It’s safe to say that 4K isn’t as much of a buzzword as it was a year ago when I last asked the question whether a 4K TV was worth buying. But the reason it’s slipped into the background isn’t due to a lack of popularity. To the contrary, 4K TVs are fast becoming the norm, and it feels like 2018 was a breakthrough year in terms of them slipping into the mainstream, where before they felt kind of lofty and luxurious.
Now that we’re in 2019, 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 has become way cheaper in the last year or so. At this point you can find an entry-level 4K Samsung TV (40-plus inches) in the $300 price range. So if you’re looking into buying a new TV, then there really is no reason not to go 4K at this point.
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 essentially retains the 1080p quality of the image 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 en 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.
When I asked whether 4K TVs were worth it just over a year ago, I decided to include the famous Carlton Bale article which suggested that to see the difference on a 60-inch TV, you’d need to be sitting within five feet of it and just two to three feet away from a 42- to 50-inch TV. After owning a 4K TV for the best part of a year now, I can say from my experience that this theory is redundant. The difference between 1080p and 4K is significant on a 50-inch TV that is a good ten feet away, and I think at this point in time I’m in the majority who think that. The difference between 4K and 1080p really is night and day.
Moving on Up
So the entry point for 4K is, say, $300. 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, colours “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 colours onscreen.
LED vs OLED vs QLED
An entry-level 4K TV will most likely be an LED display. (If it’s an OLED for under $900, 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 colour 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 colour is deep black. It leads to great contrast and black levels, as well as other benefits like better motion blur and uniformity.
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, and the jury’s still out on whether it’s overall better than OLED.
How Much 4K Content Is Out There?
4K (and HDR) is steadily becoming the standard in TV hardware, cable and streaming services. The PS4 Pro and Xbox One X both support 4K resolutions and HDR, and it’s certain that the next generation of consoles will maintain this standard. 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.
In the US the best TV providers for 4K at the time of writing are DirecTV, which has a single 4K channel, and Dish, which lets you watch certain shows and sports events in 4K. Many of the newer set-top boxes offer 4K content through apps like Netflix and YouTube, but this doesn’t count for much when most 4K TVs let you download these apps anyway.
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.
Streaming services are very much the way to go for 4K, with the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, PlayStation Video and Google Play offering plenty of content.
So in short, the 4K content is out there, but you still need to search for it.
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 fairly mature technology now, cheap at the entry level, and even if there isn’t exactly a slew of 4K content yet, the benefits of having a Smart TV – which most 4K TVs are – are immeasurable. The 4K content is slowly streaming in, and you’ll want to be ready for it.
It’s taken a while to get here, but here in 2019 4K is finally something that’s accessible for most people.