Over the past holiday season, 4K televisions were among the hottest gadgets to fly off the shelves. But here we are, nearly six months later, and you have to wonder if some consumers have buyer’s remorse. There’s no arguing that the screens on these living room fixtures are great, but are they really four times better than the 1080p televisions many of us already have?
"When you go 4K, you’re getting four times the resolution, four times the pixel data that you would typically get with a 1080p television,” says Jeff Park, a senior manager of product marketing and technology evangelism with HDMI Licensing. While many experts might be biased about whether 4K televisions are worthwhile buys or not, HDMI is the universally accepted cable that delivers video from devices as varied as decade-old DVD players and gaming consoles to 20-inch computer monitors and 108-inch 4K digital projectors. As a result, Park is a great authority on the emerging technology, because no matter what kind of TV you buy, you’ll be using his cables anyway. “It’s four times better, in terms of the number of pixels,” he says.
But be sure to take note of the caveat above, because pixels aren’t everything when it comes to a great television experience. First, before you buy, consider the setup in your TV room. This exhaustive but excellent breakdown by Rtings shows the relationship between viewing distance and pixel density. It can help you decide if a 4K television is even worth it for your space.
Another thing to keep in mind is that larger televisions are not only becoming less expensive, but also more mainstream. For instance, as the chart below shows, of all the televisions currently on the market, the 60-inch and larger size is the most popular among manufacturers (and, likely, consumers). So if you’re planning on getting one of these big boys — and if your couch is less than eight feet from your TV — it might be wise to go with 4K.
But that assumes there’s content available to take advantage of all these new pixels — and at this point, that’s a very big assumption. Like any piece of digital media — be it a music download, a photo snapped with your phone, or a television show streamed via Hulu — videos must have been initially created with equipment designed to capture enough pixels to make your screen pop. Today’s digital video cameras have those chops, but the gear they used to shoot your favorite 90’s sitcoms didn’t. And right now there’s only a handful of studios shooting their television shows in 4K, a standard that’s also called “Ultra HD."
One reason for this is that the U.S. has a big problem with delivering these beefy files. As Park notes, 4K has four times the number of pixels of 1080p, high definition television. That means there’s four times as much data involved in rendering the same (albeit much richer) imagery. In the past, physical media hardwired to televisions (via HDMI) like DVDs and Blu-Rays drove the demand for better television sets. But with the demise of physical video rental locations (with all due respect to Redbox) and the rise of streaming video, it’s been an uphill battle to apply this magic formula to 4K television sets.
Last week, however, a final Ultra HD Blu-Ray specification was unveiled that may give movie buffs something to cheer about. "When people purchase new TVs, they’ll typically also purchase sources — that’s what they’re accustomed to,” says Park. "We expect that the Ultra HD BluRay release, and many content releases that will be coming this fall, to really drive content and maybe even adoption of these 4K-enabled products."
But if consumers eschew Ultra HD Blu-Rays, it may be because digital downloads have gone mainstream. From Amazon Prime to Apple TV, more people are renting and streaming movies online, though by and large none of these downloads are close to 4K quality. Netflix has some shows, like House of Cards, that were filmed in 4K, but every step along the pipeline has to be able to handle 4K video for its rich detail to make it to your screen. For instance, if you subscribe to Netflix’s 4K service (which, by the way, costs more) and you're watching House of Cards on your Roku 3, then you’re not getting it in all its ultra high-definition glory. To do that, you'll need to use the Netflix app on select 4K smart televisions or connected Blu-Ray players. Also, as CNET points out, you’ll probably need a 4K compatible receiver too. (Ouch.)
While it would be natural to assume streaming 4K video is the answer, there’s the issue of having enough Internet bandwidth to deliver files that large. Unless you happen to be one of very few Google Fiber customers, the U.S. broadband infrastructure isn’t ready for you and your neighbors to watch downloads in 4K resolution. Forget Kim Kardashian—you’re going to be the one who breaks the Internet.
Meanwhile, the newest wave of next-generation video game consoles have capitalized on 4K’s breathtaking resolution. Xbox One S and PlayStation 4 Pro support 4K video, but with some caveats. For instance, while 4K systems make almost every game look better, only the newest titles take the full advantage of the technology. At this stage, Xbox has no true 4K games (though the console will let you play 4K Blu-Rays), while PlayStation 4 Pro has about four dozen (but it doesn't support the ultra high-definition video discs.)
But even if you're not a gamer, there still are good reasons to choose a 4K television set over a high-definition one. “As with any technology’s introduction, it’s not in a vacuum,” says Park. “Resolution is not the only thing that improves over the years. The panel itself is much better. The color rendition is much better.” Other features, such as the eye-popping hyper dynamic range and faster frame rates, — "technologies that are the unsung hero of the TV world,” says Parks — make these sets worth splurging for. And maybe, just maybe, 4K programming will arrive someday soon, too.