A Sceptic's Guide To Buying (or Not Buying) A 4K TV

A Sceptic's Guide to Buying (or Not Buying) a 4K TV

I bought my beloved television half a decade ago, a (then) impressively thin 32-inch Samsung for around $700. Today, you can buy a 50-inch 4K TV for around that much. The real question is: Should you buy a 4K TV at all?

This is the year that 4K TVs aren't so much an exotic offering from a Consumer Electronics Show (CES) showroom as a sale item you're sure to trip over on any visit to JB-Hi Fi. There are now a ton of 4K TVs on the market, and they're finally affordable. 4K TV content isn't as impossible to find as it used to be -- and, these days, many models include content up-scaling (with varying levels of success).

However, depending on the size of your living room and the demands of your eyeballs, you might get more for your money -- and not even notice the visual difference -- with a 1080p model.

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Don't Buy It Just Because It's Cheap

Shopping for a television is a little bit like shopping for a car. It's expensive, and it sucks. Sales can be very enticing, especially around this time of year! Don't settle for a shitty TV because it's dirt cheap, though. You might get a lemon.

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Depending on what you pick, a TV can be a relatively large investment. You might be tempted to spend thousands of dollars on some jacked up curved OLED screen bursting at the seams with smart features like friggin' Android TV. At the end of the day, though, any relatively new LED LCD screen will get you from the beginning to the end of your favourite buddy comedy.

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Plasma TVs generally make everything look better but few companies still make them. And OLED TVs do look amazing, but they will remain amazingly expensive for the foreseeable future.

So what the shit does HDR and Ultra HD and "expanding the colour gamut" and all of those jargon-y salesperson words really mean? I'm going to be very honest about what to look for in a new TV, namely the ones with that very buzzworthy 4K logo on the box. When you're trying to pick your new TV out of the sea of nicely priced LED screens on the market today, you should really focus on the basics: resolution, size, and quality.

Resolution Is Overrated

You've heard it here before but looking for the highest resolution screen is not the trick to buying the best TV. What you really want is the right resolution for you and your space. You might not actually want a 4K TV, regardless of the sale price!

A television earns its 4K Ultra High Definition designation if the screen is at least 3,840-pixels-wide and 2,160-pixels-high. (4K is also known as 2160p.) That means there are four times as many pixels on the screen as a Full HD 1080p television. None of this matters if you're going to be sitting more than about 3m from the screen, however, since the human eye is literally incapable of distinguishing the difference in resolution from that distance.

So, the extra pixels in a 4K TV only offer better resolution if the screen is large (think 60-inches and up) or if you sit really close to the TV (think: 1.5 metres).

This makes for a difficult proposition when shopping for a new TV, since many of the cheapest 4K screens are all in the 50-inch screen range. At that size, it's kind of a toss up whether the improved resolution will matter. Nevertheless, you should get out a measuring tape and check out this guide and this calculator to find out if you'd even notice the sharper picture in your living room.

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The resolution question is not a new one. Back when I bought my 720p TV, I figured out that the lower resolution would look the same from where I was sitting as the more expensive 1080p options. And while 4K content is still relatively rare, it's worth admitting that it will be the standard before long, and pretty much all new TVs will feature 4K screens.

Picture Quality Is Underrated

We haven't arrived at the total 4K takeover yet, but we're getting closer. The market shift is creating a familiar problem, where all the TV companies want you to buy a new 4K TV so they're phasing out the older 1080p TVs. (This happened with 720p TVs a few years ago.) That means that if you want all of the hot new features and top quality hardware, you might just have to buy a 4K TV anyways.

But set aside your dreams of owning a smart TV for a second, and focus on what's important. Regardless of how many pixels you squeeze into the screen, picture quality can vary widely based on three factors: backlighting, refresh rate, and contrast ratio.


Let's start with backlighting. The vast majority of the reasonably priced TVs on the market are LCD TVs that use LEDs for backlighting. They're generally just known as LED TVs, not to be confused with the much more expensive and awesome OLED TVs. (Plasma TVs don't need backlights, but they're also more or less extinct.)

Many lower-priced LED TVs are edge-lit, meaning the LEDs are located on the side of the screen. Others are properly back-lit, giving the TV better local dimming features. Local dimming allows certain clusters of LEDs to light up when the picture is brighter in certain spots. This works differently depending on the type of backlighting. Local dimming on edge-lit TVs is usually limited to columns of light, while back-lit TVs can light up very specific sections of the screen, a setup known as "full-array local dimming." The number of zones will vary by model, but full-array local dimming is what you want.

