By Dror Gill
One of the most wished-for items on Christmas lists this year is a 4K or UltraHD TV. With the newest 4K TVs offering the best picture quality ever — a 3840-by-2160 resolution (or 8 megapixels) to be precise — there is certainly a consumer demand to upgrade from the previous generation of “Full HD” TVs, which offer a resolution of just 1920-by-1080 (or 2 megapixels). That’s four times the amount of pixels, providing much better picture clarity and detail.
But when you go and purchase your new 4K TV, those early adopters will want to future-proof their investment by making sure that their new TV is able to support emerging formats in this still evolving technology. Here are a few things you should look for to make sure you make the most out of your investment in a new 4K TV.
In TV screen sizes there is generally one rule: the bigger the better. As long as you have enough room on your wall to place the TV, you should get the biggest one you can afford. With 4K TVs, this rule is even more important. Since there are four times the pixels of a regular TV, the size of each pixel is one quarter of its size in a regular HD TV, so if your TV is small you won’t be able to tell the pixels apart and enjoy the full benefit of the higher resolution. You will see some smaller 40” and 50” 4K TVs on the market, but my advice is to leave those on the shelf. Fifty-five inches should be the minimum size for an entry-level set 4K, with 65” being the mainstream size, and 75”-85” the high end.
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Many TV models from leading vendors such as Sony, Samsung, and LG offer 4K TVs with a curved screen. Curved screens give you a more immersive experience, since they fill a larger part of your field of view. Many people feel they also have more “depth”, providing a 3D-like experience even when viewing 2D content, and some experts even claim that contrast and sharpness are improved. But to achieve these benefits, you need to sit in exactly the right position in front of the screen — not too close, not too far, and opposite the center of the screen. This means that while curved screens can provide an extraordinary experience to a single viewer that is located in the right position, they can be less than perfect for family viewing constrained by the geometry of a typical living room.
HDMI is the most common way of connecting external devices such as Blu-ray players, game consoles, set-top boxes, and computers to your TV. The current standard of HDMI is called 1.4, and it can transfer 4K signals to your television at up to 30 frames per second. HDMI 2.0 is the new standard, and it supports up to 60 frames per second, with 12-bit instead of 8-bit color. So if you want your TV to be ready for future devices that will output higher frame rates and higher color resolution, look out for the HDMI 2.0 connector in your TV.
HDMI 2.0 also comes with a new content-protection protocol called HDCP 2.2, which is designed to create a more secure connection between the content source and the TV display. This new tech is not backwards compatible, so if you don’t plan on completely “cutting the cord” and receiving all of your 4K content off the web, make sure HDCP 2.2 appears in the specs of the 4K TV you plan to purchase.
Unfortunately, 4K content is lagging far behind 4K TVs. Only a limited amount of content that is optimized for this new technology is available online: some YouTube videos, and one or two series on Netflix, with some more content from M-Go and Amazon coming soon. Therefore, over 99% of content that you will watch on your 4K TV next year will be regular HD content, or even lower-resolution SD content. For this reason, the electronics that process the SD or HD video and converts them into 4K signals (a process that is also called “upscaling” or “up converting”) are extremely important when choosing your 4K TV. This is the main factor that will determine the quality of video that you will see, so it’s important to look for high-quality image processing electronics. The best way to check for this is to ask your local TV store to connect a cable or satellite feed into the 4K TV you are looking at, instead of those 4K demo discs that play in a loop.
High Efficiency Video Coding, sometimes also called H.265, is the new video compression standard, and it is twice as efficient as the previous standard (AVC or H.264). So it is rapidly becoming the codec of choice for storing and delivering 4K content. All of the major streaming services are planning 4K delivery in 2015 using HEVC, so if your television does not include a built-in HEVC decoder, you will need to connect an external streamer box that supports HEVC decoding to your TV to enjoy these services. So save yourself the extra hassle and make sure HEVC support is one of the key features to look for when choosing your 4K TV.
Quality and Price
This is true for many consumer devices: You get what you pay for. You can find 65” 4K TVs for less than $1,000, but typically in these sets the processing electronics are low quality, and the quality difference will especially be noticeable if you upscale SD or HD content to 4K. High-quality, top-brand 65” 4K TVs are typically in the range of $2,500-$4,000, although you can see cheaper deals during the holidays. Price is not always an indication of quality, but if you get a 4K TV from a good brand at a competitive store, you are probably getting your money’s worth.
The Bottom Line
Buying a 4K TV is the first step to ensuring that you have access to the new higher-resolution content that will come our way in 2015 and beyond, and there are many considerations when making this purchase decision. So before you make a large investment in a new 4K TV, make sure it can handle everything the future has in store for this evolving technology.
Dror Gill is CTO of Beamr, an imaging technology company that powers some of the world’s top web publishers, digital distributors, social networks and media companies. Beamr’s focus is improving the user experience and reducing costs associated with storing and transmitting media files. For more information, visit www.beamrvideo.com.