Should You Get an “Ultra HD” 4K TV?

tcl curved 4k tv at ces 2015

Walk through any electronics showroom and most TVs you see will be some form of “Ultra HD” 4K. There are plenty of models available, and they’re cheaper than ever. But should you buy one?

Well, probably, but don’t hurry yourself.

4K Is An Improvement, but HDR Is Even Better

Unlike 3D TVs, curved TVs, and smart TVs, 4K isn’t a gimmick—it offers a clear and obvious benefit over its normal HD counterparts.

A standard full HD TV you’ll buy right now has a resolution of 1080p, or 1920×1080. A 4K TV has a resolution of 3840×2160. It’s named 4K because it has about four times as many pixels as a 1080p TV, and is nearly 4000 pixels wide. The same way smartphones, tablets, and laptops are being made with crisper, higher-resolution screens, TVs are starting to catch up—if you’ve seen an Apple device with a “Retina” display (or a similar offering from other manufacturers), you’ll understand.

However, smartphones, tablets, and laptops benefit more from this because your eyes are closer to the screen. At common TV sizes and viewing distances, the benefit of 4K over traditional HD isn’t quite as extreme as it is on a laptop. In fact, depending on the size of your TV and how far away you sit, you may not notice much of a difference at all. Whether you would notice the extra detail in a 4K TV is beside the point, though. Eventually, all TVs sold will be 4K, and you can upgrade whenever you feel like it.

Left: an HDR screenshot of Horizon Zero Dawn on the PlayStation 4 Pro. Right: A normal screenshot with HDR rendering disabled.

However, the 4K transition is bringing with it a more important change: HDR. Many (but not all just yet) 4K televisions have some form of high-dynamic range support. HDR allows filmmakers to produce movies with deeper black levels, brighter lights, and richer colors. The 10-bit wide color gamut in HDR10, the most basic HDR spec, can display red, green, and blue light at 1024 different values each, for a possible combination of up to 1.06 billion distinct colors, compared to the typical 16 million colors previous TVs could display.

HDR also improves the luminance of your display. No matter how bright an object on screen is supposed to be, your television can only emit so much light to represent that image. A normal HDTV can display colors that are as dim as 0.117 nits (the unit used to measure the intensity of a light), and as light as 100-200 nits. An HDR-capable TV can display colors at least as dim as 0.05 nits, and as bright as 1,100 nits. If you decide to buy a TV that uses Dolby Vision—which is more expensive and doesn’t support as much content—those values get even higher (or lower). The overall result is a richer color palette and a more accurate representation of real-life objects. 4K resolution may give you more detail in a single frame, but HDR makes those details pop. Don’t believe us? Check out the comparison video below, which should give you an idea of the differences:

Unfortunately, we’re in the middle of a format war over HDR. Dolby Vision offers superior video quality, but it requires special hardware and content producers have to make their content compatible with it from the start. HDR10 doesn’t offer quite as much of an image quality boost, but it’s free for TV manufacturers to support and it’s much easier for content creators to support it. Most 4K TVs that include HDR support the HDR10 format, while only some have chosen to add Dolby Vision. If you’d rather wait for the high-quality Dolby Vision to get cheaper—and see if content producers will even support it—it may be worth waiting. However, if you’re okay with HDR10—which is still a substantial improvement over regular HDTV—then there are already plenty of 4K TVs you may want to buy.

Even more unfortunately, HDR can be misleading. Some TVs claim to have HDR, but really “fake” 10-bit color by dithering on an 8-bit screen. Others may have HDR but cheap out on features like local LED dimming that make it good, so the screen flickers or doesn’t get as dim as it should. You can read more about these issues here, but the bottom line is this: if you want HDR that’s actually good, you’ll probably need to spend at least $1000 on a new TV. We recommend reading reviews at Rtings to find out which ones are worth your money.

