What a difference a year makes. It was only a few months ago that the idea of buying a 4K Ultra HD TV was considered profligate: Who has that kind of money to throw around? Today, it's nearly unavoidable.
Graphic: Nick Bush / Tom's Guide"It's the only choice out there now," said Paul Gray, principal analyst at IHS Technology, speaking before a recent exhibition at the CE China expo. Gray follows global TV trends and points out that except for entry-level, bargain sets, "there's precious few sets that aren't 4K."
In fact, 50-inch, 4K ultra-HD sets capable of 3840 by 2160 pixel resolution have broken the $500 mark, with more expected to go even lower. Delivering a better picture than standard HD sets, ultra-HD models are beginning to turn the tide. According to market numbers from GfK researchers, in 2016 there will be 62 million 4K TVs sold, compared with 226 million standard HD sets. Next year, the number of 4K sets sold will climb to 73 million.
Here's why you shouldn't try to buck that trend or worry about the potential HDR (high dynamic range) fly in the 4K ointment:
1. All of the best sets are 4K
The rule is that you put the latest and greatest features into your top models, which is exactly what has been happening in TVs. So in addition to the higher 4K resolution, these ultra-HD sets also boast smarter TV interfaces and services, greater brightness, truer colors and even sharper sound.
These days, all the best TVs are 4K, including the 65-inch Vizio M Series (above).Standard HD sets are stagnating, since manufacturers are simply not bothering to put the same improvements into those devices. So if you want a better overall TV entertainment experience, you're looking at a 4K set.
2. Better upscaling means a better standard HD picture
After some initial glitches converting HD programs to 4K resolution, TV makers have mostly sorted it out now, and in the process delivered a sharper picture, even for standard HD programs. Watching a Blu-ray disc, for example, on a 4K set can be a big, big improvement over standard HD TVs, thanks to crisper, more precise, upscaling. So even though the majority of programs you'll be watching will still be in HD, it will look better on a 4K set.
3. There's more content, with more to come
While traditional broadcast networks have yet to jump on the 4K bandwagon, they are increasingly irrelevant as people download and stream more video programming than ever. And streaming companies such as Netflix, Amazon Video and Vudu are carrying more 4K content.
Streaming companies such as Netflix, Amazon Video and Vudu are carrying more 4K content."Streamers are setting the agenda," Gray said, reminding us that software sells hardware. And more 4K software is coming. Dish Network and DirecTV have already added 4K channels and support.
The company that brought cord-cutting to the masses, Roku, is also getting viewers connected to more 4K material. Roku's new 4K Spotlight channel is a curated listing of what's currently available online. You'll find 4K movies here such as Edge of Tomorrow and San Andreas, TV shows like House of Cards, and services 4K such as YouTube and Netflix.
Streaming companies like Netflix, Amazon Video and Vudu are all carrying more 4K content.
Finally, while streaming is disrupting the old models, new 4K discs are appearing for the first time this year along with players, led by Samsung's $400 UBD-K8500 4K Blu-ray player. With prices for movies starting at $30, it's still a premium purchase, but for serious movie fans, there is no better way to watch a film.
With the right 4K HDR setup, for the first time you will be able to create a picture experience at home that's better than what your neighborhood cinema can offer.
4. The HDR fly in the 4K ointment
Alas, just when you think the TV people seem to have sorted out high-resolution video formats, along comes high dynamic range (HDR) to mess it all up.
HDR adds a wider color gamut, sharper color intensity and greater brightness to 4K pictures. It makes a clear visual difference. Unfortunately, the format itself is far from clear. There are at least three different versions of HDR and whether or not a particular set supports them — or have to support some future format — can be tough to figure out.
Some models, such as Vizio's latest top-of-the-line models, support Dolby Vision, sort of a souped-up version of HDR. Others support the Ultra-HD Premium format (a more flexible version of HDR), and some, such as LG's 4K sets, support both. Still companies, such as Sony, are sticking with their own HDR logo on their sets.
The lack of conformity could make TV shoppers' heads spin this year with a potential compatibility problem looming ahead. Fortunately, there's a clear strategy for any buyer looking at purchasing a TV: You can either take a budget-minded approach and go for an inexpensive 4K ultra-HD model, such as the $500 50-inch 4K Insignia Roku TV, and not worry about HDR until it becomes an accepted — and less expensive — format three or four years from now.
With the right 4K HDR setup, for the first time you'll be able to create an experience at home that's better than your neighborhood cinema.
Or you can decide to splurge and purchase a set that conforms to both Ultra HD Premium and Dolby Vision formats, which should futureproof your TV and make it compatible, come what may.