Technology Talk


Read This Before You Buy a 4K Television


This holiday shopping season, expect to see a lot of new offers for Ultra HD 4K televisions. For TV viewers in search of even better picture quality, the allure of Ultra HD is certainly enticing. If high-definition (HD) was better than standard definition (SD), then won’t Ultra HD be better than HD?

Ultra HD 4K may sound like a breakthrough in picture technology, but it’s really just a breakthrough in screen resolution. The 4K refers to the resolution size of the screen, which now measures 3,840 pixels by 2,160 pixels. The 4K (4,000) refers to the 3,840 pixels. That’s a lot of pixels, especially if you compare it to Full HD, which is defined as 1,080 pixels. Thus, from a purely mathematical perspective, Ultra HD is nearly four times “better” than Full HD. More pixels, sharper picture, right?

Resolution vs. Picture Quality

The important point to keep in mind, though, is that higher resolution (in the form of greater pixels) does not necessarily imply a better picture. You need to take into account screen size and viewing distance as well. If you are sitting too far away from the screen, you won’t be able to take full advantage of all those extra pixels. And most people still sit about 8-9 feet away from a TV set. If you think about a 10 x 10 room, this makes sense. You have a couch on one side of the room, and you have a flat screen TV on the other side of the room. The distance in the middle is about 8-9 feet.

But sitting so far away from the TV has implications. That’s not a problem with the TV – that’s a problem with the human eye. From a far enough distance, the human eye can only make out a certain type of resolution. The classic experiment that people mention on tech blogs is the sand grain test – if you take a handful of sand, and observe it, you can literally make out every last grain of sand. Everything appears very clear. But now go take a seat in your beach chair and check out the sand castle that your kid is making next to you. Are you still able to make out all the grains of sand? Now look down the beach and see if you can see all the grains of sand where the ocean meets the sand.

That’s why, in consumer electronics stores, you’ll often see people walking around, peering very closely at the 4K TV screens. That’s because, at close distances, it is possible to observe all the pixels, and that’s what makes them so marketable! It’s similar to being able to see all the grains of sand in your hand. Seeing is believing.


The search for 4K content

There’s one other issue that you should keep in mind when it comes to buying a 4K television, and that’s content. Here’s what it breaks down to: a 4K television should play 4K content. If there’s not enough 4K content out there, you’re essentially investing in a television that will miss out on a lot of its potential.

So what’s available in 4K these days? Well, some smartphones can record 4K video, so you could watch funny little home movies recorded in 4K on your 4K television. And some streaming services – notably Netflix and Amazon Prime – are making more and more of their content available in 4K. Netflix, in fact, is pretty much considered the leader in making films and shows available in 4K.

But where are you watching your Netflix content? Assume that you’re eager to stream a blockbuster Hollywood movie in 4K, are you going to watch it on your TV or on your tablet? That’s open to debate, since one key reason why people love streaming content is that it makes content available for other devices, not just the main TV in the living room.

As for the big broadcasters – the ones who constantly tout their HD channels – how many of them are broadcasting in 4K? Right now, there’s not a single major broadcaster in the U.S. who’s committed to 4K. So, for example, if you wanted to watch the Super Bowl in 4K, you couldn’t.

Broadcast and cable TV networks won’t starting seriously investing in 4K until it’s proven that 4K televisions are really a thing. So it’s really a chicken-or-the-egg problem. People don’t want to buy 4K televisions until there’s enough 4K content for them, and the networks don’t want to create 4K content until there’s enough people watching that content on 4K televisions. As a rule of thumb, these networks won’t commit to 4K content until 4K televisions are in 35-40 percent of all homes. Right now, that figure is about 5 percent, so there’s a long way to go.

4K sticker shock

There’s one final issue to keep in mind, and that’s price. The conventional wisdom has always been that consumers won’t buy a television set that costs more than $1,000. Of course, there are always early adopters who will shell out two times or even three times that amount for a high-quality TV experience – but the average TV that most people buy will cost less than $1,000. Just check out the sales circular from a company like Best Buy and see how many TVs cost more than $1,000.

And that’s where Ultra HD 4K television faces a marketing challenge. These manufacturers have to convince consumers that the picture quality of 4K is so much greater than what’s available with Full HD that it’s worth upgrading at a very high price point. That’s why it’s important that Vizio recently announced that it would offer a 4K television for less than $1,000. And, as consumers confront the fact that the going price for a smartphone is $600-$700 these days, the idea of paying $1,000 for a television doesn’t seem quite so outrageous.



So, there are several factors to keep in mind before you rush out and buy an Ultra HD 4K television. You need to keep in mind the difference between resolution and picture quality, the amount of 4K content out there for consumption, and the increased costs involved. For TV viewers who have dutifully upgraded from 720p (SD) to 1080p (HD), making the move to 3840p (Ultra HD) certainly seems like a natural move. We’ll find out this holiday shopping season how many TV viewers agree.

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