When you’re shopping for a TV, there are plenty of important factors to consider (and countless ways to go wrong). It’s easy to become overwhelmed by all of the decisions you need to make. You have to choose the right screen size, determine whether you need a smart TV (and if so, which interface and apps you want), ensure that the viewing angle will work in your space, and determine which resolution you need. And that last point is a particularly sticky question. Should you go with one of the 4K TVs that television manufacturers are growing more aggressive about marketing? Or is a regular high-definition TV good enough?
Of all of the best big-screen TVs tested by Consumer Reports reviewers, just one is a 4K model. So you may already know what we’re going to say, but for most people, a 4K TV isn’t a necessary expense. In a nutshell, that’s because the benefits of a 4K television aren’t apparent unless you’re buying a big TV, there isn’t a huge amount of 4K content available yet, streaming 4K content is a complicated proposition, and a budget-friendly 4K TV often isn’t a good buy. Want the details? Read on for six reasons you shouldn’t buy a 4K television right now.
1. If you don’t need a big TV, you probably don’t need a 4K TV
To refresh your memory, an HD TV has a screen resolution of 1920×1080. A 4K TV has a resolution of 3840×2160, which results in four times the number of individual pixels you’d get with a standard HD TV. That sounds like it would look pretty impressive at any size, whether you want a giant TV for your living room or a moderately-sized set for a bedroom or a small family room. But the reality is that the benefits of a 4K TV are more apparent at big screen sizes — think 65 inches and above — than at smaller sizes. A 4K TV can work well if you need to sit closer to the TV than would work with a standard HD set, like in the small living room of a rental apartment. But do you really need a 4K TV in a room where only a small TV will fit? Most likely not.
Some 4K fans maintain that you can see major visual differences at even small screen sizes, while some detractors argue that even minor differences aren’t apparent at small screen sizes. For the average viewer, the reality is likely somewhere in the middle: You’ll see some benefits at smaller screen sizes, but they won’t be nearly as dramatic as if you opted for a larger television. The upshot is that if you don’t need a big-screen TV, you shouldn’t pay the premium for a 4K television.
2. Budget-friendly 4K TVs probably aren’t worth it
A television is an expensive purchase. That’s especially true if you’re shopping for a 4K TV. While you can choose from a growing assortment of 4K TVs for under $1,000, shopping for a model at the lower end of the price range will exclude the best TVs — the ones you can typically distinguish because they get the highest ratings from groups like Consumer Reports. Televisions that get the highest ratings offer the best contrast, brightness, detail, viewing angles, and sound quality, while those that don’t earn the highest marks typically compromise in at least a few places.
When you’re shopping for a complex, expensive device like a TV, reviews from groups like Consumer Reports are about the closest you can get to a definitive guide to which televisions are worth buying and which ones you should pass on. So if you’re opting for a TV that gets lower ratings and more tepid reviews — instead of one that earns high ratings and enthusiastic reviews — for the sake of getting 4K resolution on a budget, then you most likely aren’t going to get the same experience you’d get with a standard HD TV at the same price point. That’s why, for the most part, if you’re sticking to a budget, a 4K TV probably isn’t the best choice. Resolution isn’t the only factor that matters when you’re shopping for a TV. In fact, a mid-range HD TV may offer a better picture and user experience than a 4K TV at the same price point.
3. Resolution isn’t the only factor
Of necessity, when we talk about 4K televisions, we’re talking about resolution. But resolution isn’t the only factor that determines whether the picture on a 4K TV will look noticeably better than the picture on your current HD television. CNET’s Geoffrey Morrison reports that a resolution increase by itself is the least important picture quality improvement, since a high refresh rate and local dimming are the features that enable a TV to offer the best experience when it comes to the contrast ratio and motion resolution. (And high dynamic range and a wide color gamut “are by far the most interesting and potentially awesome picture quality advancement since high-definition TV itself.”)
