What do you need for 4K TV?
4K Ultra HD TV: What it is and how to get it
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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TV technology sure has come a long way since the days of tube TVs. The latest 4K TVs offer dramatic picture quality improvements.
In a Nutshell
4K Ultra HD TVs have four times the picture detail of 1080p HDTVs. A 4K picture has greater clarity and depth than an HD picture, but you may need to get a larger screen, or sit closer, to see all the added detail.
4K enhances more than picture detail. Nearly all 4K TVs also support HDR (High Dynamic Range), which can show a wider range of contrast and color, giving images more pop.
Virtually all 4K TVs are smart TVs, with built-in web apps for streaming services like Netflix®, Amazon Instant Video, and Vudu. These services offer a growing selection of TV shows and movies in 4K. You may need to upgrade your internet service and/or router to stream 4K.
Other 4K sources include 4K Blu-ray players, select satellite TV receivers from DIRECTV® and DISH®, and the latest streaming media players from Roku, Apple®, and TiVo®. You can't get over-the-air 4K TV broadcasts yet, but they may begin sometime in 2018.
4K Ultra High Definition 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 4,000 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 40" - 85" TV screen instead of a 30-foot theater screen. Or, if you want the most theater-like experience at home, combine a 4K Ultra HD projector and 4K-rated screen.
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.
A 4K TV's higher resolution means you can sit much closer to the screen without seeing the pixel structure. Sitting closer — or getting a bigger screen — also adds to the sense of immersion. See our article on TV sizes and viewing distance for specific recommendations.
Another 4K TV picture quality advantage: HDR (High Dynamic Range)
Many people think that 4K is just about picture detail, but there's much more to it. Nearly all 4K TVs from major brands support a technology called HDR (High Dynamic Range). HDR allows 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.
To get the full scoop on HDR, see our HDR article.
"Where can I find 4K content to watch?"
Start with the TV's built-in 4K streaming apps
Millions of people subscribe to Netflix® and/or Amazon Prime Instant Video, and both services produce most of their original TV series in 4K. These two services provide a great low-cost introduction to 4K viewing that requires no additional components. 4K streaming does require reasonably fast Internet service — TV makers recommend at least 20Mbps.
Netflix offers several of its highly-rated original series in 4K, as well as a few movies.
Netflix is the most popular streaming video service and offers dozens of TV series, movies, and documentaries in 4K, and some are HDR-enhanced. To get a feel for what's available, check this list of 4K titles on Netflix.
What you'll need: a 4K Ultra HD TV with the Netflix app, plus a Netflix 4K streaming subscription (currently $12.99/mo.). Virtually all 4K TVs include the Netflix app, but if you'd rather use an outboard device, some good 4K-capable options include these Roku and Apple media streamers, as well as TiVo's Bolt DVRs.
Amazon Prime Instant Video
If you're already an Amazon Prime member, you know that one of the perks is Amazon's Prime video streaming service, which includes a significant amount of 4K content, some encoded with HDR. It's a terrific bonus — free access to some great content, including Amazon's award-winning original TV series.
Here's an up-to-date list of 4K titles on Amazon.
What you'll need: a 4K Ultra HD TV with the Amazon app and an Amazon Prime subscription (currently $99/year). Nearly all 4K TVs include the Amazon app, but if you'd rather use an outboard device, some good 4K-capable options include these Roku and Apple media streamers. (Even if you're not an Amazon Prime member, you may still be able to rent or purchase 4K movies.)
This service specializes in pay-per-view movies. Some titles are available at 4K resolution, and a few offer High Dynamic Range (HDR) video and Dolby Atmos audio, if you have a cutting-edge home theater setup that supports those technologies. You can rent for $10 per title, or buy for $25 to $30. Find more info at the Vudu website.
What you'll need: a 4K Ultra HD TV that supports Vudu 4K streaming, like these 2017 Samsung models, or these 2017 LG models. Some media streamers also support Vudu 4K streaming, including these Roku models.
UltraFlix claims to offer the world's largest library of streaming 4K Ultra HD content, including movies, documentaries, concerts, and TV series — over 600 hours' worth of mostly older titles. UltraFlix is primarily a video-on-demand service, with rentals costing between $1 and $10, although there is some free content. Find more info at the UltraFlix website.
FandangoNOW™ (formerly M-GO)
FandangoNOW offers both streaming and downloading of 4K Ultra HD content. If you want to enjoy the expanded contrast and color of HDR video, you can download (as opposed to stream) titles from FandangoNOW and watch them on an HDR-capable 4K TV. Find more info at FandangoNOW's website.
What you'll need: a Samsung or LG 4K Ultra HD TV. FandangoNOW's 4K content can also be accessed via a Roku 4 streamer. For downloading, you'll also need a VIDITY™-enabled storage device that connects to the USB 3.0 port on your TV or streamer.
YouTube has an eclectic and growing library of millions of free 4K video clips. While you probably won't find your favorite movie or TV show, there are some great-looking concerts from the likes of Wilco, U2, and the Avett Brothers. There is also plenty of more conventional 4K eye candy, including some amazing nature documentaries.
If you own an Apple TV 4K, you can use it to download TV shows and movies in 4K from Apple's iTunes Store. Many titles offer HDR, as well. You can choose to buy or rent titles.
4K Ultra HD Blu-ray players
Like 4K Ultra HD TVs, Ultra HD Blu-ray supports resolutions up to 3840 x 2160 pixels — four times the detail of 1080p HD. And because Ultra HD Blu-ray discs can hold so much more data than standard Blu-rays, the picture can also have higher contrast and a wider color range, especially discs with HDR (High Dynamic Range).
Ultra HD Blu-ray has a much higher bit-rate than any streamed 4K video source. In fact, Ultra HD Blu-ray delivers the best picture quality that's ever been available for home viewing.
Most (but not all) Ultra HD Blu-ray players have two HDMI outputs, so people with A/V receivers that are a few years old won't need to replace them. They'll be able to run one HDMI cable directly to the TV for video, and another one to the receiver for audio. So, your 4K TV needs to have at least one of the latest HDMI 2.0 connections with HDCP 2.2 copy protection, but your receiver doesn't.
Microsoft's Xbox One X and Xbox One S game consoles can also play Ultra HD Blu-ray discs.
As of 11/10/17, the number of released and "coming soon" Ultra HD Blu-ray titles is around 250, with prices typically in the $15-$30 range.
"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 or DVD 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, video processing has improved dramatically in recent years, so that non-4K video sources can look surprisingly good. Blu-ray, in particular, looks terrific on a 4K TV.
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