The promise of cheap 4K televisions has been around for years. But it was only in 2015 that prices began to fall under $1,000 for screens with four times as many pixels at a 1080p set. That’s a huge drop from the $10,000 panels seen not too long ago.
So, is now the time to upgrade? It's an attractive proposition — at least financially. Right now you can grab a 43-inch 4K set from Vizio for $530 on Amazon. Even 55-inch 4K panels from Samsung can be had for well under the $1,000 price barrier, depending on the model.
But just because they're affordable doesn't mean it makes sense. A general rule of thumb: if you were an early adopter of HD technology and have a 10-year-old set you were looking to replace anyway, then by all means, 4K for you. But if you're perfectly happy with your current TV, consider holding off; while the 4K upgrade sounds like a big leap on paper — and we've certainly been talking about it for years — the content is scarce and most people won't recognize the difference anyway.
But if you decide to upgrade your TV, whether to 4K or not, here are some things to think about:
Don't pay attention to marketing labels such as “Ultra 4K,” or "1,000,000:1 contrast ratios." Instead what you want to look for in a TV are these factors: what type of backlighting technology it uses, how big of a screen you'd want for your home and how well it displays bright whites and dark blacks. The lighting features are especially important for the best picture out your display because it can affect how accurately it displays the picture as intended by a filmmaker or production company.
You'll generally want to look into sets with LEDs backlighting or a set that uses Organic LEDs -- the latter of which is ideal for pictures because of the technology's ability to light individual pixels without a backlight. This makes it easier for an HD set to produce dark blacks because the dark pixels stay unlit until needed. Sets that use LEDs as backlights come close to the versatility of OLEDs with features such as "zone lighting," which shuts off individual parts of the screen's LEDs to produce darker blacks. But it doesn't provide nearly as much lighting control as an OLED set.
One spec to consider is the refresh rate of a set — or how many frames a set can display in one second. Most budget sets can display content at 60Hz. But in higher end models, you'll see rates as high as 120Hz and 240Hz. The higher refresh rate can be especially important when you play video games that run at 60 frames-per-second or you're watching sports. But this same benefit can also be a problem known as the "soap opera effect," which makes movies and television shows look unnatural due to proprietary manufacturer features such as Sony's MotionFlow, which artificially doubles up the frame rate of films intended for viewing at 24 frames-per-second.
Another thing to take into consideration is whether or not you’ll notice a significant difference between your 1080p LCD panel and a 4K screen. The primary factor to this is how far you intend to sit from the screen. If you’re watching a 50-inch set at a distance of about six feet away, it’s fairly easy to notice the difference between the two resolutions, according to theater video and sound certification company THX. But once you’re watching from over the 10 feet mark, the difference is generally negligible between the two resolutions.
— Ben (@BBenjaminn) November 27, 2015
If you’re a daily cable television watcher, most cable boxes released so far only support resolutions of up to 1080i. Most 4K sets will upscale that content to fill the screen, but you won’t necessarily see the advantage of 4K while watching upscaled video.
There are a few exceptions. DirecTV offers its satellite customers a hybrid-model box that can stream 4K movies and shows on demand.Comcast was expected to launch a 4K cable box of its own, but so far that hasn’t materialized. Next year is anticipated to bring even larger shifts to the technology, such as a live broadcast of 4K content over-the-air during the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, according to PC World.
When it comes to things to watch, it will likely be sometime until 4K starts to displace 1080p as the dominant format. But there is progress being made. Netflix in early 2015 began certifying television sets that work with 4K streaming and throughout the year it rolled out a growing library of 4K content, such as “House of Cards,” “Jessica Jones, “Daredevil,” “Narcos” and more. Amazon has also joined in with 4K streaming with shows such as “Man in the High Castle” and “Alpha House.” Alternatively, the Roku 4 streaming box also supports 4K video from Netflix. There's also a growing selection of original content from independent YouTube channels.
If you choose to go with a Sony 4K smart television, you’ll also have the ability to purchase or rent hundreds of 4K movies and shows from its video on demand service — as long as you’re also willing to fork over hundreds more on its 4K media player.
With 4K, you’ll also need a faster internet connection to handle the additional data flowing into your home if you go the streaming route. Roku recommends a connection of at least 15 megabits. Netflix suggests a stable connection of 25 megabits or higher.
The old adage of “you get what you pay for” still applies to TV. Unlike the two year replacement cycles of smartphones, chances are you’ll be keeping your set for at least seven years on average, so it’s best to do some shopping around in person to pick the best set.