In fact, the New York Times’ Brian X. Chen attributed the major differences in picture quality between a 4K TV and a three-year-old HD TV to the addition of a new color technology called high dynamic range, or HDR. He reported that, “4K content with high dynamic range was noticeably superior to 1080p content, whereas 4K content without high dynamic range had a negligible difference in picture quality compared with 1080p.”
The problem is that only a small proportion of 4K televisions support high dynamic range, and only a very small amount of 4K content so far is encoded with the richer color profile. Both Netflix and Amazon have begun to offer titles that support the feature. Chen writes that 4K and high dynamic range combined “will probably be the game changer for television. But that is still coming later rather than sooner.” HDR is less standardized than 4K, and the lifespan of a current HDR-compatible TV is a little unsure. HDR isn’t technically a big part of the 4K experience, but if you want a really jaw-dropping upgrade in picture quality, you’d probably be happier waiting for HDR to become more common and more standardized than you would be if you opted for one of the budget-friendly 4K TVs currently on the market.
4. Your choices of 4K content are limited (though improving)
One of the most commonly cited reasons to hold off on purchasing a 4K TV is the relative scarcity of 4K content. While it’s true that the range of choices you have today will pale in comparison to the wide array of 4K content that should be available in a couple of years, more and more 4K content is becoming available every day. Ryan Waniata reports for Digital Trends that the bad news about some of the 4K content that’s available now is that it’s exclusive to specific television brands or streaming devices. But in Waniata’s assessment, “most sources have opened up considerably since launch,” which makes it easier to consider purchasing a 4K TV in the near future. 4K Blu-Rays (and the small assortment of compatible players) are available for purchase, or if you have a fast internet network, you can stream a number of TV shows and a few movies in 4K from Netflix.
A few titles are available to stream or purchase from Amazon Instant Video, YouTube offers a wide variety of clips and other videos, and services like Playstation Video, Sony’s Ultra streaming service, M-GO, DirecTV, and Comcast Xfinity offer rental and purchase options if you have the right TV. Other apps to look into include UltraFlix and Vudu. However, if you want a TV with a resolution that you won’t have to hunt down movies and TV shows to take full advantage of, you’re probably better holding off on that 4K TV and sticking with your standard HD television for the time being.
5. Streaming 4K content often compromises on quality
If you’re used to sitting down in front of your TV and picking something to stream on Netflix, you might be disappointed by the quality that you’ll actually get when you try streaming 4K content. Streaming 4K video is extremely data-intensive. And not only do you need to consider that you’re downloading a huge video file, but you also have to take into account the fact that the rate at which you can stream that video will play a big part in the quality that you actually see when you’re streaming a 4K movie or an episode of a TV show.
Different video providers recommend different broadband speeds if you want to stream the 4K content in their catalogs, so checking with your service of choice can give you an idea of whether you’re likely to get high-quality streaming. Streaming 4K content typically requires a downstream internet speed of 15 to 25Mbps or faster, which is faster than what most people have. And delivering 4K content on even a moderately fast internet connection requires the original video to be compressed, which means that there’s an opportunity for the picture quality to be degraded.
6. 4K TVs can make non-4K content look worse
As if it weren’t annoying enough that finding 4K content requires some searching, watching non-4K content on a 4K TV can actually make that content look worse. (That can be an important factor to consider, since you’ll probably end up watching a considerable amount of HD or standard definition content on a new 4K television.) 4K TVs “upconvert” or “upscale” lower-resolution video to fit the higher display resolution. In many cases, the upconversion looks good. But particularly on cheap 4K TVs, the algorithm and upconversion systems don’t work as well as they could, and can actually make high definition and standard definition videos look worse than they would on an HD TV.
Even if the upconversion on the TV you’re considering looks good, it’s worth noting that the content won’t look as good as native 4K video. And there’s no way for you to get more detail that wasn’t present at a lower resolution. But if the upconversion performs well, at least your HD content will look sharper on your 4K TV. (Side note: Some extreme budget 4K TVs may not even support native 4K input, meaning they will always be upscaling the input signal they receive to fill the 4K screen — this type is definitely not a worthy purchase.)