Manufacturers are pushing “Ultra HD” 4k TVs hard here at CES 2015. By the end of 2015, half of all TVs in stores may be 4K TVs. They’re cheaper than ever, too. So, when should you buy one?
4K isn’t exactly a gimmick like 3D TVs a few years ago or curved TVs now. They offer a clear benefit — more pixels in a smaller area, which means a higher-resolution with more detail.
What 4K Is, and Why You’ll Want It… Eventually
The argument for 4K is very clear. It’s higher resolution than “full HD” (1080p) televisions. This is achieved by packing more pixels into a smaller area. Smartphones, tablets, and laptops are all gaining higher-resolution screens. 4K TVs are just TVs with similar high-resolution displays.
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 a 4K panel has about four times as many pixels as a 1080p TV.
More pixels just results in a richer, more detailed image. If you’ve seen a recent Apple device with a “Retina” display or another competing smartphone or tablet with a high-resolution display, you’ll understand. But smartphones, tablets, and laptops benefit more from this because your eyes are closer to the screen. At common TV sizes and viewing distances, the improvement isn’t quite as extreme.
Yes, 4K (or something like it) is the Future
The idea of 4K is fine. TV screens will — and should — become higher-resolution and more detailed. We won’t all be using 1080p televisions in twenty years, especially as smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktop PC monitors, and other displays become higher-resolution. TV sets and mobile device displays now use basically the same type of technology, so why wouldn’t TVs eventually become higher-resolution, too?
The Content Isn’t There — But Maybe It’s Getting There
The real problem with 4K is that the content isn’t there. 4K content has four times the amount of pixels, which is four times the amount of data. It’s also a lot more work for video game consoles to render. Very little 4K content is currently available, but the content seems to be coming. Companies realize they can charge more for that 4K content and make a bigger profit. Here’s what’s available, and what’s in store:
- Blu-rays and Other Physical Discs: Blu-ray discs currently aren’t available with 4K, so there’s no way to get a 4K movie or TV series on a physical disc. There are now reports that 4K Blu-ray discs will come out around the end of 2015. You’ll the need to buy a new Blu-ray player and newer, probably more expensive 4K Blu-ray discs to get that 4K content on your TV.
- Cable and Other Traditional TV Services: There aren’t any 4K TV channels, either. You’ll need shows filmed in high-resolution as well as a channel to deliver them. At least, this used to be true. DISH will now be offering a 4K set-top box so you can watch 4K TV if you have your TV through DISH and buy their box.
- Netflix, Amazon, and Other Streaming Services: Most content available from streaming services isn’t available in 4K. Only a select handful of TV shows from only Netflix and Amazon are available in 4K. For example, Netflix requires a few specific 4K TV models, on Internet connection with 25 Mbps or faster download speeds, and a more expensive streaming plan. (See Netflix’s details here.) And, even if you met all those requirements, you could only watch a handful of things in 4K. The vast majority of videos on Netflix would still be in lower resolution 1080p.
- Movie Download Services: Movie-download services are the place where 4K is currently most practical and available. The idea is that you’ll choose a movie, and your set-top-box will download it ahead of time — perhaps overnight. You’ll then be able to watch the movie in 4K the next day. These services generally only have a handful of movies available, too. This requires a separate box, a different video rental or purchase service you’re probably not already using, and you have to plan ahead when you want to watch 4K content.
- Home Movies: You can buy video cameras that record video in 4K and then watch those videos in high-resolution 4K on your TV. Not only do you need the 4K TV here — you need an expensive video camera! Most people really don’t need their home movies in 4K. 1080p should be plenty.
- Video Game Consoles: Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One won’t support 4K any time soon. These consoles often struggle to output content in 1080p, and many new games run at lower resolutions than 1080p;. You won’t see 4K consoles games any time soon — at least until the next console generation.
- PC Gaming on Your TV: You can connect a PC to your TV, so theoretically you could play PC games in 4K on your TV. This is the only option if you want to play games in 4K on your TV, but most games won’t be optimized for it. And you’d need expensive, powerful graphics hardware and a lot of horsepower to push that 4K display. Even if you had that amount of horsepower, there’s a good chance you’d be happier with a lower-resolution image and a higher frames-per-second than 4K and a lower frames-per-second. At CES 2015, companies showing off 4K gaming are doing it with PCs — not consoles.
TV manufacturers, Netflix, and movie studios announced the “UHD Alliance” at CES 2015. This should be an industry-wide push for more 4K content from everyone. While the 4K content isn’t there right now, it seems to be gaining steam after not making much progress throughout 2014.
Why You Should Wait
Get a 4K TV if you have money to burn, but you’d just be burning the money until the content is there. All you can do with a 4K TV is watch a handful of things from Netflix and Amazon, use a movie-download service to watch a handful of downloadable movies, and maybe play PC games at a higher resolution than 1080p. Bear in mind that services offering 4K won’t just require a lot of bandwidth, they’ll also come at a premium price. You’re paying more for the content as an early adopter.
4K TVs have come down a lot in price. They were tens of thousands of dollars just a few years ago, but now you can often spend a few extra hundred dollars when buying a TV and get a 4K panel. They’re finally at the point where some TV buyers can say, “Oh, what the hell, I’ll spend a few hundred dollars more,” and manufacturers love that. But those buyers will be watching very little 4K content on them for a while to come.
This will change at some point. Many 4K TVs were announced at CES 2015, but they won’t be out for a while longer. Some may not come out until fall 2015, nearly a year from now. At the time the new batch of TVs comes out, they’ll come down more in price and there may be more content. If you’re buying a TV today, though, you probably don’t want 4K. Bear in mind that a cheap 4K TV may be just a bit more expensive than a decent 1080p TV, but that cheap 4K TV may have worse components or other specifications like a slower refresh rate, higher input lag for gaming, and worse color reproduction, for exapmle.
We recommend waiting for the 4K content ecosystem to mature. If you’re shopping for a TV, get a solid 1080p “Full HD” TV for significantly cheaper and enjoy it. If your current 1080p TV is fine, keep that! You can get a 4K TV in a few years when the content is there.
There’s no sense in trying to “future proof” yourself by buying a 4K TV now, as you’ll just end up spending more money — or spending a similar amount of money — and having a dated 4K TV when everyone else is using their newer, better, and cheaper 4K TVs in a few years.
The good news is that, at CES 2015, the industry seems to realize they need 4K content to push the beautiful TV displays they’re showing off. 2015 should be interesting, and we should start to see some real progress towards that 4K content.