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If buying a new television is on your wish list, you've probably noticed a growing trend in the HDTV market: 4K. Also known as Ultra HD, 4K sets are quickly taking over thanks to gorgeous, often massive displays boasting eight million pixels—yes, eight million!
But what does that actually mean for the picture? In this guide, we'll help you discover why pixels matter, what else Ultra HD sets have to offer, and which 4K TV is right for you.
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So far we've got a bunch of numbers and letters—4K this, Ultra HD that—but what are we talking about when we talk about resolution?
Let's put it in perspective. You likely have a Full HDTV in your home with 1920x1080 (also known as 1080p) resolution—or, to break it down further, 2,073,600 individual pixels in a widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio. Sounds pretty impressive, right? Well, yes—until you take the next generation of televisions into account. Ultra HDTVs sport resolutions of 3840x2160, resulting in a mind-blowing 7,516,800 pixels. That makes it nearly four times as crisp, clear, and vibrant as your current 1080p TV! What's even more incredible is that those pixels are virtually indistinguishable at any angle, so there's nothing between you and full immersion.
At launch, consumer models of 4K HDTVs were many thousands of dollars, making them unreasonably expensive for most. In the last couple of years, however, 4K Ultra HDTVs have become much more affordable, and many major TV manufacturers are supporting the technology with new models. As such, we're seeing a shift to 4K in the movie and video game markets, slowly but surely. Plus, even without native Ultra HD content, the display is so pretty that it even makes 1080p media look more amazing.
What's in a name? While HDTVs sporting 2160p resolution are officially designated Ultra HD, they're often referred to as 4K. This term originated from 4K cinema broadcasting, like the kind you'd see in movie theatres. It should be noted that cinema screens are a bit wider at 4096x2160 (over four thousand pixels wide—hence the 4K shorthand), but for consumer purposes, 3840x2160 is amazing. So if you're confused about the difference between Ultra HD and 4K, not to worry—they're used interchangeably on the market.
More Than Just Pixels
Great picture isn't just about the sheer number of pixels (though it certainly helps!). Ultra HD televisions are designed with a number of other features to make colors more vibrant and have even non-4K content looking gorgeous. While the names of these features may vary by manufacturer, this brief overview will give you an idea of what to look for.
Ultra HD Upscaling: You're probably familiar with upscaling on your 1080p HDTV—it's what makes non-high def content look sharper and more detailed. Ultra HD upscaling has the same idea in mind. While it won't produce true 4K resolution, it will give existing content—like your favorite TV shows or Blu-ray collection—a graphical boost.
Ultra HD Dimming: The blackest blacks, the whitest whites, and pinpoint detail in between—this feature gets it done. Depending on the TV maker, this might have another name (such as local dimming), but its purpose is the same.
All the Pretty Colors: 4K TVs generally have color-enhancing features, like Samsung's PurColor, that make all shades and hues more brilliant and vibrant in Ultra HD. Similarly, there are features to enhance the lack of color, making blacks look deep and dark to better show the contrast between hues.
Curved Ultra HDTVs are one of the most recent innovations in consumer television technology. A curved TV has a slightly rounded look to it, which makes it a stunning centerpiece in any high-tech entertainment center. Aside from being aesthetically pleasing, the curved displays offer wider viewing angles, theoretically delivering gorgeous 4K resolution from anywhere in the room. On top of higher picture quality, curved TVs can cut down on ambient lighting reflections, creating a starker contrast between blacks and whites, as well as more vibrant colors.
As you've probably determined, curved televisions are top-of-the-line and designed to sit front and center in your home's main entertainment center. If you're looking for the newest, prettiest, most theater-like HDTV you can find, a curved Ultra HDTV is the one for you. It's definitely not a deal-breaker, though; 4K resolution still looks amazing on flat-screen models, many of which are unbelievably thin.
Once a premier feature, LED backlighting has become the standard for most 1080p HDTVs and a no-brainer for Ultra HD. After all, if you're going to have the highest resolution, you want it shown off in the best possible light. When it comes to 4K HDTVs, it's not about whether or not the set is LED-backlit—it's about what kind of backlighting it uses. Yes, there are different kinds of LED HDTVs, and not all are created equal!
First, there's OLED backlighting, which you'll find with many Ultra HDTVs and other high-end Full HD models. The organic light-emitting diode technology allows each pixel to light itself up independently of others. Why does this matter? Because this allows OLED televisions to consume less energy while being lighter and thinner than other models—something to keep in mind if you're wall-mounting or just have hardware aesthetics high on your list.
Most LCD displays will either be direct-lit or edge-lit. Direct-LED backlit HDTVs use lights across the entire back panel of the television, but use fewer LEDs further away from the screen, making it a slightly thicker but more cost-efficient model. Edge-lit HDTVs, as you may have guessed, provide backlighting from the edges of the display, allowing for thinner models. However, because the light isn't distributed evenly, this could cause some issues in image quality. Does that mean it's a bad choice? Absolutely not! Regardless of type, if it's your first time getting an LED-backlit Ultra HD television, you'll be impressed with the picture quality.
HDTVs with backlighting across the entirety of the back panel use what's called "full-array backlighting." This technology uses local dimming—that is, it allows your HDTV to independently brighten or dim different sections (sometimes referred to as "zones") depending on what you're viewing, for a consistent picture no matter what you're watching. That sounds pretty ideal, right? Yes; that's why it's considered a high-end feature, so that's something to mull over if you've got a tight budget.
You may already have a Smart TV in your living room—or if not, a device that can stream content and display apps directly on your screen. Built-in Wi-Fi is becoming more and more the norm as opposed to a luxury feature, so expect most Ultra HDTVs to take advantage of this technology.
But what is a Smart TV? Essentially, Smart televisions utilize an Internet connection (via Wi-Fi or ethernet) to provide access to a variety of entertainment features that wouldn't be possible otherwise.
When you hear "Internet TV" you probably think of Web browsing and social media, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Most Smart HDTVs have manufacturer-specific features that offer lots of on-demand entertainment; for instance, Samsung Smart TVs have a Smart Hub that displays apps, games, video on demand, and other options. On top of that, you can download apps to a Smart HDTV just like you can a smartphone or tablet. Streaming Netflix or Hulu Plus on a big screen instead of a small one? Game-changer. Blasting Pandora through your surround sound system instead of a tinny computer speaker? That's one way to get the party started.
You might be wondering how to connect a TV to the Internet; thankfully, that's easy to do even if you're not completely tech savvy. Simply use your existing Wi-Fi network or, where applicable, connect the HDTV to your router with an ethernet cable. Voila! You've connected the Internet to the TV and you're ready to rock.
And since the standard TV remote isn't exactly ideal for typing in search terms and website URLs, some Smart HDTVs come with an enhanced remote or allow you to use an iOS or Android phone as a remote control.
Just a few years ago, Wi-Fi TVs were higher-end models that required a separate adapter; but now, not only is the Internet completely integrated, Smart HDTVs are quickly becoming the standard. If you spend a lot of time streaming media or posting to social networks—or you just don't want to hear the refrain of "there's nothing on TV" ever again—you'll get a lot out of these features.
In the last few years, 4K Ultra HDTVs have become more affordable, with lots of manufacturers offering a variety of models in different sizes and styles. Using this buying guide, you'll be able to sort through the numerous options is pick the one that's a perfect fit for your entertainment center and your family!