4K and Ultra HD TV
Learn about the new technology that provides four times the picture detail of a typical HDTV
Steve Kindig has been an electronics enthusiast for over 30 years. He has written extensively about home and car A/V gear for Crutchfield since 1985. Steve is also a volunteer DJ at community radio station WTJU, where he is a regular host of the American folk show "Atlantic Weekly," as well as the world music program "Radio Tropicale."
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The millions of Ultra High Definition TVs that were sold last year are proof that this new screen technology is more than a passing fad. These 4K Ultra HD TVs have four times the picture resolution of regular “full HD" 1080p TVs, and can display much more detail. Ultra HD TVs are often referred to as “4K" TVs, because they have a horizontal resolution of around 4000 pixels.
You've probably seen a movie in 4K without even realizing it — 40% of movie theaters use 4K digital projectors to display Hollywood’s latest hits with maximum detail and depth. Now, imagine how lifelike watching at home would be with that many pixels on a 55", 65", or 85" screen instead of a 30-foot theater screen. And if you want the most theater-like experience, we now offer some very impressive 4K Ultra HD home theater projectors.
More pixels = more picture detail
Whether it's a TV, a tablet, or a smartphone, the more pixels a screen has, the more seamless and detailed the picture will look. The ideal is a screen where the "pixel structure" is invisible. You already find that on high-end tablets and phones like those with Apple's "Retina" display. 4K Ultra High Definition models take television a giant step in that direction — you have to stand right next to an Ultra HD TV to notice any pixels at all. Because the picture is so clear and sharp, you can actually sit closer to a 4K TV even if the screen is larger than your old TV. And that adds even more to the sense of immersion.
4K Ultra HD TVs have four times as many pixels as a 1080p HDTV, for a picture that's incredibly clear, detailed, and lifelike.
How close should you sit to a 4K TV? Most experts say you can get as close as 1-1/2 times the screen height, versus 3 times the screen height for a 1080p TV. That's much closer than most of us sit when watching HDTV, but it really transforms the experience — the screen completely fills your field of vision, making you feel more like you’re in the scene. A darkened room and surround sound will further intensify this feeling of immersion. See our article on TV sizes and viewing distance for specific recommendations.
How much 4K content is available?
4K TVs have quickly become popular, but there's still a limited amount of true 4K content to watch. The same thing happened with the introduction of DVD, HDTV, and Blu-ray — the hardware arrived first, followed by the content.
Here's some exciting news: The first Ultra HD Blu-ray player for the U.S. market — Samsung's UBD-K8500 — is now available. Like 4K Ultra HD TVs, Ultra HD Blu-ray supports resolutions up to 3840 x 2160 pixels. And because Ultra HD Blu-ray discs can hold a lot more data than standard Blu-rays, the picture can have not only more detail, but also higher contrast and a wider color range.
Samsung's player has two HDMI outputs. You'll be able to run one HDMI cable directly to your 4K TV for video, and another one to your receiver for audio. Your 4K TV will need to have at least one of the latest HDMI 2.0 connections with HDCP 2.2 copy protection, but if you run a separate HDMI for audio, your receiver won't.
Plenty of 4K streaming options
As we head into Spring 2016 there are announcements almost every week about new streamed 4K video content. Both Netflix® and Amazon Instant Video produce several of their acclaimed original TV series in 4K. Netflix's 4K offering includes House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Daredevil, and Jessica Jones. Amazon's 4K series include The Man in the High Castle, Transparent, and Orphan Black. To watch Netflix or Amazon in 4K, you'll need a 2014 or newer Ultra HD TV with HEVC decoding. And any type of 4K streaming requires reasonably fast Internet service — at least 20Mbps.
Netflix offers several of its highly-rated original series in 4K, as well as a few movies.
There are also pay-per-view streaming sites with 4K content, like Vudu and UltraFlix™. Not all 4K TVs include built-in apps for these services, so if you're comparing TV models it's worth spending a few minutes to find out which services are supported. YouTube has an eclectic and growing library of millions of 4K video clips. While you probably won't find your favorite movie or TV show, there are a few concerts in 4K, as well as some amazing nature documentary footage. To watch YouTube's 4K content, you'll need a 2015 or newer Ultra HD TV with VP9 decoding.
DirecTV's Ultra HD service has so far been limited to some 4K movies available on a pay-per-view basis. But both satellite and cable companies made announcements at the 2016 CES (Consumer Electronics Show), so we may see dedicated 4K content channels from these providers later this year.
For the most complete and up to date info on 4K content options, read our 4K content article.
How will my current video sources look on a 4K TV?
Don't worry if you don't have access to any 4K video sources right away. All 4K TVs include built-in 4K upconversion, also called "upscaling," which takes the video signals from your Blu-ray player, satellite or cable TV box, or game console, and makes them fill the 4-times greater pixel count of the 4K screen. Without upconversion, a 1080p Blu-ray signal would appear as a small rectangular image at the center of the screen, with black bars on all sides. While upconverted 4K isn't the same as true 4K, the processing enhances the appearance of non-4K video to more closely resemble 4K. Blu-ray, in particular, looks terrific on a 4K TV.
What's the story on HDR (High Dynamic Range)?
Several 2015 and 2016 Ultra HD TVs from Samsung, Sony, and LG feature High Dynamic Range technology that allows these TVs to reproduce a wider range of white to black. This not only improves the all-important picture contrast, but also gives colors more pop. Although these TVs have the capability to decode High Dynamic Range information in video content, by Spring 2016 there was still very limited HDR content available. Amazon and Netflix offer HDR on a couple of their streamed series, and Vudu has around 100 pay-per-view movie titles with HDR.
2016 looks like it will be the real breakout year for HDR. We're seeing many more HDR-capable models from the major TV makers. And the streaming video services are planning to beef up their HDR-enhanced content considerably. Probably the most exciting HDR-related news is the launch of Ultra HD Blu-ray players and discs. HDR should prove to be one of the biggest picture quality advantages of Ultra HD Blu-ray over standard Blu-ray.
To get the full scoop on HDR, see our HDR article.
Why are there so few 4K TVs in smaller screen sizes?
Although 4K TV screen sizes now extend down to 40", most people find that 1080p resolution looks "good enough" on screens 50" or less. From a typical viewing distance you won't notice the screen's grid of pixels — sometimes called the “pixel structure." But 55" and larger screens benefit from a much higher pixel count, making the grid virtually invisible. Ultra HD not only offers a more detailed picture, but also allows you to sit closer to a screen and/or view a larger screen while enjoying unprecedented clarity.
Sony 4K Ultra HD TVs
Sony has more 4K experience than any other TV maker. They build professional 4K cameras and cinema projectors, and Sony Pictures has a bigger catalog of 4K films than any other studio. This end-to-end approach helps ensure a truly theater-like experience at home.
Samsung 4K Ultra HD TVs
Samsung's top-of-the-line curved-screen JS9500 series TVs offer exceptional picture quality and future-readiness. Each TV includes a separate One Connect Box with inputs for your video components. In the future you'll be able to get a newer-version Box that will upgrade the TV's main processor, graphics processor, and memory to support future formats as they evolve.
LG 4K Ultra HD TVs
Most of LG's latest LED-LCD Ultra HD TVs feature their IPS (In-Plane Switching) panel technology. It keeps picture contrast and color looking crisp even as you move from directly in front of the screen to viewing more from the sides.
At this point it's safe to say that 4K Ultra HD TV is the new standard. Even if you're not convinced that the extra pixels will result in a significantly sharper picture, TV makers are putting all their other best picture technologies, like superior contrast and color, into their 4K models. Stay tuned for further developments.