“4K” is the latest buzzword with TVs.
Most advertising would have you think that 4K is akin to the leap we made from standard to high-definition TVs. Since HD made everything clearer, more pixels should only make your content look better, right?
The problem: That isn’t totally true.
Instead, when you’re buying your next TV, there’s another feature you should be more focused on: HDR.
What 4K really means
Taking a step back: Standard definition (SD), high definition (HD), and 4K (or Ultra HD) refer to a characteristic called resolution, or the number of pixels (or tiny display bits) that make up a display.
A common HDTV has a resolution of 1080p. In simple terms, it’s 1,920 x 1,080 pixels: 1,920 pixels going across the display horizontally, and 1,080 pixels going across it vertically.
A 4K TV simply boosts that pixel count: Usually, 4K refers to a display resolution of 2160p, or 3,840 x 2,160 pixels. That’s roughly four times larger than a 1080p picture, hence the term “4K.”
(Technically, 4K isn’t the same as 2160p, but the technical differences are so minor that it doesn’t really matter.)
Why 4K is misleading
Of course, companies love the “4K” buzzword, since it sounds bigger and better than normal HD, and 2160p sounds like a bigger and more appealing number than 1080p. If a 4K TV is four times larger than a typical HD TV, it should be four times better, right?
Of course, that’s not the case.
4K isn’t worse than 1080p, but your eyes are physically incapable of noticing those extra pixels unless you have a fairly large TV set, and plan on sitting close to it.
ThisCarlton Bale articleputs it into perspective: From about five feet away, you’d need something like an 84-inch TV to see the additional sharpness. With a more common 42- or 50-inch TV, you’d have to sit about two to three feet away. So, it’s not going to happen, basically.
Also, the 4K effect only works when you’re actually watching content that was natively shot in 4K. A 1080p program that’s “upscaled” to 4K doesn’t provide any more detail.
Why you’ll end up buying a 4K TV anyway
This is the best part: Your next TV will probably be 4K regardless.
The cost of a 4K TV has fallen dramatically over the past several years. Today, you can finda competent 4K TV set for well under $US500.
The price reduction for 4K TVs also makes regular 1080p HD TVs much cheaper as well, but that’s not really a good thing. Basically, it means that the really important stuff that makes up a good TV display – higher contrast ratios, smoother motion, and better colours, for example – has been stripped out of 1080p TVs to cut costs, and put into 4K TVs instead.
Unless you’re buying a very small TV (think 32 inches or lower), or you’re not looking to spend much money, you’ll want to buy a 4K TV set as your next TV, even if the actual “4K” aspect isn’t worth the hype.
Why HDR will make your 4K TV worth it
4K may not be all that, but 4K TVs do have one important feature that makes it worth the purchase: high-dynamic range, or HDR.
HDR boosts a display’s contrast ratio, which is the difference between the brightest and darkest colours your TV can show. It allows for much finer detail in the shades in between those light and dark colours.
HDR also usually comes with another feature, called wide-colour gamut (WCG), which lets a TV produce more colours than most displays are capable of.
The combination of 4K, HDR and WCG results in a picture that’s more vivid and lifelike. Colours are less muted, and objects appear to have more depth. It’s not a gimmick, but a real improvement to picture quality.
The big issue with HDR is the same issue with 4K: You need content shot in that native format, and there isn’t much of it. While that’s changing, with Netflix and Amazon Prime Video getting into the game, HDR has still yet to go mainstream.
HDR is the real deal
Here are the most important takeaways:
– 4K and HDR aren’t mutually exclusive. There are already plenty of 4K HDR TVs you can buy right now, and 4K and HDR will probably go hand-in-hand moving forward. That said, some 4K TV sets do HDR much better than others, and to get a good one right now, you have to pay around $US2,000 – and that’s not cheap.
– You don’t need a 4K HDR TV right this second. For now, HDR is still a high-end feature, and it’s going to take some time for more HDR content to be come widely available. There’s nothing wrong with getting a 1080p TV right now.
– Between HDR and 4K, HDR is the real step forward. If you can wait for the HDR market to mature before making your next TV purchase, no problem. But if you have the cash to get something good right now, HDR is certainly a buzzword that earns its hype.
Jeff Dunn contributed to an earlier version of this story
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