Refresh Rate

Now, let's talk motion. A screen's refresh rate refers to the number of times the picture updates on the screen per second. This specification is measured in Hertz and will largely determine how the TV deals with motion. Higher refresh rates mean more updates and, presumably, smoother motion.

All TVs must have a refresh rate of at least 60Hz, since that's what the broadcast standard. However, you'll see 4K TVs with "effective refresh rates" of 120Hz, 240Hz, or higher. That's because various manufacturer use computer tricks to cut down on motion blur. These tricks produce the so-called soap opera effect that makes some content be too smooth. So be sure to find the TV's "actual refresh rate." Realistically speaking, you should look for a TV with an actual refresh rate of 120Hz.

Contrast Ratio

Here's where the somewhat scientific measurements for screen quality become pseudo-scientific. The term contrast ratio refers to the different between the blackest black and the whitest white on the screen. Since this affects every colour in between, the screen's contrast ratio plays a major role in picture quality. So the very best TVs will produce really dark blacks and super bright whites but -- here's the rub -- there's no real standard for measuring contrast ratio.

This is why you might see your new TV in person before you buy it. While certain factors like full-array local dimming will improve the screen's contrast ratio, there's no silver bullet to perfect settings. Definitely don't trust anything the manufacturer says, and be mindful that the TVs setup at JB or Harvey Norman might not be calibrated properly. In fact, 'Store’ modes can massively boost brightness and colour to look good under bright fluorescent lights. If you're eager for a very technical explanation of how contrast ratio works, try this video. Otherwise, use your eyes.


Don't Buy It Just Because It's 4K

All those semi-confusing words about specifications aside, I need to reiterate my original point. Just because a TV has 4K resolution doesn't mean it's a good TV. Resolution is one of many specs, and if you're sitting about 3m away from the TV like a normal person, you might not even notice the difference.

There's another wrinkle worth considering as well. If you plan on streaming movies and shows to your TV over Wi-Fi, you're going to need a pretty fast Wi-Fi connection for 4K content. Netflix, for instance, requires 25Mbps. That kind of speed is pretty standard if you're hardwired into an ethernet connection, but wifi tends to be slower. Even if your connection is fast enough for 4K streaming, however, the image quality might still be degraded. You can tweak the settings, but you'll still need to buy or download the Ultra HD file to ensure you're getting the quality you paid for.

So What Should I Buy?

Let me circle back to my own quest for a new TV for a quick second. I'm considering buying something in the 50-inch screen range to put in my small living room. The couch is around 3m away from where I want to mount the TV, so it's really a toss up in terms of how much I'd enjoy the benefits of 4K. Nevertheless, I'm planning on moving into a bigger space soon, so that calculus could soon change.

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I've also figured out that there are a few things I don't care about. I don't care about sound. TVs are so slim now, none of them have good speakers. Getting a soundbar or some other setup seems like a must.

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I don't care about high dynamic range (HDR) or 3D or OLED or curved screens or Android TV because those features tend to appear on TVs that cost more than I want to spend. I'm also not overly fussed if it's a smart TV or not. For me, that's why my game console, Chromecast, Apple TV and the world of set top boxes are for.

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What about you? What TV bargains have you spotted over the holiday period?

Shopping tips:

  • Always try before you buy, no matter how good the specs list looks.
  • Try not to compare two models directly against each other, even if they're right next door.
  • 'Store' modes massively boost brightness and colour to look good under bright fluorescent lights, but don't accurately reflect a TV might look in your living room.
  • Don't believe the specs list too much -- at the end of the day, it's your eyes that decide what makes a TV look good.
  • Don't spend too much on accessories -- all HDMI cables are basically the same, and most wall mounts are as well.
  • If you want your TV to look its best, tweak the settings yourself when it's set up or get a professional calibrator to do a top-notch job.
  • And, above all else, picture quality is the most important thing when buying a TV. Don't forget that.

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    You have left out probably the most important factor here and that is that there is virtually no 4k content available and that is unlikely to change for many, many years. HD was easy because most films are digitised to 2k anyway - that's what you see on a digital screen at the cinema - but if they want to go to 4k they are either going to scale it up, which will mean a lower picture quality, or spend a large amount of money rescanning lots and lots of film at 4k.

    For me, compression is a far bigger issue. Generally speaking, I'd prefer to watch uncompressed standard definition than streaming 4k. i.e. Bandwidth is a lot more important than resolution.

