The State of 4K TVs (and Content)

That used to be my answer whenever someone asked me if they should buy a 4K TV. But with the industry finally getting its act together, my stance has somewhat softened today. But before you dash out to buy one, let me tell you the caveats.

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That used to be my answer whenever someone asked me if they should buy a 4K TV. But with the industry finally getting its act together, my stance has somewhat softened today. But before you dash out to buy one, let me tell you the caveats.
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Because we all know how the HD vs. SD debate went.

Even if you aren’t the least bit interested in television tech, chances are, you’d have come across the term 4K one way or another.

To the uninitiated, strictly speaking, a 4K TV with a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160 pixels (some call it 2,160p) should really be called a UHD (ultra-high-definition) TV or 4K UHD TV. This is to avoid confusion with the DCI (Digital Cinema Initiatives) spec, which governs digital cinema production and projection systems.

Under DCI, 4K is defined as having a resolution of 4,096 x 2,160 pixels. Many high-end home theater projectors, like those wallet-burning, five-figure ones from Sony, support this DCI 4K resolution. In fact, there are other 4K resolutions under the DCI spec, such as 4,096 x 1,716 and 3,996 x 2,160.

Luckily for most consumers, there’s F E A T U R E no need to know all these. Because most standard widescreen TVs use a 16:9 aspect ratio, there’s only one resolution that matters: 3,840 x 2,160.

Of course, simply saying “a 4K TV has a resolution of three thousand eight hundred and forty by two thousand one hundred and sixty pixels” is not sexy, and, often times unhelpful for consumers. Which is why this sentence almost always appears in a 4K TV brochure or tutorial: A 4K TV has four times the total number of pixels of a full HD 1080p TV.

So more pixels mean better picture, right? At least that’s what digital camera salesmen had been telling us all this while.

Broadly speaking, that’s true. But in reality, it’s complicated, and the current discussion on whether we can see the difference between 4K and 1080p harks back to the days of 1080p vs. 720p, or even RESIST NO MORE: 4K IS THE NEW 1080P Because we all know how the HD vs. SD debate went. further back, HD vs. SD.

To rehash an old story, whether a picture looks good to you depends on three factors, and resolution is just one of them. The other two are the size of the screen, and the distance you’re sitting away from it.

But regardless of which side of the fence you’re on, the reality is 4K TVs are already here, and they’re here to stay. All the heated exchanges we had over TV resolutions ten years ago should serve as a reminder. How many 720p or SD TVs do you see in stores today? Like it or not, the industry - Hollywood, the content producers, the broadcasters, the TV makers - is the one that determines if 4K is ready, not us.

With that in mind, as smart consumers, the more important question here is knowing when’s the right time to buy a 4K TV. And if you do make the jump, what are the traps to look out for?

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The inconvenient truth about screen size and viewing distance

To enjoy 4K, my recommendations are simple: bigger or closer. Or both, if you can afford the price and the space.

You can see from the diagram of optimum viewing distances, you’re advised to sit closer for 4K sets compared to 1080p. This is so you can see the extra details the 4K resolution brings. If you’re able to sit close enough, the visual difference is definitely noticeable.

But not everyone can or wants to sit that close, which is why 4K TV manufacturers are churning out larger and larger sets. But get this: if the best you can afford between yourself and the TV is two meters, you’ll need at least a 70-inch 4K TV. For many people, that’s easily out of their budget.

As such, from an picture quality standpoint, I’ll never recommend a 42-inch 4K TV, even for bedroom use. Simply because sitting a meter away from a TV is downright impractical. Unless you’ve gotten a super-sweet deal, you’re better off buying a 1080p set.

If you think that the distances I’ve listed here seem further than what many companies and distance calculators on the web recommend, that’s because they are. These are the distances that I’ve chosen and stuck to when I review TVs, because I found them to be a happy medium. You, too, should experiment for yourself; the only rule of thumb is not to sit so far back that you lose the details, nor too close that the pixels become visible and distracting.

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This means 2016 is the year to get that 4K TV.

I’ve been writing about 4K TVs for four years now; and in each of these years, I lauded the picture quality but lamented the immaturity of standards and lack of content.

For example, if you’ve bought a 4K TV before 2014, there’s a high chance that it had HDMI 1.4 video inputs. While HDMI 1.4 supports 3,840 x 2,160 and 4,096 x 2,160-pixel resolutions, its insufficient bandwidth means it can only pump out these two 4K resolutions at up to 30 and 24 frames per second respectively.

