High-definition TVs have been around for years now. But this year, holiday shoppers are flocking to stores for the very latest in living room entertainment: Ultra high-def “4K” TVs. And due to big price drops, 4K TVs are flying off the shelves fast. According to analysts with the Consumer Technology Association, these ultra high-definition televisions will account for 56% of all TVs sold in the last quarter of 2016.
4K TVs are selling great for a reason: even the cheap ones can look amazing. “It goes beyond just resolution, to providing better color, frame rates, and the specific content that was shot for 4K originally,” says Jeff Park, a senior manager of product marketing and technology evangelism with HDMI Licensing.
But just being able to afford a new 4K isn’t reason enough to buy one. Though more 4K video content is available every day, it still isn’t accessible to everyone, everywhere, and for every viewing need. So, if you’re thinking of buying a 4K television for yourself or a loved one this year, consider these factors first...
Your Television Provider
To watch 4K content on your brand new television — like the run-of-the-mill local news and network shows — you’d think you might need an ultra high-definition service from a television provider. But that's not really the way the ultra high-definition world works, at least not yet.
For instance, Comcast, the largest cable provider in the U.S., doesn't yet have a 4K set-top box that offers an array of ultra high-definition channels. Instead, the television and Internet provider offers an app for Samsung’s smart 4K televisions that lets those specific TVs access some ultra high-definition content.
The nation’s number two cable provider, Time Warner Cable, fares no better. In May 2014, the company issued a lengthy press release outlining its 4K plans. Now more than two years later, the service still hasn't been rolled out.
In a surprise twist, major satellite television services are better equipped to get you 4K service – but they still don't provide much. Dish Networks has a 4K set-top box, but it simply uses Netflix to provide the content – something that anyone with a bit of initiative could do for themselves. DirecTV, however, offers some live 4K services. For instance, the satellite provider airs one MLB game in ultra high-definition each week, and the entire season of Notre Dame football is shown in 4K as well. DirecTV also offers a channel dedicated to 4K content (including popular movies, documentaries, and nature films), and it offers 4K content on demand.
While it's tempting to ridicule television providers for passing these paltry selections off for real 4K service, it’s not exactly their fault. In order for content to be broadcast in 4K, it would have to be filmed at a high enough resolution (or be remastered) to be broadcast in 4K. Until recently, most television shows and movies have been filmed in high-definition, at best. So really, there’s just not that much 4K content to be watched.
Streaming Services (and Streaming Boxes)
One exception to the 4K famine is streaming video services. Produced by deep-pocketed tech companies like Netflix, Amazon, and Google, some new, original streaming video content is being produced in 4K. For example, shows like Netflix’s House of Cards and Amazon’s Transparent are 4K-ready.
But just because this content is produced and even streamed in ultra high definition doesn’t mean that your 4K television is able to view it in such detail. Not all 4K televisions are “smart TVs” (meaning they have apps and software able to connect to online streaming services), and not all smart TVs can stream a 4K feed (even though they have the technical ability to display a 4K image).
Instead, your best bet to ensuring that you’re watching the ultra high definition content that you’re expecting is to buy a streaming box that has 4K capabilities. The new Roku Premiere is capable of relaying a 4K signal, as is the Amazon Fire TV, TiVo BOLT, and Nvidia Shield Android TV set-top box. Curiously, Apple TV lacks 4K capability.
If you need to stream your 4K video content over the Internet, you’ll need a considerably fast connection. According to Netflix, viewers need “a steady Internet connection speed of 25 megabits per second or higher” to enjoy its 4K content. This is a deliberately worded sentence worth picking apart.
Comcast, the country’s largest broadband provider, currently says 25 megabits per second is “best for 2-3 devices online at the same time” for surfing the web and streaming more than one television show. But if one of those shows is being streamed in 4K, you can forget about doing anything else with that connection. And if you were planning on streaming that 4K show in primetime, when everyone else is streaming television shows, your “steady” 25 megabit Internet service could be half that fast.
Realistically, 4K video requires connection speeds of at least 50 megabits per second, if not faster, considering the demands on the overall network once everyone starts streaming video with their ultra high-definition televisions this year. So, if you don’t have a fast Internet connection, a 4K television might not make sense for you just yet.
And a new wrinkle added to high speed internet services – data caps – is another reason 4K televisions may be a bad investment. This year Comcast rolled out a one terabyte data cap for its high speed Internet customers. You may not come close to reaching your monthly limit now, but if you're someone who streams a lot of video (and hopes to stream in 4K too), you'll likely get there much faster while watching ultra high-definition content.
Gaming Consoles and Blu-Rays
So if your cable and Internet can’t get the job done to make a 4K worthwhile, surely gaming consoles and Blu-Ray players can, right? The answer to that is yes, but only the latest and greatest ones.
As powerful as the original Xbox One and PS4 gaming consoles were, they weren't equipped to run true 4K signals. Instead, the systems displayed their games in 1080p, which is one quarter of the resolution of the newer 4K screens. While their games will undoubtedly look great on a 4K television, the hardware is only scratching the surface of what’s possible on the new displays.
Upgraded versions of the consoles released this year do support 4K gaming. Sony's PlayStation 4 Pro lets players experience their favorite games in (nearly) 4K glory. But there are subtle differences that avid gamers would appreciate, our video game critic writes. For instance, while older PS4 games benefit from the high-def treatment, newer titles were built from the ground up to utilize the improved graphics processing.
Meanwhile, Microsoft's Xbox One S offers not only 4K, but also HDR, also known as high dynamic range, a feature that makes colors especially vibrant on both video games and movies. However, for HDR to be handy, you need to buy a 4K television that includes this above-and-beyond technology, and the games need to support the feature. Currently no Xbox titles do.
Meanwhile, disc-based content like Blu-Ray movies are typically formatted for plain ol' high-definition — at least, that’s true of the discs that have been stuffed in your closet since you started streaming everything over Netflix. But there is a new standard called UltraHD Blu-Ray or 4K Blu-Ray that does tap into the new televisions’ vast amount of pixels. However, in order to see them in all their eye-popping glory, you’ll have to invest in a new Ultra HD Blu-Ray player. But if you're a gamer, good news: Xbox One S is able to handle 4K Blu-Ray discs.
This is what progress looks like, says HDMI Licensing’s Park. “Once the content availability expands — and that comes with the release of [Ultra HD] — and there is support of content owners like Hollywood and TV studios, you will see a much quicker adoption of 4K in general,” he says.