Everything You Need to Know About 4K TVs

Is it time to upgrade from your HDTV?

By Ryan Hilary

4K is the next big thing. At least, that's what the TV manufacturers are saying. 4K promises to replace the high definition (HD) experience we’ve come to know and love, delivering to the TV screen an unprecedented leap in image quality.

Until recently, upgrading a television to 4K made little sense for most of us, because the technology was prohibitively expensive and there was little content to actually watch on it. But the cost has been dropping steadily, so equipping yourself for the 4K revolution is becoming a practical proposition.

But what is 4K? Unfortunately, everything from the buzzwords to the technical details can be overwhelming. But never fear: Here is your guide to the ins and outs of the fledgling format.

What Is 4K?

The story of 4K goes back to the early 2000s, when it began to leak into movie theaters—most notably in James Cameron's Avatar, which boasted full 4K resolution as part of its staggeringly sophisticated (and much-hyped) technical package. For years, 4K stayed in the cinema.

Only in 2010 did it start to take off at home, with YouTube enabling content to stream in this resolution. Netflix following suit, converting some of its heaviest hitters—Breaking Bad, for example—to the format. Now content providers across the board are gearing up for a full transition to 4K.

Technically, 4K refers to the number of pixels a monitor can display. A little tech lingo for a moment: The aspect ratio and resolution refers to the shape of the screen and to how much data that shape can display. HD, with an aspect ratio of 16:9, has a resolution of 1920 (horizontal) by 1080 (vertical) pixels, which works out to a total of just over 2 million pixels.

Sounds like a lot? Well, not really: It's equivalent to a 2-megapixel digital image, like you'd get from a digital camera in 2001. But in comparison, at 4906 (horizontal) by 2160 (vertical) pixels, true 4K more than quadruples the resolution of a standard high-definition display.

It's worth pointing out that  home 4K televisions aren’t actually true 4K—the tech world is filled with confusing stuff like this. The term 4K is reserved for cinematic projectors that offer the full 8-million-pixel experience. The TV set in your living room "only" displays around 3840 (horizontal) by 2160 (vertical) pixels—but that's still four times the count of standard HD. Although the term 4K is commonly used for both, your television is technically 4K Ultra HD (UHD) and the local movie theater is straight-up 4K.

The net effect of all these additional pixels is improved image quality in the form of greater detail and sharper images. Check out a 4K broadcast of a baseball game on a large television, and you get a hyperreal impression of every play; if a player were to hit the ball directly at the camera, you might even duck.

Bringing 4K Into Your Home

Are you ready for two more caveats? First, because the bandwidth needed to broadcast 4K is extremely large, you’ll need a very fast internet connection to stream the format. Second, although 4K improves the resolution of your television, you’ll need a very big (and therefore expensive) set to experience all that 4K has to offer. On a smaller monitor, the pixels are so tiny that it's really hard to see all the detail that 4K can deliver.

The average price of a midrange 4K-capable television is around $5,000. If you plan to make the upgrade, bear in mind that you’ll need space and cash for a gigantic TV; and if you upgrade resolution without increasing monitor size, you may not notice the 4K effect in all its glory. The improvement over HD won't be as dramatic as when you jumped from a square CRT set to a 16:9 high-def flatscreen.

It’s Not Just About the Resolution

4K TVs usually offer more than just a superlative pixel count. They interact with preexisting technologies to improve picture quality on multiple levels. For years now some of the best HD televisions have employed LCD displays with LED backlights to create brilliant brightness and contrast.

With a 4K television, this process is especially stunning. The same is true of OLED (organic light-emitting diode) technology, which boosts the depth and vividness of color. Neither of these options is utterly unique to 4K, but they’re more likely to come standard on a 4K monitor—so in addition to the high pixel count, you’re getting a full package of cutting-edge technologies.

Wow, 4K Is Awesome

Yes, we think so too. Check out our product reviews of 4K devices, and you’ll see a lot of high scores. But not everyone agrees. Critics often point to the caveats and exceptions associated with 4K, and argue that these devices aren't yet at the must-have stage of development.

4K has some stiff competition from another high-resolution format—High Dynamic Range (HDR). Although 4K has been a buzzword in recent months, HDR stole the show during CES 2016 when LG introduced its G6 and E6 televisions—both of which are OLED certified. HDR is less about the number of pixels and more about the quality of the image.

At this stage, it’s unclear whether there will be an HDR/4K divide, or whether they will coexist. There’s no technological reason why 4K televisions couldn’t also broadcast in HDR. As more technology becomes available and as prices decrease, a standard may evolve that allows the rival technologies to exist in harmony. But no such standard exists yet, and consumers should be aware of the existing options and how they interact.

Should I Buy 4K Right Now?

Probably not.

Some television stations broadcast some of their shows in the format, as do Netflix, Google, and YouTube, all of which are experimenting with trying to introduce a working standard for 4K. Of course, you can already play Blu-ray movies in UHD, but again there’s that big-television caveat. When it comes to videogames, both Sony and Microsoft are gearing up to offer a 4K gaming experience through new iterations of the PS4 and X-box One consoles (PS4 Pro and Project Scorpio, respectively).

The upshot is that—despite the technical innovation—1080p-resolution televisions aren’t going anywhere for a while, and your existing content won’t be obsolete for at least a few years. In fact, you could argue that your existing content will never be obsolete, per se--it looks good on any TV, just not as amazing as 4K content.

So think of moving to 4K as a way of “future-proofing” your entertainment system or photography equipment—the process of anticipating future technologies and making sure you're well-prepared for the impending technological shift). 4K is coming, but it's far from essential today.

Image credits: Panasonic, Sony, LG, Samsung.