No, It’s Not the Time to Buy a 4K TV

Fred Kaplan fails to make the case for buying an ultra-high definition TV right now.

Slate‘s Fred Kaplan makes the case for “Why it’s time to buy an ultra-high definition TV—and for cheap.” He fails.

These new types of TVs have been around for only five years. But in just the past year, the technology has fully matured, and for another month or so—until April or May, when the 2018 models come on line, sporting higher prices but equal or just marginally better pictures—the best 2017 models are going for crazy-cheap prices.

I recently bought LG’s 65-inch OLED65B7 for less than $2,500. A 55-inch version, the LG OLED55B7, can be had for less than $1,600. (Similar Sony, Samsung, and Vizio 4K sets are selling for similar prices.) These are widely regarded as the best 4K sets on the market. By comparison, throughout the era of mere high-definition TVs, the best models on the market never sold for less than $5,000, and most of those were for smaller screens.

In other words, now is the time to buy a new television set.

While “cheap” is certainly relative, I’d say $1600 to $2500 is quite an investment, particularly given how cheap HDTV models have gotten. Still, my late wife and I paid considerably more than that for our first 60-inch HDTV model back in 2006 and it was a Vizio, far from the top-of-the-line. So, while I wouldn’t consider replacing a perfectly functional HDTV to get a 4K model, I’d quite likely consider the 4Ks—and you can get a big screen model for under $1000 at Costco if you’re not dead-set on true state-of-the-art.

And Kaplan’s description of how much better the picture and viewing experience is is indeed compelling:

Just as HDTVs featured not only high definition but also improved digital color standards and, even more noticeably, wide screens, 4K televisions—the newer ones, anyway—also boast huge advances in color, brightness, and contrast.

[several paragraphs of geeky mumbo jumbo]

In a word, it looks real. You don’t realize how artificial and approximate a high-definition picture looks—you aren’t aware of how many lapses and gaps your brain has to fill—until you take a look at ultra-high definition.

If you missed a movie in the theaters, the loss, in picture quality anyway, is no longer irretrievable; UHD TVs come closer to capturing the look and feel of a 35 mm film or a 4K digital print than any HDTV I’ve ever seen. Reds, blues, and greens—and all the shades in between—just glisten (if they’re supposed to glisten). Urban streets and landscapes are portrayed with a palpable sense of depth. Reflections of light look like reflections of light, not merely a lighter shade of some color. Nothing gets obscured in dark scenes; the subtle distinctions between a black coat and a shadow, or a shadow and a moonless night sky, are as clear as they are in nature (assuming the cinematographer in question captured it and the digital mastering was well done).

Why, then, do I poo-poo Kaplan’s suggestion that now is the time to buy? Because the end of his article pretty much negates the beginning:

There are, however, a few caveats. First, right now, there’s not a lot of 4K content to watch. The TV networks broadcast no programs in 4K. Streaming services are better: Seven of them—Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now, and iTunes—offer some movies and TV shows in 4K, and an increasing number of them are encoded in HDR or Dolby Vision (a proprietary format that has the same effect). Studios are starting to release UHD discs (which all offer HDR), and eight companies are making UHD players (which can also play Blu-ray Discs, DVDs, and CDs). But in both cases—the discs and the streaming—we’re talking about just a few hundred titles.

Prices will continue to come down. So why would I invest in buying an expensive set that basically works as a Netflix-viewer? Further, if it’s anything like 2006-era HD, having a set tuned to a much higher resolution than much of the available content means that the things that were perfectly fine on an older TV geared for that resolution suddenly looked grainy. And I don’t mean just by comparison: viewing standard-definition broadcasts in high definition magnified the deficiency, it didn’t merely give you a standard definition view.

Kaplan gives me some hope there:

Meanwhile, the sparse supply of 4K content isn’t as big a disappointment as it might seem, because 4K televisions are equipped with processors that “up-convert” high-def images to simulate 4K. Some of these TVs also have video settings (which can easily be activated) that simulate the brightness of high-dynamic contrast. These gimmicks are no match for genuine 4K or HDR, but they come impressively close.

HDTVs made the claim to up-convert, too. They sucked at it. But I’ll take Kaplan at his word.

Alas, there’s more!

This leads to the second caveat about the new generation of TVs: They are not plug-and-play machines. You have to fool around a bit with the menu settings to make them look really good.

Here’s a nasty little secret that a few dealers admit off the record: The factory settings on these TVs are designed to make the picture look wowie-zowie on a brightly lit showroom floor.
When you haul it home and turn it on, in a normally lit (or, at night, somewhat darkened) room, the picture will look too bright, too flat, too Etch A Sketch-y, and weirdly unnatural, like a cheap soap opera.

Not by coincidence, this weirdness is called “the soap-opera effect,” and while it might be OK for watching cartoons or football games (which is what TVs on showroom floors are usually tuned to), it’s annoying—to many, including me, it’s intolerable—for watching anything else, especially movies.

Fortunately, the problem can be fixed. On your TV remote, click “Settings.” Click “Picture Mode” or “Picture Settings” (on some models, “Advanced Picture Settings”). The setting that causes the soap-opera effect is called (again, the name is different on different models) “Auto Motion” or “Auto Motion Plus” or “TruMotion.” It’s probably on. Turn it off. Also turn off “Digital Noise Reduction” and “Edge Enhancement.”

