Wolverton: Talking 4K TVs

The big thing in big screens these days is 4K, which may be why some readers seemed shocked when I told them to “ignore” the feature.

In my column today, I offered some tips for consumers who are hoping to buy a new TV in time for the Super Bowl. One of my pieces of advice was for consumers to forget about 4K, a feature found on a growing number of televisions. 4K sets have four times the number pixels and resolution of regular HD ones — 3,840 pixels across and 2,160 vertically compared with 1920 by 1080.

My reasoning: for most people, with most TVs, in most situations, the technology by itself just doesn’t matter. They won’t be able to tell the difference between a video that’s in 4K and one in regular high definition, despite all those extra pixels.

One reader who posted a comment on my column thought that was “some of the worst advice I have seen yet from this newspaper.” He explained that he has a 4K TV, and not only can he tell the difference, but so do guests who visit.

“When I have visitors and show them 4K, their first word is, ‘Whoa!'” wrote the reader, under the name “Dexter Hatter.”

Another reader, named Peter, wrote me an email to say I was wrong, that the difference between high definition and 4K resolution is “huge.”

“Have you tested this yourself?” he wrote. “I don’t know how that folklore got started.”

I actually have tested UHD sets, at least informally. And, if anything, the guideline I gave in my column — that to be able to see a difference with 4K at normal viewing distances, you need a TV with a screen larger than 60 inches — overstates the case for UHD TVs.

When you are standing directly in front of two TVs — one 4K screen and one in regular high-definition, or 1080p — the difference is stark. The 4K set looks much sharper.

However, as you step back from the screens, the difference becomes less and less noticeable until it disappears. Your eyes just can’t tell the difference in resolution.

But don’t take my word for it. Consider what the real experts have to say.

Consumer Reports studies these issues when it rates televisions. In general, viewers can’t see the difference between 1080p and 4K on sets that are smaller than 65 inches, Jim Willcox, a Consumer Reports editor, said.

“Few people see the extra detail when viewing at normal picture distances,” he said.

Even that guideline overstates the import of 4K, according to Ray Soneira, the president of DisplayMate. Soneira has a Ph.D. and serves as a consultant for the big display and TV makers. He studies what the human eye can and cannot see, and has been a proponent of Retina displays in tablets and smartphones, curved displays, wider color gamuts and HDR.

His take: the average eye can’t tell the difference in resolution between 1080p and 4K on sets smaller than 80 inches at a distance of 6 to 8 feet away. The implication of that is that if you are sitting farther back or have a smaller screen, the benefits of 4K are even less.

“I don’t think the ‘4K-ness’ is as important as other things that are coming in to the TV,” Soneira said.

That’s not to say that 4K TVs don’t have other benefits, as I tried to point out in my column, and as Soneira implies. The TV industry has crafted some new standards for picture quality under a banner called “UHD Premium.” Sets that meet the standards will offer a wider range of realistic colors and the ability to display much finer gradients of light and dark images as well as 4K resolutions. Even if you don’t benefit from 4K resolutions, you will notice having better colors and details on the screen.

Although sets with the UHD Premium label won’t hit store shelves until later this year, the underlying technologies — quantum dots and HDR, both of which I discussed in my column — are already in some premium sets on shelves now. And those sets are generally 4K models.

What’s more these days, especially on bigger TVs, only the bargain models don’t have 4K. So, along with 4K, you tend to premium features, such as better back lighting, a better panel, faster processors, a faster refresh rate, etc. Some of those features are important, even if 4K by itself isn’t.

And to be sure, 4K is noticeable and important in some specific cases. If you are sitting closer that normal to a 4K TV — because it’s situated in a small room, because you play video games, because you use it as a computer monitor, or whatever — you will be able to tell the difference and having a higher-resolution screen definitely will matter. Likewise, if you have better than 20-20 vision.

That Peter and other readers challenged my advice isn’t all that surprising. The TV industry has been pushing the 4K standard — also known as ultra-high definition or UHD — pretty heavily in recent years.

The industry has viewed 4K — like 3D viewing and Internet connectivity before it — as a way to jump-start TV sales and encourage consumers to pay up for premium sets. Even though the average set sold has been getting larger, the average price consumers pay for TVs has steadily fallen over the years and the number of TVs sold has plateaued.

Meanwhile, streaming video providers including Netflix and Amazon have seen their ability to distributed 4K videos as a way to differentiate their services from traditional pay TV, which doesn’t yet support the standard.

On the one hand, 4K is already making a difference in the TV market. Electronics manufacturers shipped 6.2 million 4K TVs to North American retailers last year, representing about 15 percent of all televisions, according to IHS, a tech industry market research firm. That was up from just 75,000 4K TVs shipped in 2013. This year, IHS expects the number of UHD TV’s shipped to hit 12 million, or about 28 percent of the market.

If you look at big-screen sets — those 50-inches and above — the numbers are even more stark. Last year, 37 percent of those televisions shipped in North America were 4K models, according to IHS. This year, the research firm expects the total to hit 63 percent.

On the other hand, the growing portion of 4K TV sets has done little so far to arrest the decline in the average price of a TV sold in the United States, which fell last year to $484, down from $516, according to the Consumer Technology Association, the electronics industry trade group.

Photo: Best Buy sales clerk Brian Delgado, left, talks with Sean Rabourn, from Santa Clara, about 4K televisions at the Best Buy store in Santana Row in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. Rabourn was debating buying a 4K television. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)


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  • Matthew Utley

    i came thinking there was A new talking tv, lol. But seriously, i have a 75 inch uhd 4k tv and i can tell a difference, it is amazing, and i wouldn’t go back to anything else after this. it upscales everything so beautiful, love love love my Samsung UHD 4k tv

    • lovethetech

      from 12 feet, you need to have eagle’s eye to see the difference. Over saturated pictures != better TV. BTW, LCD is not great. Instead of Samsung UHD, u should have got LG OLED 65.

  • Mike Demler

    Troy, while there may be a lack of content produced at 4K resolution, you overlooked the fact that many of these sets include 4K upscaling capability, and that the newer displays have greatly improved resolution and color depth. I have 3 flat screen TVs in my home. The 1st two are 1080p HD TVs; a high-end (and last of a dying breed) Panasonic plasma, and a mid-priced Samsung. We recently purchased (for <$1,000 at Best Buy) a 50" 4K Samsung TV to replace our bedroom TV (an older Samsung HD model). On HD content, the improvement in resolution is startling, even in comparison to the more expensive HD sets. It would be foolish not to buy a 4K set anymore. They are a very economical upgrade.

  • lbeck37

    I found I couldn’t easily read the text in Windows 7 on my 1080p TVs from normal sitting distances. I was bothered by this on several sets ranging from 32 to 50″. It’s the standard Windows fonts, like on menu bars, that always was a problem but any text in a small font was a problem. In my RV I was 8 to 10′ away from the screen and it was driving me nuts- I was always having to get up to read things on Netflix and Amazon. I purchased a 43″ 4K Visio from Costco and was very pleased that the problem went away. Text is sharp and clear and when I look closely (w/o a loupe) at the characters, they are fully formed with no “jaggies”. I worked at HP on LaserJets and we found that text at super high (for the day) resolutions looked significantly better in focus groups even though you needed an eye loupe to really see the difference. You won’t find me buying another non-4K TV! Maybe people can’t tell the difference in normal TV stuff but put up text in small fonts and the difference is almost amazing. I’m pretty sure 4K (or 8K!) will become the new standard and 1080p will be remembered fondly for how perfect we thought it was!