So, you’re interested in a new TV. Maybe you’re still rocking an old tube TV, or perhaps you haven’t upgraded from that 720p flatscreen you got when the market for the HDTV was just beginning its meteoric rise. Now we find ourselves in the next stage of TV evolution as the standard in quality shifts from the 1080p TVs of yesteryear to the 4K TVs of the future. There are plenty of great TVs under $500, but are any of the 4K TVs in that price range worth it?
First, let’s consider what defines a 4K TV. An old 1080p TV is just named for its 1920-by-1080 screen resolution (that’s 1920 pixels horizontal by 1080 pixels vertical), and 4K TVs are somewhat similarly named by their screen resolution. That resolution might be 4096-by-2160 (actual 4K), or more likely for TVs, 3840-by-2160 (Ultra HD). In other words, 4K is packing in a lot more pixels than your classic 1080p screen.
No doubt more pixels is a good thing, but focusing on one feature and ignoring all others is one of the quickest ways to make a poor purchasing decision. There’s a lot more that goes into making a great TV than the number of pixels.
Why 4K TVs aren’t always better
Beyond pixels, there are aspects like contrast ratio, color accuracy and depth, motion blur, refresh rate, and much more that goes into creating a great viewing experience on your screen. Would you want a super clear image if everything on it was slightly greener than it should be? Would you be able to enjoy a high-def fight scene if the characters were basically just a blur every time the action started? Not all pixels are created equal, and our brains are not always the best at showing us what exactly the pixels are trying to display.
How to make sure a 4K TV is a good one
Since not all 4K TVs are going to be hands-down amazing, you should look at reviews of any TV you’re considering buying. The truth is that the 4K TVs under $500 that Consumer Reports has reviewed don’t score terribly well. There are plenty of sites doing reviews of TVs, and you should easily be able to find details on the shortcomings you might run into with any given TV. As the market for 4K TVs matures, there will likely be plenty of solid sub-$500 options, but right now that’s not the case.
One thing you’ll really want to watch out for while looking at 4K TVs is that the TV can actually handle Ultra HD content like older TVs handled 1080p content. Right now, there’s not a lot of 4K content to view. Many 4K TVs are capable of receiving a 1080p signal from your cable box, streaming device, or computer, and they scale that up to 4K. Some cheaper, low-end 4K TVs may be focused on this upscaling more than actually receiving content from a 4K source. If the TV uses an HDMI 1.4 port, it will be limited to 4K at 30 frames per second — a limit you should avoid imposing on yourself. Any lower HDMI standards won’t support 4K input. They also may lack support for HDR — a good 4K TV should have an HDMI 2.0a port.
Unfortunately, we can’t look at the TV in a vacuum. Beyond the TV itself, there are other considerations that we need to think about when deciding if it’s worth it.
Other factors that matter
Size: 4K resolution is going to make the biggest difference when it’s on the biggest screen. If you’re planning on small screen, the extra price for 4K isn’t really warranted.
Proximity: On this same note as size is the matter of proximity. If you’re not sitting close to the 4K TV, the pixels are going to make less of a difference. If you can’t see individual pixels on a 1080p screen at a certain distance, you’re unlikely to notice an improvement in quality by switching to a 4K TV at the same size and distance.
The expense of getting 4K content: The 4K TV doesn’t come cheap, and sadly, neither does the content. There are a lot of factors that go into this. If you want to get the 4K offerings on Netflix, you’ll need the proper subscription, and you’ll be forking over a pretty penny for a fast enough internet connection to stream 4K video (though more pixels doesn’t always mean more quality, it does mean more data). If you’re a true cinephile, then you won’t be able to pass up an Ultra HD Blu-ray player — another expense.
So, it’s not worth it?
The short answer: no, it’s not. If you’re in the market for a $500 TV and want it to be a good one, you should be looking at 1080p TVs — many of which will be large and have great picture quality even at budget prices. (Here’s another link to the best TVs under $500 in case you missed it earlier. You’ll notice none are 4K TVs.) If you need a new TV now, 1080p is the way to go. If you’re determined to get a good 4K TV for $500, get ready to play the waiting game. Some great ones will eventually hit the sub-$500 price point, but that moment is not now.