Should you buy a 4K television?

There’s a generalisation, known as Betteridge’s Law, that states that any headline ending in a question mark can be answered by the word “No.”

Normally, of course, it’s about something a little more exciting than whether or not you should buy the latest telly tech. But I’m sure there will be lots of people rushing out to the shops, looking at the latest offers in the run-up to Christmas (and probably ‘Black Friday’ too, which actually isn’t a thing in the UK, really. But I digress).

My personal view is that if you buy a 4K television set right now – or indeed any time before about 2019 – you are making a mistake. Still, however, people tell me they want to buy one, and ask what they should get, so I thought it worth explaining in detail why you should wait.

But they’re in the shops now!

Yes, there are plenty of sets in the shops which have 4K or UHD – Ultra High Definition – displays. Some of them look really good, especially with the beautifully shot demo footage that’s provided to show them off. The manufacturers of the panels have got their factories ready, and they’re creating sets that have 2160 lines, and 3840 pixels across – that’s double the resolution of HD in each direction, so in all four times as much detail on the screen. In theory.

And, I’m sure we can look forward to lots of press releases and congratulations next year from companies saying how many UltraHD sets they’ve sold. In many cases, though, that’s going to be in the same way as they sold 3D sets – above a certain price point, they’ll put a UHD panel in the telly anyway, because it gives another tick box on the spec sheet, and helps make people think they’re getting more for their money. Throw in some clever software to help enlarge the picture and HD content will look great on a UHD screen.

But those figures will hide the fact that people aren’t really buying into UHD – they’re simply getting it thrown in the same way as they got 3D. Just as only a fraction of 3D sets probably ever saw any 3D material – it was such a damp squib that pretty much everyone has done away with the 3D channels they launched to much fanfare a few years back – most of the UHD sets sold in the next couple of years are unlikely to see much in the way of UHD content.

Where’s the content?

There is stuff to watch in UHD, of course. Netflix and Amazon are both talking up the fact that some of their stuff is in UHD. Panasonic has finally shown people a UHD Blu-Ray player, and Roku has just announced that their next player will have 4K as well.

However, for material delivered via the internet, you need a lot of capacity to do UHD, and to do it justice. Most UK broadband is not fast enough. Sure, if you have a good fibre connection, and your exchange isn’t congested, and your ISP isn’t, and you have a Netflix 4K subscription, you can watch a small amount of material in the format.

Or you can buy an Ultra-HD Blu-Ray player, and pay over the odds for the discs – though we don’t know quite how many there will be, I think we can be quietly confident that there will be yet another chance to buy Star Wars.

There will be some demos on satellite; there will very probably never be anything broadcast on Freeview – a topic I’ll explain in more detail later. In short, for a lot of people, mostly what you’ll be watching is going to be HD at best.

And it’s not finished

The real reason for not buying a 4K/Ultra HD television though is that the standard is far from finished. Ultra HD is really about lots more than more pixels. There are lots of interlinking technologies, and the standards for some of those haven’t yet been finished.

Besides all the dots, there are three key things that UHD offers. The first is called HDR, or High Dynamic Range. That means better contrast, and pictures that can cope well with scenes that might have, say, a shadowy alleyway next to a brightly lit street. Without UHD, you might have the street looking too bright, or the alleyway so dark you can’t see the villain lurking in the shadows.

HDR isn’t a gimmick. It really makes a massive difference to the picture, and you’ll likely notice it far more than you will notice the extra pixels. In fact, Netflix are so sure of that they they plan to prioritise it over UHD.

There’s one big issue here – the broadcast industry hasn’t yet agreed on exactly what HDR format to use for UHD. Some of the first generation 4k panels won’t support it at all. A recent Faultline story on The Register explained that a big TV chip maker will be adding it to next year’s sets.

I think they’re a little overblown in saying this will make existing 4k sets obsolete, but they certainly won’t be capable of doing the same justice to material that’s produced with HDR in mind.