The solution is HDMI 2.0, which enables full 4K at up to 60fps. TV companies started offering it in their 2014 line-ups, though it was a feature reserved mostly for the premium models. In 2016, HDMI 2.0 is standard on most name brand 4K sets; and in my opinion, it’s a must-have today.

But standards are always in flux. And it gets messy when you throw things like high dynamic range into the mix. First seen on a handful of high-end Samsung and Sony TVs last year, HDR delivers pictures so much richer in color and contrast that many sees it (and not the 4K resolution) as the killer feature of 4K TVs.

But the problem is, not every 4K TV can pull off 4K HDR correctly. The new ‘Ultra HD Premium’ logo introduced by the UHD Alliance - which comprises of several major studios, content companies, and TV makers - should go a long way in addressing consumers’ confusion, especially those looking to splurge on a high-end set. In a nutshell, if you see this badge on a 4K TV, it means it has met the coalition’s stringent guidelines for picture quality (resolution, color space, HDR, peak brightness, black level, etc.), and will also play nice with 4K content from streaming services like Netflix and Amazon.

For those who prefer physical discs, the Ultra HD Blu-ray spec (with support for HDR and wide color gamut technologies) was also confirmed last May. However, add another few months for manufacturers to apply for a licence and finalize the hardware, realistically, it’ll only be this year that we really start to see Ultra HD Blu-ray players and discs popping up on shelves. There’s a catch, however: for a 4K TV to support HDR signals from a UHD Blu-ray player, it needs an HDMI 2.0a input.

I’ll be blunt here: If you’ve bought a 4K TV in 2014 or earlier, it’s already obsolete. If you’ve resisted 4K until now - good for you as greater standardization makes it more compelling to take the plunge.

HDR format war: HDR 10 vs. Dolby Vision

On the surface, it looks like HDR 10, which is backed by the UHD Alliance and the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers (SMPTE), and a requirement for 4K Blu-ray authoring, is the winning HDR format here - but in reality, there’s another compelling format lurking.

That other HDR format is Dolby Vision. It’s a strong contender because it has the ability to handle a 12-bit color depth - that’s 68 billion colors! - and much higher peak brightness than what HDR 10 offers (‘only’ 10-bit and 1,000 nits). And since CES 2016, we know that it’s been gaining new supporters fast, from studios (e.g., MGM, Sony Pictures, Universal, Warner Bros), streaming services (e.g., Netflix, Vudu), to TV manufacturers.

To support Dolby Vision however, TV sets need to a separate decoder. At the moment, only a handful of high-end sets from LG, Philips, and TCL support both HDR 10 and Dolby Vision.

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Deciphering the 4K alphabet soup

4K and UHD aren’t the only terms you need to acquaint yourself with when shopping for a 4K TV. Here are three more you need to know.

HDMI 2.0a

As mentioned earlier, HDMI 2.0 is a must-have if buying a 4K TV today, simply because 4K/60p content is set to become the norm soon. But if you want to enjoy HDR and wide color gamut from Ultra HD Blu-rays, you should look out for 4K TVs with HDMI 2.0a inputs. The same goes for A/V receivers. The good news is, you won’t need any new HDMI cables; the standard ‘High Speed’ HDMI cable will work just fine.

HDCP 2.2

Most 4K TVs support HDCP, which stands for Highbandwidth Digital Content Protection, but only the more recent ones come with HDCP 2.2, the latest generation content protection mechanism. Avoiding problems like a blank screen when a source device (e.g., a UHD Blu-ray player) is sending protected 4K signals to a non-HDCP-2.2 TV is why I consider this feature a must-have in my books, too.


Because of its high efficiency, HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) or H.265, has become the go-to compression scheme for 4K streaming services from Netflix and Amazon. A good majority of 4K TVs launched in 2015 have HEVC decoding built in, but the same can’t be said for the 2013 and 2014 models. If your TV supports VP9 that’s even better, because that’s the codec that YouTube uses for its 4K videos.

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Yup, it’s LG vs. Samsung again.

For several years, TV makers have been giving us features that we didn’t ask for (3D) and solutions to problems that we didn’t have (curved TVs). Bereft of ideas, many turned to industrial design, tempting us with superthin profiles, near-invisible bezels, exotic finishes, etc. Hand to heart, if you’ve bought a TV in the last four years, how much of that decision was based on how it looked standing in the living room turned off, versus how it looked playing a video?

