HDR compatibility
- OLED vs LED vs LCD vs QLED
- Contrast ratio (the higher the better)
There is, of course, the question of whether you have any actual 4K content to view. If you have just regular full HD (1080p) devices, like a Blu-ray player, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 or Xbox One, then you won’t see huge benefits when running these things on a 4K TV. There will be some effect, thanks to something called “upconverting,” which upscales the 1080p quality for a higher resolution.
With that said, more and more services and devices are moving onto 4K resolutions now (more on that later), so if you buy an entry-level 4K TV, you’ll be future-proofed and will be able to make the most of devices that are steadily becoming the standard.
Moving on Up
So the entry point for 4K is, say, $300, and for that you should expect to get a TV with HDR, LCD or LED display. It won’t be the brightest screen and it won’t have the best contrast ratio, But 4K TVs stretch on up all the way to the thousands of dollars. Beyond the obvious factor of size difference, there are several very important things to consider with 4K.
This is pretty much the baseline tech in 4K TVs today. HDR (High Dynamic Range) allows for a wider color gamut, deeper blacks, and brighter whites. Essentially, colors “pop” a whole lot more, and you get a much better contrast. It’s an essential accompaniment to a 4K TV. HDR10 is the baseline standard for HDR TVs these days, allowing for up to one billion colors onscreen.
Simply put, this is the difference between the white and black shades on your screen. The higher the contrast ratio, the deeper the blacks your TV is capable of displaying and the less ‘dusty’ your screen will look. If a TV has a 5000:1 contrast ratio, that means that whites are 5000 times brighter than the on-screen blacks.
So what is a good contrast ratio? It’s a tough one, because there is no agreed-upon standard of contrast ratio still, so two TVs with the same one could have drastically different depth of blacks.
A very good way to compare contrast ratios is to go to Rtings, which digs deep into the TV specifications and really tells you what you’re getting when it comes to contrast ratio and other factors.
LED vs OLED vs QLED
An entry-level 4K TV will most likely be an LED display. (If it’s an OLED for under $1000, then that’s a suspiciously good price, and you should be wary.) LED panels are usually directly backlit (some are edge-lit, but these are going out of favor due to weaker light distribution) and rely on a grid of little light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to produce a nice even color gamut.
OLED is an evolution of LED and allows a TV to adjust the luminosity of each individual pixel, even turning pixels off completely when the required color is deep black. It leads to great contrast and black levels, as well as other benefits like better motion blur and uniformity. This technically means that OLEDs have an infinite contrast ratio because their blacks are pitch-black.
QLED is a Samsung-specific tech that actually has more in common with LED than OLED. Like LED, it uses a backlit LCD panel but adds a nanoparticle filter that makes colours pop more. Like OLED, it’s much pricier than LED, though the consensus is that it doesn’t quite match OLED in terms of its contrast ratios, refresh rates and other underlying technologies.
How Much 4K Content Is Out There?
4K (and HDR) is steadily becoming the standard in TV hardware, cable and streaming services. The PS5 and Xbox Series X (and the older PS4 Pro and Xbox One X) both support 4K resolutions and HDR. The future of optical media remains a bit uncertain, but in the meantime Ultra HD Blu-ray players are also becoming the norm.
Cable providers aren’t jumping onto the 4K bandwagon as quickly as streaming services, so if you prefer the “old way” of watching TV through a satellite-based provider rather than services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu, you may be missing out on the bulk of the 4K content.
Here is how the US 4K landscape looks in terms of providers as of late 2021:
|Amazon Prime||$120/year (Prime membership)||Streaming||Amazon Original Series and a sizeable selection of movies available in 4K|
|DirecTV||$65-$135/month||Satellite||3 dedicated 4K channels, on-demand titles|
|DISH||$65-$100/month||Satellite||Selection of on-demand movies|
|Hulu||$6-$71/month||Streaming||Hulu original series, on-demand titles|
|Apple TV||$5/month||Streaming||Around 70 original Apple shows and movies, on-demand titles|
|Netflix||$18/month||Streaming||Huge library of original titles and on-demand content|
|UltraFlix||$1-$10/rental||Streaming rentals||Large 4K library of licensed on-demand content|
|VUDU||$4-$8 rentals |
|Streaming rentals||On-demand content|
|Xfinity||$50-$89/month||Satellite||On-demand content via NBC Universal|
|YouTube||Free/$7-$18 Premium||Streaming||Licensed on-demand content, YouTube originals, YouTube user content|
The UK is actually doing better on this front, with Sky Q offering a growing number of shows, sports events and movies in 4K, while BT has a dedicated 4K sports channel.
As you can see in the table, streaming services are very much the way to go for 4K, with tons of providers offering a large amount of content at a fraction of the cost of satellite providers.
One of the unspoken perks of a 4K TV is that even an entry-level one will be a smart TV these days, essentially making your TV more of a computer than a regular TV. Smart TVs let you download hundreds of apps, ranging from TV streaming services like Netflix, to media servers, file managers and games. Apps like Kodi and Plex make it a cinch to stream media from your home devices to your TV.
Android-based Smart TVs have integrated Chromecast, which lets you beam photos and video from your phone straight to your TV, and you can usually connect a game controller via Bluetooth (especially handy if you stream games from your PC to TV via the Steam Link app).
This aspect of 4K TVs really raises their stock, and it’s safe to say that most users will find apps and smart features that they’ll benefit immensely from.
So after all that, should you seriously consider a 4K TV at this point? I think all the evidence points to yes. It’s a mature technology now, cheap at the entry level and jaw-dropping at higher (though not astronomic) price points. There’s a lot of 4K content and competition now – especially online – and the benefits of having a Smart 4K TV are immeasurable.
Does your desktop look awkward when displayed on your TV? Learn how to fix overscan or underscan on your 4K TV. Or if you want to know if YouTube Premium is worth it, check out our YouTube vs YouTube Premium comparison.
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