A close relative of HDR is Wide Colour Gamut, which means that sets will be able to support a greater range of colours on screen, making things look much more natural. Again, this is a technology I’ve seen in real life, at IBC in 2014 and 2015, and it looks amazing.

But there are some sets out there that aren’t going to do that – and some that may come at a bargain price, but compromise too much on colour, as this piece on HDTVTest explains.

Some of this will be resolved in the next year or so, and standards organisations like the DVB will come up with clear specs for HD, hopefully resolving issues like how to do HDR – so by late 2016 or 2017, you can probably be more confident that any set you buy, as long as it includes the latest standards, will give you a much better picture than you will get now.

It doesn’t end there

There’s a third part to making the most of Ultra High Definition, besides colour and dynamic range. It’s called High Frame Rate. A modern set is generally capable of displaying images at up to 60 frames (pictures) per second – though of course many films are much slower, only 24fps.

Look at things like scrolling credits, or fast panning shots in sports, and you’ll see some of the limitations of the frame rates we have at the moment – juddering, text that’s a bit blurry and hard to read.

High Frame Rate helps improve this, and could potentially be 100-120 frames per second, or even more. But – and this is my main reason for hoping to get another five years out of my current TV – the current specs for Ultra HD do not include High Frame Rate.

Those specs will come, and they’re being worked on. One key thing to remember with them is that to double the frame rate needs faster chips – the decoder has to create twice as many images per second as it currently does.

That sort of improvement doesn’t come overnight, and people I’ve spoken to think that 2019 is a realistic time-frame for when the chips will be available to support HFR.

So, if you’re smart, and you want a 4K/Ultra HD set that is going to last, and get the most out of the material that will be available to watch, I really think you should be waiting until around 2019/20 before buying.

Treat yourself to a new set then, and you stand to get one with all the benefits that will be rolled into the UHD specs. Buy one now, and you may well be missing out – and there won’t be that much to watch in UHD anyway.

If you want to see some examples of HDR and HFR, this factsheet on UHD from the DVB may help.

One last thing

There are other things to watch out for right now, not necessarily directly related to UHD, but still important if you’re shopping for a 4K set. For example, not all versions of the HDMI connectors on sets support UHD, and some don’t support all the features. You might buy a TV that has only one HDMI 2 port, which is good enough for now. But in five years time when you want to add a media streamer to that fancy BluRay? Or you get a new 4K satellite box?

Your choice then will be to have some 4K devices plugged in to sockets that don’t support it, or to buy a 4K AV amplifier to switch everything via the right port, or to replace the TV.

I fear this is going to be an issue particularly at the low end of the market, where you may find bargain displays that aren’t backed up with the right connections. Again, I think this is a good reason to wait, rather than rush out.

Of course, if your current TV breaks, and you have to buy a new one, you may well end up with UHD whether you want it or not, especially on more expensive sets. That’s fine – I’m not telling you to go without a TV.

Just don’t go out explicitly looking for a 4K UltraHD television right now, if you want something that’s going to make the most of technologies that are already on the drawing board. If your TV’s doing fine, keep it for a few more years; plug a Chromecast or a Roku into it if you want to beef up its smart functions.

If you don’t have money to burn, 4k can wait for now.

4 thoughts on “Should you buy a 4K television?

  1. But isn’t it the nature of technology that by 2019 they will be yet another TV standard that promises to be the best; e.g. Sharp have already announced an 8K TV. You can always put off buying something to wait for standards to be agreed but it’s very much a moving target and you can be pretty sure that anything you buy will be obsolete within 12 months. It is a conundrum and the only real good advice is to buy the best you can within your budget when you really need to buy something.

    1. Up to a point; however, no one in Europe really seems to have any plans for 8k on the roadmap. They do, however, have 4K with HDR on the roadmap now, and HFR is pretty likely too.

      So, given that those are coming pretty soon, and well within the lifetime of new kit, I think there is a very good case for not bothering with a 4K set now that’s only going to give you half the technology. At the very least, I would urge people not to buy any 4K set that doesn’t have HDR support, because that really does make a massive difference to picture quality, and to ensure there are plenty of HDMI 2 ports as well.

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