But just like how the who’s who in the TV and movie industries miraculously came together in 2015 to form the UHD Alliance, there are signs that TV makers are getting their act together, especially with regards to picture quality.

For market leader Samsung, that means ‘SUHD’, a marketing name reserved only for its highest-end Tizen-powered 4K TVs. In fact, all Samsung SUHD TVs are LEDbacklit LCD TVs, but what makes them stand out from normal 4K TVs is their use of quantum dots (nanocrystals of a type of semiconducting material) to generate wider color gamuts. All this is part of the bigger 4K play, of course - as you know by now, the industry has decided that UHD isn’t just about resolution - it’s about lifelike colors, too.

But Samsung isn’t the only one obsessed with improving color performance. Crosstown rival LG has its own ‘Super UHD’ series, and leading the charge this year against Samsung’s KS9000 SUHD TV is the UH950T. Generic HDR 10 support aside, the LG Super UHD TV also includes Dolby Vision out of the box, which is a really smart move when you consider that LG’s TVs don’t house the processing chips in an easily swappable breakout box like Samsung’s SUHD TVs.

That said, with the KS9000 claiming a near-complete DCI-P3 coverage (‘only’ about 90% for the UH950T), perhaps Samsung SUHD’s true battle this year is with LG’s OLED TVs, which boast 99% DCI-P3 coverage. Surely, coupled with OLED’s much-vaunted infinitely deep blacks, this should be an easy win for LG, right?

On paper, maybe. In the real world though, it’s not that clear cut. For one, LG’s OLED TVs have a peak brightness of about 600cd/m2, compared to 1,000cd/m2 for Samsung’s SUHD LCD TVs. So there’s certainly a case to be made that the former excels for the minority who can afford a room with low ambient light (controlled lighting, heavy drapes, and all), and the latter for the majority who can’t. The jury is also out on whether OLED’s lower brightness would negatively affect HDR viewing experience. And then there’s the price. LG’s best OLED TV, the Signature G6, can be some 80% more expensive than the Samsung KS9000. Ouch!

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O 4K content, where art thou?

Finding good 4K content to sink your teeth into is hard. But at least we now have a clearer idea when they’re coming and in what form they’ll arrive. Here are a few ways to watch 4K video.
Upscaled 4K video

All this while, I’ve been wishing early adopters good luck finding 4K content. TV manufacturers recognize the problem, too, which is why most 4K TVs advertise their ability to upscale existing content to 4K. Though some brands do it better than others (hence all the marketing talk on video processors and algorithms), in general, upscaled 4K never really look good. If you must upscale, at least start with 1080p content.

4K streaming services

Versus 2014, there are now more 4K streaming services (with both normal 4K and 4K HDR) to choose from, such as Amazon, Netfl ix, Sony, UltraFlix, Vudu, and YouTube. Amongst them, I’ve no doubt Netfl ix will continue to be the most popular, especially after its aggressive expansion into 130 new countries earlier this year, and its eagerness to work with TV makers like LG to ensure users don’t need to jump through hoops to get its service.

Ultra HD Blu-ray

With much higher bitrates and lower compression, 4K Blu-rays are the obvious choice if you seek the highest 4K quality. Warner Bros., Fox, Sony, and Paramount have all announced their first 4K Blu-ray releases, with more expected to follow. But don’t expect early titles to be cheap - a 4K Blu-ray title typically costs twice the price of its 1080p release. The other hurdle is you need a 4K Blu-ray player, like Samsung’s UBD-K8500. Unfortunately, early 4K Blu-ray players won’t support Dolby Vision. If you must have an HDR 10/Dolby Vision-enabled player, it’s safer to wait till 2017.

What do I need to stream 4K?

First off , you need a 4K TV capable of handling 4K streams. Most recent 4K TVs should be compatible with Netflix 4K, assuming they support HEVC. A few 2014 models didn’t, and as far as I know, none of the 2013 models did.

If you’re stuck with a non-HEVC 4K TV, one way out is to get a media player, like Philips’ UHD 880 or Sony’s FMP-X5. But good luck finding either of them here.

Of course, you’ll also need a fast broadband connection to stream 4K. While Netflix only lists 5Mbps for a HD stream, it recommends 25Mbps for UHD. If you’re on a fiber optic connection, you should be fine, and in fact, have sufficient bandwidth for multiple streams.

Perhaps the biggest problem here is with regards to local catalog. To get to the latest overseas content, many Netflix subscribers use proxies. But Netflix is having none of it these days, and is actively blocking such workarounds.