Now that another Consumer Electronic Show is behind us, it’s time to think about the future, and this future is going to be in 4K.
Yup, there’s no question about it. TV manufacturers are now stuffing their rosters with new Ultra HD TVs. Some companies have doubled the number of 4K models in their lineup from 2013, and that trend is bound to continue. 4K TVs are now in the position that 1080p TVs were in when they first hit market—an inevitable conclusion.
But what does all this mean to the TV buyer? Are there other concerns or trends that accompany or impact your decision to buy or not buy a 4K TV? Here’s everything you need to know about 4K TVs now.
1. Will 4K TVs be more affordable?
Yes, of course they will, but how much more affordable is still to be determined. Very few manufacturers release their prices at CES. Companies like Seiki, Polaroid and other 3rd tier makers did announce bargain-priced Ultra HD TVs at the Consumer Electronics Show, but most of the big names wait until spring when they actually release their products (and have nice parties in Manhattan with drinks and sports celebs).
Sharp did revealed the prices for its TVs. A 60-inch Sharp 4K will go for $4,999 while the 70-inch version is $5,999. In fact Sharp was more focused on the new Quattron+ TVs that display 1080p resolution, but use a new subpixel method to be what Sharp claims is the highest resolution 1080p TV (still working that one out). Those models also accept a 4K signal, making it an interesting bridge product between 4K and 1080p. They’re also a lot cheaper, starting at $2,229 for a 60-inch model.
Sharp 4K TV
Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, LG and Toshiba were all mum on prices.
Consumer Electronics, particularly TVs, always come down in price, and lately it happens sooner rather than later.
2. Will there be something to watch in 4K?
Yes. First, I think it’s important to make clear that with a 4K TV you can still watch anything you watch now, and most likely (depending on the TV) it will look better than it does on your 1080p TV. Image processing is everything (see more about that here). Your current 1080p TV (assuming you’re not watching an older 1080i, 720p or *gasp* standard resolution TV) is upconverting most of your content anyway. All those 480p DVDs or 1080i/720p TV programs go through an image processor to scale them to your TV’s native resolution without looking like they’ve just been shaken through a flower sifter. All 4K TVs do that too, some better than others. Because 4K content is going to be slow coming (but it’s coming), most of what you watch will be lower-resolution media upconverted by your TV.
Sony XBR-X950B 4K TV
While most of what you watch on an Ultra HD TV won’t be in 4K, there is more 4K content coming. Several TV manufacturers and streaming content services announced that sometime in 2014 they will be streaming 4K direct to your TV. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings declared that an internet download speed of 15Mbps is required. That sounds like a doable number. In fact, as I write this, my laptop is getting 18.34Mbps via Wi-Fi (from Verizon FiOS). Then why do I have so much trouble getting 1080 resolution content from my Netflix subscription (more on maximizing your network for streaming here)? Count me as a little skeptical until I see it happen in my own house.
Aside from Netflix, several other online streaming services are planning to do 4K, including Amazon, Comcast Xfinity, DIRECTV, M-GO and more.
Last year Sony launched a video server for buyers of its 4K TVs (the product only worked with Sony TVs, not other brands). That product will be expanded this year with more content being added.
Samsung also is launching a video server, called the UHD Video Pack. It’s actually less like a formal home media server and more like an external hard drive. I was told it will be include a USB output for connection to 4K TVs and include content from Fox and Paramount. There weren’t a lot of details on that product, so I’ll fill in the blanks as they come out.
One thing that most of the new 4K TVs will have in common is support of HEVC (high efficiency video codec) for decoding the new 4K data.
The Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (the group behind UltraViolet—the online movie locker, not the sci-fi movie) may also be adding a 4K solution to UltraViolet.
3. Will there be 4K Blu-rays?(or some kind of 4K disc)?
Maybe, probably. The Blu-Ray Disc Association told The Hollywood Reporter that a 4K-capable disc system is likely to launch this year.
