4K TVs have come a long way. They used to be expensive, there was nothing to watch on them and you could do better for less buying 1080p. That's not the case any more: There's plenty to watch, new 4K panels have a ton of features and they're affordable enough for everyone now. If you've been waiting, now it's safe to start looking.
The last time we looked at 4K displays was over two years ago. Back then, 4K monitors and TVs were way more expensive than regular 1080p HD displays. Today, that's no longer the case. There also wasn't any content to watch on them, but 2016 has been very kind to 4K. Netflix has added a ton of 4K shows, Microsoft and Sony are launching 4K gaming consoles soon and UHD Blu-ray players are as cheap as their HD counterparts. If you decide to take the dive, you finally won't have to pay through the nose for little benefit.
There's a 4K TV For Everyone's Budget
What qualifies as a "low" price for a TV is wildly subjective, but it's safe to say there are decent 4K TVs at nearly every price point. While I was out shopping for my own TV I found several at various prices. These aren't necessarily the best sets for each price range, and they may not be available in Australia, so we're not recommending you buy them — but they do show that no matter your needs, there's a 4K TV around your budget:
- Sharp 43" LC43N6100U ($US349 [$462]): This refurbished model from NewEgg is one of the most dirt-cheap 4K TVs I found. If your TV breaks and you need to replace it in a hurry, or you can't spare the cash to get a new television, 4K TVs have started to reach your budget. I even found it slightly cheaper at NewEgg for $US284 ($376).
- VIZIO 43" M43-C1 ($US529 [$701]): If you're budget-conscious but still want to get a nicer TV, this VIZIO model offers a great picture with a high contrast ratio and superior backlighting (good for watching in dark rooms) for only slightly over $US500 ($663). It also comes highly recommended by The Wirecutter. For the average household just looking for something decent to upgrade to without too much thought, this is perfect.
- Sony 50" X800D ($US798 [$1057]): If you care a lot about picture quality but don't want to ruin your budget for it, Sony's X800D line features a 50" set for $US800 ($1060). This model includes advanced features like HDR and a 10-bit colour gamut, which combine to provide a much more realistic picture with more vivid colours. Both of these features are important for the future of TVs, and we'll talk more about them in a bit. Personally, I ended up buying the X850D which was slightly bigger and came with better upscaling versus the X800D.
- Samsung 55" U7100 ($US1800 [$2385]): If you really want to go all out, this model has a high refresh rate (which means smoother motion), rich colours and even supports 3D movies for whoever still thinks that's a thing. At $US1800 ($2385) it's an investment, but there will always be someone who wants to spend the money.
Since 4K is no longer limited to the big spenders or early adopters, it's likely to stick around. Eventually, TV manufacturers will simply phase out HD TVs and make 4K the norm. In fact, in 2015, an alliance of TV manufacturers, movie studios and Netflix all agreed to push 4K forward as the next standard in video production. The only thing that could prevent that from happening is if consumers can't afford it the next time they need to replace their TV, but now it's clear that nearly everyone will be able to.
Some 4K TVs Bring More Important Upgrades Than Just a Higher Resolution
When you're shopping for a TV, remember that resolution is just one aspect of overall picture quality. Getting a 4K TV doesn't automatically mean that it will look better than your regular HD TV. It will probably look better just because it's newer, but there are some big areas where a better TV can differentiate itself:
- High-Dynamic Range (HDR): HDR is the biggest new feature in your TV's picture quality right now. It increases the range between very dark and very light colours, providing a much higher contrast ratio than most TVs can display. More importantly, HDR TVs have pixels that are capable of physically emitting more light, which makes brighter parts of your TV actually feel brighter, instead of just looking bright. The major downside here is that not all 4K TVs support HDR, but it's the future of television.
- Wide Colour Gamut (WCG): WCG is a subset of features usually bundled with HDR that lets your TV display a much wider range of colours than usual (as the name implies). Most TVs use an 8-bit display that can show up to 256 shades of red, green and blue, combining to make up to 16.7 million individual colours. WCG TVs use a 10-bit display that can show 1024 shades of each colour, for over a billion individual colours. It's unlikely a TV will have HDR without WCG, but it doesn't hurt to check.
- OLED: Plasma TVs died off in 2014, leaving LCD and OLED TVs to dominate the market. While LCDs are cheaper, OLED's tend to have richer colour because they don't use a backlight. Each pixel emits its own light, which means they can be as close to pure black as possible, resulting in contrast ratios that LCDs can't approach. If you want the best possible picture, go with OLED.
All of these features will come at a price premium over 4K TVs without them, but they're also not necessary. You might not care about super high contrast ratios or colour ranges. If that's you, feel free to buy whatever 4K TV looks best to you. We're also not certain which HDR standards will win out in the future, or if TV manufacturers will add them to all their TVs in the future like they plan to with 4K. If you wait for HDR to roll out to a $300 TV, you might be waiting a very long time. For now, don't just assume that being a 4K TV means it's the best. Just assume 4K is standard.
4K Content Isn't Everywhere Yet, But There's Enough
Of course, what's the point of buying a 4K TV if you can't watch 4K content on it? Until recently, it was pretty hard to find enough content to make the upgrade worth it. That dynamic has changed. You can stream 4K video from Netflix, get a cheap 4K Blu-ray player (and plenty of 4K Blu-rays) or wait for the upcoming 4K-capable PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles.
If you own a 4K TV, here's a collection of the various places you can find 4K content and what's available on them:
- What's On Netflix: This site collects Netflix's 4K library into one place for easy browsing. You can also search Netflix itself for "4K" (or "HDR") to find content that will look great on your TV. Some of the site's biggest shows like Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Marco Polo support both 4K and HDR video.
- Blu-Ray.com: If you grab a 4K Blu-ray player, this site has a huge list of movies that you can get on disc to take full advantage of your fancy new TV. While some publishers (notably Disney) haven't hopped on board, there are hundreds of movies already available on disc, with new ones being added every week. Blu-ray.com is a great way to keep up with them.
- RealorFake4K: This site, which we've covered before, helps you find movies that reach their fullest 4K potential. Some movies are shot in lower resolutions then "upscaled" later, which doesn't always result in the best quality. If you're ever not sure if a movie really lives up to the 4K label, or you just want to find something new that will look good, check out this site.
With studios and networks looking more closely at 4K, we'll probably see a rise in the amount of content available for your super-high res TV. Netflix, in particular, is making a much bigger push for 4K content this year. YouTube is pushing 4K video, you can rent movies from the Playstation Video store, plus Stan offers some 4K streaming options.
Unfortunately, pay TV and broadcast networks are lagging a bit behind due to the infrastructure upgrades needed to push 4K. However, most 4K TVs have some form of upscaling, which can take a regular 1080p video and make it look better on your screen. Overall, you may not be able to find everything you want in 4K just yet, but you'll probably be able to find enough to make buying a TV worthwhile.
If you're in the market for a TV right now, chances are that you'd like to keep it for several years. Right now, enough content is available and TVs are cheap enough that it's safe to buy a 4K TV and get your money's worth immediately. It will last long enough that it won't be outdated any time soon, and by the time it wears out and you need a new one, we'll probably be on whatever the Next Big Thing is.