The Truth About 4K Television

Samsung Electronic unveiled the new SUHD 4K television as CES 2015.
Samsung Electronic unveiled the new SUHD 4K television as CES 2015.Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Like every industry, consumer electronics is full of scams. Look no further than 3D TV for evidence of that, a technology that television makers guaranteed would become ubiquitous, despite almost universal disdain from journalists and consumers. And up to now, 4K televisions (technically called Ultra HD TVs, since an 8K is in development) have felt like yet another shell game. How else would you describe an expensive, and technically impressive feature — 4K TVs can display quadruple the pixels of standard HD screens — that goes largely unused? Early adopters have paid a steep premium (at least double the price of regular HDs) for the privilege of sitting on their hands, and waiting for content to show up that's actually in Ultra HD. So far, the selection of content mastered in 4K television has been limited to a slim selection titles of highly variable quality. Lawrence of Arabia deserves to be viewed at the highest resolution possible. But is anyone cheering the life-like image detail and color reproduction while watching Smurfs 2?

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Owners of 4K TVs have been duped. Despite the hype, 4K content was never right around the corner. Eight months after Netflix launched 4K streaming, there's still a dearth of programming available. Amazon's first round of streaming 4K titles is just as sparse. So it's with some trepidation that we're here at the largest consumer electronics show in the world — where so much of the hype originally came from — to report on the current, updated state of Ultra HD.

4K TVs Look More Stunning Than Ever
TV-makers showed off breathtaking 4K TVs yesterday, during the Consumer Electronic Show's day-long marathon of press conferences. Describing these screens is always a thesaurus-straining exercise in hyperbole, but here's why the benefits of Ultra HD over standard HD are clearer in 2015 than in previous years:

  1. Blacks are closer to true black, bringing the home theater experience closer to the movie theater experience.
  2. The TVs' color gamuts, or range of available, displayable colors, are now wider, adding to the sense of lifelike image quality.
  3. Even image detail seems to have improved at least for Sharp's new Beyond 4K models, which break up regular pixels into arrays of programmable subpixels (other sets have subpixels, but Sharp's have the most).
  4. Industrial design took a step forward as well. Samsung's Yves Behar-designed SUHD, for example, transfers most of its electronics into an imposing black cube of a pedestal. And Sony unveiled what it says is the thinnest 4K model in the world. At 0.2 inches thick, it's thinner than the company's smartphones.
  5. These products are dangerously beautiful. Nothing makes you want to take a hammer to your current TV like watching insanely-detailed slo mo Ultra HD footage of a surfer conquering the bright, boiling waves of some unspecified tropical locale. When people claim that there's an almost 3D-like effect to some 4K content, where the enhanced contrast creates an unmistakable sense of depth, they're telling the truth. Ultra HD is incredible.

Ultra HD Content Is Still Too Scarce
What was most surprising about yesterday's press conferences, however, was the lack of major content announcements. While the hardware marches steadily forward, the entire industry seems to be waiting patiently for Netflix to gradually expand its 4K offerings. Netflix, however, made no such announcements about additions to its limited catalog. Greg Peters, Netflix's chief of streaming and partnership, appeared at two different presentations — LG's and Sony's — to announce an image quality improvement across all of its 4K streams, and to tease that the company would start assigning a “Netflix Recommends” stamp of approval to new TVs on which the service's streaming content looks its best. But the problem with Ultra HD isn't about quality; that aspect of the technology is well in hand. The problem is quantity. When there's nothing to watch, who cares how terrific that nothing looks?

There were a few announcements that did give us hope for a less fallow 4K media environment. Panasonic displayed a prototype of a Blu-ray player that plays 4K content straight from the disc. Never mind that the prototype was a featureless box that wasn't plugged into anything. Baby steps are steps nonetheless. And DISH presented an industry first that wasn't a prop — a set-top box from a pay TV provider that plays 4K content. What DISH didn't specify was where that content would come from (we asked, but the company hasn't responded). Finally, LG announced that its newest TVs will feature the GoPro Channel app, which could generate a wealth of 4K content from users shooting with the company's new GoPro Hero 4 action cameras.

Buyer Beware, But Don't Regret
The good news surrounding Ultra HD in 2015 isn't good enough to justify replacing an existing, fully-functional HD TV with a 4K model. Even early adopters need to understand the difference between this product category and other classes of gadget. When you upgrade to a smartphone with a better screen, and a faster processor, you don't have to wait for the internet to catch up to your hardware. Web sites will look prettier and load more quickly. But despite what TV-makers claim, when 4K TVs upscale regular HD content, adding false pixels to boost the effective resolution, the improvement is minimal at best. You've heard that 4K isn't ready for primetime. That's putting it lightly. Apart from watching a few movies or TV shows per year — titles that you very well may have already watched — it's not ready for any of your time.

However, counter-intuitive as this may sound, you also shouldn't hesitate to buy a 4K. Ultra HD will supplant HD. It's only a matter of time. So if your TV dies at any point, starting right now, there's no reason to wait. Prices on 4K models have come down dramatically over the past year, and the premium you'll likely be paying won't cost much more than the cheap TV that you might otherwise pick up to hold you over. The trick to buying 4K TVs without remorse, is to actively not care about the resolution. Watch the occasional title, here and here, to remind you of what's to come. But for the next year, or maybe two, let the technology steep. Because when Ultra HD is finally ready to party, you'll want an invite.

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