BY NOW YOU’VE LIKELY HEARD something about Ultra HD TVs, also known as 4K TVs. If you’re curious about this latest television viewing experience, read on. We’ll tell you everything you need to know about the new world of Ultra HD TVs.
What Is an Ultra HD TV?
HDTVs as we know them today come mostly in what’s referred to as 1080p resolution, which means there are 1,080 pixels vertically and 1,920 pixels horizontally that create a picture. A 4K or Ultra HD (the official name) television needs to display a resolution of at least 8 million active pixels, with at least 2,160 vertically and 3,840 horizontally in a 16:9 aspect ratio.
In addition to the higher number of pixels, and greater pixel density (less empty space between the pixels), the other advantage of 4K TVs is a greater potential color space—some newer 4K TVs will be able to display a broader range of color detail than can the current crop 1080p TVs. Unfortunately, the improved color space (called rec. 2020) is an option, but not a requirement in Ultra HD TVs.
What’s the benefit of upgrading to a 4K TV? Most notably is that you can sit closer to the screen, or get a larger TV, and still not perceive any pixel structure. Having more pixels means they are much smaller, so you won’t see them even if you scoot your seat way up close to the screen. For people who love a really big, totally immersive TV experience, 4K is the technology to get as, theoretically, it should produce a more finely detailed picture.
Currently, Ultra HD TVs are priced a bit higher than even the best 1080p TVs, but the major television manufacturers (and even the lesser-known ones) are very serious about their 4K business, so prices are decreasing. In fact, in a few years you can expect that all or most new TVs will be 4K TVs (similar to how 720p transitioned to 1080p).
Most 4K TVs, like most televisions in general, employ LED LCD technology. This means they use an array of LED (light emitting diodes) to create the light that is then passed through the LCD crystals in the panel. (There are no plasma 4K TVs and, by the end of this year, it’s very likely there will be no plasma TVs of any sort on the market.)
A very few Ultra HD TVs available are based on OLED technology, which is awesome, but very expensive.
What Can You Watch on a 4K TV?
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 television. Image processing is everything with today’s TVs. Assuming you’re not watching an older 1080i, 720p, or standard resolution TV, your current 1080p TV upconverts 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 flour sifter. All Ultra HD TVs do this too, and some better than others. Because the availability of 4K content is currently limited, most of what you watch will be lower-resolution media upconverted by your TV.
Right now, most 4K content is available through Netflix. The online service is currently offering several of its popular programs in Ultra HD, and plans much more for the near future. According to Netflix, a broadband Internet connection of 15Mbps is all that’s required for 4K video streaming, though your at-home results may vary.
In addition to Netflix, several other online streaming services are planning to offer 4K (some have already started), including Amazon, Comcast Xfinity, DIRECTV, M-GO, and more.
Ultra HD media servers are another source for 4K content. Both Sony and Samsung offer hard drive products that store 4K movies and more for viewing on their Ultra HD TVs. The Sony server will be periodically updated to keep the content current and interesting.
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.
An Ultra HD Blu-ray disc format is also being developed, and may be coming to market within a year.
But wait—that’s not really all. There’s now a new category of 4K upconverting Blu-ray players. These players take standard 1080p Blu-ray movies and process them up to 4K resolution for display on 4K TVs.
However, because most Ultra HD TVs already upconvert any content they receive, do you need a Blu-ray player to do it? This is a dilemma we’ve faced for years with Blu-ray video processing. The short answer is that some players will do the job better than the TV, and you just won’t know until you try.
Do You Need to Buy Anything Else with an Ultra HD TV?
Often with big technology advancements (like 2D to 3D) there were additional associated costs (new players, 3D glasses, etc.). Is this the same with 4K TVs? No and yes. While new Ultra HD TVs must include at least one HDMI version 2.0 input (which can accept 4K resolution video signals at 24p, 30p, and 60p frames per second), you don’t need a new HDMI cable. Any old high-speed HDMI cable will work.
The funny thing is that right now there’s almost nothing for you to plug into that HDMI input except the 4K-upconverting Blu-ray players and Sony’s video server (which only works with Sony TVs) mentioned earlier. Nanotech will be selling the Nuvola 4K video streaming box this year, which includes 4K Netflix and other 4K services. Except for these products, and a few others (some computers, smartphones, and camcorders), there’s nothing else that delivers 4K video via an HDMI cable. All the currently available 4K content comes from online services built directly into the TVs themselves.
This scenario is bound to change eventually. Ultra HD versions of Roku, Apple TV, and maybe full-4K Blu-ray players will eventually surface, and possibly soon.
What about Curved and Widescreen TVs?
Curved TVs first emerged in 2013 as 1080p OLED models from LG and Samsung. They were gorgeous as only OLED can be, but the curve was something unexpected. These first models also couldn’t be mounted to the wall; however, newer ones can.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 also probably doesn’t add much, if anything. Consider it more of a design element. If you like the sleek look of a flat TV snug up against a wall, then skip the new curved options, which will cost more.
The ultrawide, 105-inch 21:9 aspect ratio TVs hitting the market are another thing. They’re big and wide, making them perfect for CinemaScope movies, but maybe not so hot for plain old HDTV viewing (those extra pixels on the side will need to be doing something). The Samsung and LG models coming soon are also curved (except for Toshiba’s prototype), and will also be very expensive—up to $120,000.
What about 4K Home Theater Projectors?
Currently there are only a few 4K projectors designed specifically for home theater use, and most of them are priced far out of the range of most home theater enthusiasts. The only mainstream projector maker that offers more reasonably-priced 4K projectors is Sony, which has two models—one at $25,000 and one at $15,000. JVC also has several moderately-priced home theater projectors that accept and display 4K video, but they do it with 1080p image chips. It makes sense that projectors, which employ significantly larger screens than TVs, would be the first to get the 4K boost, but market and manufacturing issues are apparently not properly aligned for that yet (except for Sony and JVC, as mentioned above).
With 1080p home theater projectors, even very good ones are available for around $3,000. It’s going to be difficult for many potential consumers to justify the leap to a 4K projector. TVs are another issue. 4K TVs are more expensive, but not by such a wide margin.
Should You Buy a 4K TV Now?
So now it comes time to ask yourself that question: Should you buy an Ultra HD TV? If you’re in the market for a new TV anyway, an Ultra HD set should at least be on your short list. If you like a really big picture, the biggest ones are Ultra HD. If you watch a lot of 3D Blu-Ray discs, Ultra HD will make those look great (because you get full 1080p resolution for each eye, even with passive 3D TVs). Do you tend to sit close (closer than 10 feet) to the TV? Again, Ultra HD will probably be a better choice. If you sit 15 feet away from a 50 inch TV, then the resolution really won’t make any discernible difference.
The best advice is to go to a reputable home electronics store that lets you see the TVs in more of a living room-like setting, and spend some time looking at the sets you’re interested in. Play with the remote. Try the menu and interface and see what you like. And don’t forget to get a good audio system with your TV. EH