      That is the salient point, 4k content is simply not really available, outside of (admittedly an increasing number of) Blu-Ray discs. The free to air networks certainly don't broadcast it (in fact they've only really started broadcasting 1080p on their standard channels recently) and Foxtel don't provide 4k content either. No games on current gen consoles run at 4k, so the only way you'll get 4k gaming is with a powerful PC, in which case getting yourself a 4K monitor as opposed to a TV would probably be a better option.

      Because the content isn't there, there's little reason to buy a 4K TV simply because it's 4K. Some other features of the TV might attract you if you are in the market for a new TV anyway, and it just happens that the TV is 4K capable, but to buy a TV simply because it's 4K is pretty silly.

      I always need to resist the urge to say something and keep my mouth shut whenever we visit friends or relatives and they show off their brand new TV, especially if they purchased it from Harvey Norman with their $300 Monster HDMI cables.

      One thing that seems to be always overlooked is self-authored content. I can shoot 4K video on my phone & GoPro and it would be great to play this back at native resolution on my TV.

      I plan on updating my current TV to a 55" curved SUHD TV which I will be using exclusively as a display for my PC. As such, all of the content on the TV will be 4K, and my games and high resolution photos will look absolutely awesome when viewed at a distance of about 4 feet.

      Also, as 4K movies become the norm over time, the above set-up will certainly allow me to enjoy that as well.

      The idea is to use the technology in ways that allows it to provide maximum benefit, rather than just thinking inside the box.

    I've recently switched to a Galaxy S6 edge and I'm completely sold on OLED, I never want to buy another LCD again.

    I'm wondering how a 40" OLED would go as a desktop monitor, being able to resize the desktop to 27" without seeing any backlight glow on the rest of the screen would be pretty epic.

      Welcome to 2009! That's when I got my first OLED screened device and I'm never going back, either. You just have to see an OLED TV in a shop to see how superior the picture is.

    Fairly decent guide on TVs in general, but when it comes to UHD (4K if you must), basically any decent TV on the market is UHD (super cheap, and super small excepted).

    If you currently have a TV that you're happy with, then you don't really need to go out and buy a new one, content isn't there yet.

    However if you're in the market for a new TV 50"+, you don't have much choice in the matter anyway. Just roll with it and enjoy the fact that you're slightly more future proof.

      I think our parents had it right. In 50 years mine only ever owned three - a B&W in the 60s, a colour TV when colour came in in the 70s and a widescreen CRT when the first colour TV died in the early 2000s. I'm half their age and I've already owned half-a-dozen.

    I'd suggest that regardless of resolution you need to pick a screen size that suits your living room. You kinda mention it, but honestly it should be the first thing you consider when buying. While you might see more detail by having a large, high res tv up close you're actually losing out on the "big picture".

    Nice site with info here: http://www.rtings.com/tv/learn/size-to-distance-relationship?uxtv=97b6

    I do like that you recommend checking out the tv before buying it. Buyers should also make sure they check it from different angles. Most screens will look good from directly in front, even those no-name brands that are half the price. However, that's not the reality when you set them up at home. Depending on your layout and the number of people in your house you could have extreme horizontal viewing angles and if you mount it on the wall and view from a low lounge chair the vertical viewing angle could be pretty bad too. So try checking the screen from different angles that mimic what your real life setup would be.

    Hopefully, we'll be seeing the first crop of standalone 4k players this year so we might finally start to see UHD movies become available on disc towards the end of 2016.

    Anyone looking to invest in 4K technology now - or get put off doing so for a few more years - should also read up on the new HDCP 2.2 (High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection) standards.

    An expensive 4K television or receiver you buy today could already be obsolete when studios start releasing authorised 4K content.

      Also HDMI 2.0, if you want 4K content with anything higher than 30 frames a second through the HDMI ports your TV needs to have HDMI 2.0 ports. This is only relatively new, so most 4K screens already purchased won't support it. There's only a handful of products that can do 4K at 60hz through HDMI at the moment but it's something else to think about for future proofing.

    I sit way too close to my 65" TV to have a 1080p TV. I'd have the screen door effect for sure, like you get when looking at those god awful 80"+ 1080p Sharp's in JB-Hi-Fi at standing distance.

    I've used 4k content on my TV twice, I'll probably do it a lot more once 4k Bluray or NBN finally hits, until then the upscaled 1080p content looks great on my 4k 65", and I'd rather my 65" than a 46" at my 1-2m viewing distances.

    4K blu ray movies are releasing march/april so the content will be available then as most shows are filmed with 4k in mind

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