A man looks at an LG Super UHD TV Nano Cell Display at CES in Las Vegas, Nevada, January 9, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / DAVID MCNEW (Photo credit should read DAVID MCNEW/AFP via Getty Images)
AFP via Getty Images
By Patrick Lucas Austin
December 2, 2019

Happy holidays! With Thanksgiving out of the way, holiday deals abounding, and your guests’ desire to watch Thursday’s NFL games finally satisfied, now might be the right time to finally ditch the old 1080p TV and spring for a 4K set.

But when it comes to 4K TVs, options are aplenty, and tech buzzwords and jargon can get pretty confusing, thus shattering any desires you may have had in favor of “a good deal.” From inexpensive sets to high-end screens costing thousands of dollars, each 4K set is slightly different, but it’s possible to see through the cloud of terms to pick the right one for your needs. Here’s what you need to know to pick the best 4K TV for you.

4K, UHD, and Ultra HD

First up, you should know what the “4K” on the box means. The term is a shorthand, and refers to the approximate horizontal display resolution of the set (in this case, nearly 4000 pixels across). When it comes to 4K sets, names like “4K UHD,” “Ultra High Definition,” or “UHDTV” all mean basically the same thing, though “UHD” can also refer to the budding tech of 8K TVs. (Fun fact: There is another standard used exclusively in movie theaters — known as DCI 4K — which boosts the horizontal pixel line count from 3840 pixels to 4096 pixels.)

The standard resolution of 4K TVs is 3840 x 2160 pixels, four times the pixel count of your now-aging 1080p HDTV. In addition, all 4K TVs double the pixel density (measured in pixels per square inch, or ppi) of your 1080p TV. That pixel density helps at larger screen sizes, and is why a smaller TV looks “sharper” than a larger one, and why huge 4K TVs blow similarly sized 1080p TVs out of the water in terms of image sharpness.

In general, refresh rates, being the number of times per second that a display is updated, on 4K sets come in two flavors: 60Hz (60 new images per second) or 120Hz (120 new images per second). A higher refresh rate means less motion blur, and a sharper overall image. When buying, be wary of brands touting refresh rates of 240Hz or higher — these numbers are inflated with software tricks and features generally detrimental to your viewing experience. Be sure to look for the native refresh rate — 60Hz is fine, but 120Hz is ideal, and found on more expensive sets.

Watching 4K Content

Of course, if you’re looking to watch 4K content, you’ll need more than the right TV. You’ll need a quick internet connection. Streaming 4K content often requires a broadband connection, and the majority of streaming services require a speed of 25 Mbps (megabits per second) or greater. As for actually streaming it to your TV, you should use a wired Ethernet connection to your TV or streaming device. For those going wireless, 4K streams could be limited by your router’s capabilities, meaning you may need to upgrade more than your set.

Still, if you really want to enjoy your cinematic masterpiece on your 4K set, you’re better off ditching the streaming services and buying your media. Specifically, you should consider purchasing content stored on Ultra HD Blu-Ray discs, which support 4K resolution, as well as features like High Dynamic Range (HDR), which offers more vibrant colors and darker blacks, or increased frame rates.

By going physical, you’ll benefit from a higher bitrate, which means a higher quality picture compared to streaming of an identical film. If you’re a cinephile, go physical. If you can’t tell the difference, or can’t be bothered cluttering your home with even more discs, then stream away. It looks great either way.

Lighting, Dimming, and High Dynamic Range

One of the most impressive features on a 4K set is support for HDR, which increases the contrast and allows you to view an even wider color spectrum. Whatever you’re watching must support HDR, so don’t expect every single show to get an upgrade. In general HDR, content looks more vibrant compared to non-HDR content, but it requires an HDR-capable TV, and HDR-supported content.

Unfortunately, there are a few competing HDR standards, which muddies the waters — but the most common standards are HDR10, HDR10+ and Dolby Vision. HDR10 is the most common format, supported by various manufacturers and content providers. HDR10+ is a newer standard, one that offers more in terms of capabilities compared to HDR10, but lacks widespread support. Dolby Vision, another competing HDR standard, supports an even wider range of colors, and is supported by various manufacturers and content makers (like Disney+). When buying a set, support for more standards is always better.

TVs today use LEDs to light up the LCD screen. The two major lighting technologies — edge-lit and back-lit lighting — light your screen using LEDs, but channel that light across the screen differently.

Edge-lit sets pack the LED lights (responsible for your TVs brightness) along the perimeter of the screen, illuminating the picture from the outside to the center. Edge-lit TVs are usually thinner than their back-lit counterparts, so if space or aesthetics are a concern, an edge-lit TV might be the more satisfying option. But what you’ll gain in thinness you’ll sacrifice in image quality. Edge-lit TVs don’t do the best job at reproducing dark scenes, and chances are you’ll get more of a dark grey rather than the inky blacks you’re looking for.

Back-lit sets put the LEDs behind the screen itself rather than along its edges. That allows for a more uniform picture compared to edge-lit sets. The lighting technology used in your 4K set will also affect another feature: local dimming. Local dimming, like the name suggests, controls the LED brightness in sections on your screen, which results in an increase in contrast from the TV’s brightest white to its darkest black. More sections — or zones — means more precise control over scenes, and a better picture overall.

What exactly is an OLED TV?

4K sets using OLED (organic light emitting diode) screens have an advantage over their traditional LCD-based counterparts thanks to some innovative technology. OLED displays are able to adjust the lighting for each individual pixel rather than using a backlight to dim or brighten the whole of the display. OLED screens provide much better contrast, faster response times and a generally thinner profile, but they’re also more expensive than the non-OLED competition.

They also carry the potential issue of burn-in or image retention, though manufacturers often include software to mitigate any loss in image quality. In general, if image quality is your main concern, an OLED TV may be the way to go.

Write to Patrick Lucas Austin at patrick.austin@time.com.

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