To watch the new 4K discs you will need a new player because current players won’t support the format.
4. What about these curved and wide TVs?
Oh, those weird ones. Um, yes, they exist. Are they important? Well, that’s an important question. The odder TVs mostly come from Samsung and LG, who each claim titles for being the first to come out with the same things at the same time. I suspect some engineers are too friendly at the after-work bars.
The curved TVs first emerged last year as 1080p OLED models from LG and Samsung. They were gorgeous as only OLED can be, but the curve was something unexpected. Those first models also couldn’t be wall-hung.
Samsung curved 78-inch 4K TV
The 2014 curved TVs are a mix of 4K and OLED (some are both). The curve itself is subtle. It may not detract much from the picture, but it probably doesn’t add much, if anything either. Consider it more of a design element. If you like the sleek look of a flat TV snugged up against your wall, then skip the new curved options, which will cost more anyway.
Samsung’s and LG’s 105-inch 21:9 aspect ratio TVs are another thing. They’re big and wide, making them perfect for CinemaScope movies, but maybe not so hot for plane old HDTV viewing (those extra pixels on the side will need to be doing something). The models shown were also curved (except for Toshiba’s prototype), and will also be very very expensive.
LG curved OLED 4K TVs
Finally, LG and Samsung showed 4K flexible TVs. They were more flappy than flexible. The TVs were mounted in a kind of box or frame, and at the press of a button the sides could bend forward (creating a curved TV) or bend back (for a flat look). Again, this is more of a gimmick, at least in my mind. If you do like the curved look, but want the TV to be flat against a wall when it’s turned off, then this might be a good compromise.
5. Can I make my own 4K videos?
Funny you should ask (actually, I asked, so it’s not that funny). Yes, Sony introduced the first consumer (kinda) camcorder that records natively in 4K. It costs $2,000, which is a bit more than most people expect to pay for a home camcorder, especially since smart phones have become the most popular camcorders, but it’s coming if you want one.
6. I want one. What should I look for in a 4K TV?
This is actually pretty easy. Shopping for a 4K Ultra HD TV is about the same as shopping for a 1080p TV. They’re basically the same, just with more pixels. Here are some tips:
• Look for local dimming with full-array back lighting. Most LED TVs (1080p and 4K) use edge-mounted LEDs, but the few full-array back-lit ones are worth the extra money.
• Get a 2014 model. The new models (which haven’t hit stores yet) will include decoders for HEVC for 4K streaming content.
• Try it with non-4K content. Even the cheapest 4K TVs look pretty decent with pristine 4K content loaded onto it, but should test it with the content you’re really going to watch, and that means cable TV.
• Get as big a TV as you can fit in your room. One of the most important benefits of 4K is that you can go much bigger before you see any pixel structure on the screen.
• Check out the smart TV features. New TVs are freak’n loaded with online apps, streaming services, games, profile settings, cutting-edge control features (which you may or may not care about) and other things.
• Don’t forget the audio. Some new TVs have done a fair job of improving the audio quality of their built-in speakers, but most still sound like paper cups. At least get a good soundbar to go with your new TV.
• Do you need a 4K TV? Well, of course no one needs any kind of TV. Just because 4K is the new thing also doesn’t mean that 1080p TVs are suddenly junk to be overlooked. For many viewers in average-sized living rooms, 1080p will deliver all the depth and detail they need. Spend some time in front of both and decide if the cost difference is worth it to you.
LG 98-inch 4K TV
The 4K Ultra HD transition is still in its toddler stage, so there are many unanswered questions. Will there be a 4K broadcast standard (it’s being worked on) or 4K over cable (LOL). What will the overturning of Net Neutrality rules (which happened January 14th) do to streaming services? Are whole-house video distribution systems ready to send 4K around the house (most aren’t). Will the new Breaking Bad spinoff (Better Call Saul) be in 4K? I’ll keep you posted on all of that throughout the year.