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The Nitty Gritty on 4K TV

Scott Tanis

4K, Ultra-High Definition (UHD), HD, FullHD, blah blah blah. Are they just buzzwords, or do they really matter? Did the guy in the blue shirt tell you that you needed a 4K TV because FullHD looks like crap? Well, the short answer is he’s wrong, and if this all sounds like greek to you, don’t worry too much about it.

I don’t care, I still want to know more about 4K.

Okay, but you’re going to need to let me geek out here for a minute. 4K is the latest1 evolution in the trend of cramming more pixels into your TV and other electronic devices. The reason it’s called 4K is that the horizontal screen resolution is roughly 4,000 pixels, but of course it’s not that simple.

When we talk about 4K, there’s Cinema (DCI) 4K (4,096 X 2160 pixels) and 4K UHD (3,840 X 2160 pixels) also known as 2160p. For the purposes of our discussion we will refer to 4K UHD because it is the 4K format most of us will encounter in the wild. The cinema variety of 4K is, you guessed it, the kind they use at the movie theater. FullHD is the same thing as 1080p (1920 X 1080 pixels).

When you go into the TV section of your local Mega Warehouse Superstore, most of the TVs you encounter at this point in history are going to be 4K UHD or FullHD.

The simple reason you would want 4K is that more pixels means sharper images. 4K UHD is not two but FOUR TIMES the resolution of FullHD (twice the width and twice the height).

A comparison of screen resolutions

Great, so I just need to buy a 4K TV and I’m good to go, right?

Wrong. First you’re going to need some 4K content.

Sweet. How do I get me some 4K content?

Even though you can easily go out and buy a new 4K TV, getting content in 4K is still a bit of a challenge. DirecTV and Dish have 4K-capable boxes. Comcast has announced one but it’s not out yet. Also, most cable and satellite providers still charge extra just to get your programming in HD, so don’t expect a freebie.

Netflix offers some TV shows and movies including Breaking Bad and House of Cards in 4K and is one of the easiest entry points into the world of 4K content. Just check to make sure your new fancy-pants 4K TV is compatible with 4K streaming from Netflix and that you have a very fast Internet connection. Netflix recommends at least 25 Mbps. If you are an Amazon Prime subscriber, you also have access to a library of 4K content to stream.

Awesome sauce! This 46” UHD TV is only 500 bucks on bookazon.com I’m going to buy it right now.

Hold on a second there, professor. Another thing you should know about 4K is that to experience its amazingness, you either need a really big screen or you need to sit really close. Most people sitting across the room from a 40-50” TV can’t tell the difference between 720p and 1080p HD, let alone 4K. 4K content is awesome for movie theaters, but isn’t all it’s cracked up to be in your living room. Geoff Morrison from CNET has gone so far to say that 4K TVs are Stupid.

Hmmm, doesn’t really sound worth all the trouble now.

Yeah. Maybe not, but even if you don’t go out and buy a 4K TV, you can still produce your own 4K content.

Why would I want to do that?

Well, the crazy thing is that a lot of people already have 4K video cameras even if they don’t have 4K TVs. They might not even know it. Your iPhone 6S can shoot 4K video. The GoPro Hero4 Black can too. Cameras like the Panasonic GH4 and Sony A7S have made a lot of noise in the professional community because for a relatively low cost, they produce moving pictures of a quality that in the not too distant past would have only been possible with a high-end Hollywood film camera.

Also, YouTube supports 4K video, so you have a platform ready and waiting for you to share your 4K content with the world.

But, you basically just told me that 4K TVs suck.

Touché, but one of the reasons content creators love 4K video so much is that when scaled down to HD, it looks really good. Things like noise get minimized. And, it gives us extra resolution to be able to crop in on shots or perform stabilization if we need to. You can even pull some decent stills from it.

Just because 4K TVs are probably not necessary for most people doesn’t make them less impressive in my mind. In the home, viewing 4K is probably best done closeup on a computer like the iMac 27-inch with 5K Retina Display.

Would I personally buy a 4K TV? Probably, even after everything I have told you, but only if I needed a new TV. For now, I am quite content watching Netflix and Blu-ray discs in HD on my 7-year-old 42-inch Panasonic plasma TV.

4K is so last year. Tell me about HDR.

Maybe another day.

1 Not entirely true. 8K is also a thing and it’s been around for quite some time, but 4K is currently much more widely available and attainable by consumers.