The Content Is Trickling In

Of course, a 4K TV doesn’t mean much if everything you’re watching is only 1080p. Thankfully, finding 4K content is getting easier than it used to be. Sony and Microsoft both have consoles on the market (or coming soon) that can render games in 4K. Most major blockbuster movies are being released on Ultra HD Blu-rays, and streaming companies like Netflix are releasing more 4K content than ever before. Not all of this content also supports HDR, but a lot of it does. If you want to find content for your shiny new TV, here are your options:

  • Ultra HD Blu-ray: 4K Blu-ray players aren’t dirt cheap just yet, but you can find some models for less than $200. More importantly, consoles like the Xbox One S and the upcoming Xbox One X also function as 4K Blu-ray players, so you might not need a separate box. Studios like Sony, Warner Bros., Universal, Lionsgate, and Disney are finally releasing many of their movies on 4K discs. Since other methods like streaming can reduce the picture quality of 4K content, this is probably your best bet for getting the most stunning images on your TV for now.
  • Cable and Other Traditional TV Services: If you want to watch television shows filmed in 4K, you’ll need new hardware from your cable provider. DirecTV offers a 4K set-top box and DISH has their own. Comcast is dragging their feet, but they have a 4K “sampler” app for certain Samsung and LG TVs that you can watch a small amount of content on. So, as long as you have the box and a compatible TV, you’ll be able to watch some shows.
  • Netflix, Amazon, and Other Streaming Services: Most new shows that Netflix and Amazon have released over the last year or so are available in 4K (and usually HDR). Netflix charges an extra $2 per month for 4K content, while Amazon will simply stream it whenever it’s available. You’ll still see older content in regular old HD, but if there’s a new show out on of these services, there’s a good bet it’s going to look amazing on your new TV.
  • Video Game Consoles: Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro already has a sizable library of games that support 4K and (sometimes) HDR. Microsoft’s Xbox One X is also due out soon, which will be able to render games in 4K, and a number of developers have signed on to patch their games to support all that new power. In addition, the Xbox One X (and One S) are able to play Ultra HD Blu-ray discs. Frustratingly, the PS4 Pro does not contain an Ultra HD Blu-ray player, but both consoles can at least render games in crisp detail.
  • PC Gaming on Your TV: You can connect a PC to your TV, so if you have a powerful enough gaming rig, you could play PC games in 4K on your TV. This could end up costing hundreds of dollars and be far more expensive than buying a 4K console, but if you’re willing to shell out the cash, you can get some seriously great-looking games.
  • Home Movies: Most new smartphones can shoot 4K video, which is pretty crazy when you think about it. Of course, unless you’re Christopher Nolan, you’re probably not going to make your own content that looks as good as a blockbuster movie or a AAA game, but you can get some incredibly detailed footage of your baby’s first steps to embarrass them with later.

It’s taken a few years, but 4K content is finally starting to arrive in a big way. If there’s a new movie or video game coming out, there’s a good chance that it’s available in 4K in some form or another. There are plenty of examples of awesome-looking content beyond nature documentaries (which are always the first to get the fun new cameras, naturally). Not everything is released in 4K just yet, and some of the hardware you need is still a little expensive, but the market for Ultra HD content is more vibrant than ever.

Things Look Good, But It’s Okay to Wait

At this point, if you want to buy a 4K TV, you’re probably getting in at a good time. Most 4K TVs are going to support at least the basic HDR10 standard, which will give you a much better picture than you’re used to. Many models are coming down in price, too. You won’t necessarily need to spend a fortune to get the best TV you want.

That being said, if you still have a regular old 1080p television, you’re not going to miss out by sticking with your existing set until it breaks down or you find a good deal. All those movies and games you could watch today will look just as good whenever you upgrade, and there will probably be a lot more of them. As much as a tricked out 4K HDR setup can look awesome (and I love mine), it’s not something that you just have to experience right now—especially if you’re the kind of person who will want to re-buy when the format war moves the goalposts again. Save up, do everything you can to make your current TV look great, and buy whenever you’re ready.

Image Credit: TRauMa at Wikimedia CommonsKarlis Dambrans on FlickrKarlis Dambrans on FlickrAlan Light on Flickr

Eric Ravenscraft covers smarthome tech for How-To Geek. He's a problem solver who never learned to say no to a project. When he's not fixing things, he's cosplaying at cons, playing video games, and watching too many comic book movies. You can follow him on Twitter or Instagram.


Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.