4K and Ultra HD TV

Learn about the new technology that provides four times the picture detail of a typical HDTV


Steve Kindig

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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Samsung 55HU8550

Ultra High Definition TVs continue to gain in popularity. These 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. That's the reality of 4K Ultra High Definition TV.

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 picture resolution vs. 1080p

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.

How much 4K content is available?

Sony FMP-X10

Sony's FMP-X10 4K Ultra HD media player.

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. Sony offers an Ultra HD media player, the FMP-X10, that lets you download titles from Sony's online library of 4K films, for rental or purchase. The FMP-X10 also has the ability to play streamed 4K content from Netflix®, making it especially valuable to owners of 2013 Sony 4K TVs, which lacked that capability.

Samsung UHD Video Pack

Samsung's 4K Ultra HD media player.

Samsung also makes a 4K media player, called the UHD Video Pack. If you own one of Samsung's 2014 4K Ultra HD TVs, this is a great accessory. It's a 1-terabyte hard drive that comes pre-loaded with several full-length movies and nature documentaries, all in full 4K resolution. Once you plug it into the TV's USB input, the player's menu appears on the TV screen, and you can navigate and make selections using the TV remote.

Netflix launched their 4K streaming service last year with their original series House of Cards. They've since beefed up their 4K offerings with the complete Breaking Bad series, The Blacklist, as well as their home-grown Marco Polo series. To watch Netflix in 4K, viewers need a 2014 or newer Ultra HD TV with HEVC decoding, a Netflix 4K streaming subscription (currently $12.99/mo.), and reasonably fast Internet service — at least 20Mbps. Amazon joined the 4K club with their streaming service that, initially anyway, is only available — for free! — to Amazon Prime members.

Two more 4K video sources launched at the tail end of 2014. DirecTV's 4K Ultra HD service offers a limited selection of 4K movies available on a pay-per-view basis. In order to use the service, you must not only be a DirecTV subscriber, but must also have DirecTV's Genie whole house HD DVR, along with a DirecTV-ready Ultra HD TV, such as Samsung's Ultra HD models. And Comcast announced their Xfinity in UHD, which is also an on-demand service that initially only works with Samsung 4K TVs.

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 is plenty of 4K eye candy, including some wonderful nature documentary footage. In the meantime, if you have a camera with at least 8-megapixel resolution, then you have a source for 4K photos.

Sony's 4K X-reality Pro upconversion

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.

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 XBR-55X850B

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 UN55HU9000

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

LG 55UB8500

LG's UF7700 series models are among the most affordable 2015 Ultra HD TVs we've seen from a top-tier brand. LG's IPS panel technology keeps picture contrast and color looking crisp even as you move from directly in front of the screen to viewing more from the sides.

Sharp 4K Ultra HD TVs

Sharp LC-60UD27U

Sharp's 70" LC-70UH30U is among the very few TVs that have earned THX® 4K certification. Getting THX certified has never been easy, but to be 4K-certified, this TV had to pass over 400 rigorous laboratory tests — for both HD and 4K picture quality.

The era of 4K Ultra HD TV is definitely here and there's no going back. Stay tuned for further developments.

Last updated September 24, 2015
  • Daniel Roth from 61060

    Posted on 5/11/2015 1:21:40 PM

    will these TV's show 3-D movies? My blu ray DVD shows 3-D DVD's

  • bailey from dallas

    Posted on 5/11/2015 7:07:40 PM

    they only clear with blue ray or dvd player , cable,and dish have not gotton 4k uhd yet

  • dwayne from VA

    Posted on 5/12/2015 10:39:54 PM

    No more. I'm tired of upgrading everything!

  • Robert from L.A.

    Posted on 5/24/2015 12:00:51 PM

    No mention of Ultraflix?!? They have the largest 4K content of all!

  • Jack from MIRAMAR, FL.

    Posted on 5/26/2015 12:56:58 AM

    Frankly you'll never slow the tide but if consumers are purposely slow to adopt 4K then manufacturers may learn the endless format changes are not really helping and in fact making consumers feel played. We don't have 4x the bandwidth with our ISP's, I don't want to use 4x the disk space, can't we just settle with HD for a little bit before the push for 4K? Frankly it's a game that we have to choose to stop playing...

  • David Bickel from United States, MN

    Posted on 5/28/2015 8:32:58 PM

    Our TV is also has regular stuff and 3d as well.

  • thomas nichols from wharton wv.25208

    Posted on 6/8/2015 3:29:52 AM

    When is 4k coming to direct TV. And dish .

  • Max Slugger from Illinois

    Posted on 7/8/2015 6:43:31 PM

    Wow - those 4K images on my monitor are way better than any thing else I've seen on my 1080p monitor. Boy technology has come a long way.

  • Dan mccoy from Santa fe, nm

    Posted on 7/29/2015 10:36:11 AM

    You might mention apples 5k computer that plays 4k and the images are stunning with netflix 4k movies

  • chester f everett from United States

    Posted on 8/10/2015 10:30:19 AM

    keep me informed

  • dan mccoy from santa fe nm

    Posted on 8/27/2015 10:45:44 PM

    no where is anyone mentioning the imac 5k computer that streams 4k very well and the images are fantastic to watch.

  • Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/28/2015 9:56:13 AM

    Thanks for the head's up Dan! I haven't seen that yet.

  • freddy from turnhout Belgium

    Posted on 9/15/2015 6:36:50 AM

    In the sony and Samsung and other labs they are busy with 8K and 16K were will it ends ... Our eyes can not handle that much (sorry for bad english) They improve but we can not keep buying a tv each year or 2

  • Mo from Seattle

    Posted on 9/24/2015 12:38:36 PM

    Freddy from Belgium is correct... This new 4K technology is truly awesome.. But until more content is produced in 4K. It's pointless right now. Just like 240hz/60fps TV's.. Even at 25 years of age, the human eye can only detect so much of horizontal pixels per screen. Now if we had a bird of prey set of eyes (owls,eagles)... Then we can clearly tell the mass difference of 1920p vs 3840p... This new 8K & 16K testing in labs wont be sold for commercial use.

  • Glenn from Arlington,VA

    Posted on 10/11/2015 4:27:41 PM

    it's interesting how fast prices are dropping on these units though. That's quite encouraging. I think a curved 65" tv will be my next upgrade. The problem is that the manufacturers are jamming 3D into most of their offerings even though it's essentially a failed experiment. I'd rather save several hundred bucks and get a set without 3D.

  • Ron from Toledo, OH

    Posted on 10/16/2015 5:38:19 PM

    how far into future will it be that tv networks get into 4k video? we don't watch movies from dvd, blueray nor any streaming. apparently streaming is becoming more main stream but doesn't carry live network tv as i understand it

  • Bill Howsley from Dallas

    Posted on 11/1/2015 9:55:09 PM

    How many nature shows can we watch? When will the previous commentors and the Silent Majority demand better content? We watch only sports on our hdtvs at our house.

  • Chris from South Jordan

    Posted on 11/10/2015 12:59:05 AM

    I've compared 4K movies with the same content scaled to 1080P on the same 55" brand of monitor side by side simultaneously, and it is not that much of a difference. In fact to me the 4K display made the movie effects look "fake" since there was so much detail, and I actually thought the 1080P looked more pleasing. This demo was not at a retail store by the way. I didn't expect this, but I do think that 4K will be great on bigger displays like projectors. Assuming of course that there is enough 4K content to be had!