Turning off these settings will get rid of most of your problems but not all of them. The picture will probably still be too bright, too intense, or too something. While you’re in the Picture Mode settings, click on (and, again, the name varies from model to model) “Film,” “Movie,” or “Cinema.” Better still, if they’re listed among the Picture Modes or Picture Settings, click on “Technicolor Expert” or “ISF Dark Room” (if you watch mainly in a dark room) or “ISF Bright Room” (if you watch mainly in a bright room). All of these modes will alter many of the other settings (Brightness, Contrast, Gamma, etc.) in ways that will dramatically improve the picture. (If none of these settings are listed in Picture Mode, click on “Software Update.” They might simply have to be loaded.)

Still, these modes won’t get you to Nirvana. To get there, you have to do one of these things, in order of convenience and cost:

• Before any of this, simply to stream 4K content (whether or not you’re interested in the path to Nirvana), you’ll need a fast Internet connection—25 megabits per second, at least. To see how fast yours is, go to www.TestMySpeed.com. If it’s not fast enough, contact your ISP. You’ll also need an HDMI 2.0 wire (not your old HDMI) for connecting the TV with the cable box and the Blu-ray player.

• Buy a Blu-ray calibration disc. Following the directions, you’ll be able to dial in color and contrast corrections more precisely than your TV’s mode options will manage. (Unfortunately, there are not yet any 4K calibration discs, though there soon will be.)

• Read a review of the TV that you bought in a publication such as Sound & Vision (where, full disclosure, I review Blu-ray and UHD discs) or CNET.com. These reviews often include sidebars that cite the settings (for Brightness, Contrast, Warmth, Gamma, etc.) that the reviewers—some of whom are professional TV calibrators—punched in. These are only suggestions, not definitive answers, as, for some reason, there are minor unit-to-unit variations in some TVs.

• Hire a professional to come to your house and calibrate the TV personally. Ideally, this person should be “ISF-certified” (meaning he or she has been licensed by the Imaging Science Foundation, an industry consulting service that monitors the enforcement of color standards for modern TVs). This will cost a few hundred dollars, but if you want to eke out that last 20 percent toward perfection, you’ll want to do this. I did.

In any case, do—or have somebody do—something. Otherwise, it would be as if you bought a Steinway grand piano and didn’t bother to have it tuned.

So . . . I’m going to pay a whole lot of money for a television that there’s not much content to support and then pay some dude “a few hundred dollars” to install it for me? Now, granted, a 60-inch television is not a self-install project for most people. Still, they’re not nearly as heavy as the one I bought in 2005. Indeed, a neighbor and I installed that unit’s replacement a couple years back.

If you’re extremely affluent and a true tech geek, it’s perfectly sensible to buy a 4K unit and have an ISF-certified technician come install it for you. In fact, you owe it to yourself. But, for most of us, it would seem obvious that waiting for prices to come down, units to become more plug-and-play, and, more importantly, for 4K content to become widely available.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    I’m still using a standard def TV. =)




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  2. Neil Hudelson says:

    Here’s a nasty little secret that a few dealers admit off the record: The factory settings on these TVs are designed to make the picture look wowie-zowie on a brightly lit showroom floor.
    When you haul it home and turn it on, in a normally lit (or, at night, somewhat darkened) room, the picture will look too bright, too flat, too Etch A Sketch-y, and weirdly unnatural, like a cheap soap opera.

    This has been true for about a decade. Every TV I’ve bought in the last 5-6 years (I was a poor recent-grad before that, and was stuck with a *gasp* “normal” tv.) had to be configured quite a bit before the picture looked normal.

    As to the rest of Kaplan’s article–his main point seems to be that the top of the line TV’s are really cheap at this exact moment. If you dont’ need top-of-the-line OLED TV’s, you’ve been able to get a really decent 4k tv for awhile. Last summer I bought a 55-inch Phillips 4k TV (an underrated TV brand IMO) for $550. It was on sale, granted, but one can always find a sale. Most of the things I watch on it, as Kaplan points out, are not 4k. But the upscaling is, indeed, pretty good (much better than the upscaling blu-ray players used to do with DVD’s), and on those rare times when my ‘net speed is blazing and the item I happen to pick from Netflix is available in 4k, the difference is amazing.

    TL;DR version: You can find 4k’s for so cheap that, if you are already buying a new TV, it’s almost silly not to get one.

    And the damn thing is so light, that I was able to install it by myself.




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  3. Kathy says:

    I remember similar arguments regarding computers in the late 80s. At one point the consensus was that since prices would keep going down, you should never get a computer because afterwards prices would drop further 😉

    I bought my first (and thus far only) HDTV years ago when my old tube TV broke. By then the new models were under $1000, and that seemed a reasonable amount to shop around for a better deal. I wound up paying around $700 for a Samsung, including a rebate and “points” I could use in lieu of cash at a supermarket. It helps not being on a rush to get one.




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  4. alkali says:

    TL;DR version: You can find 4k’s for so cheap that, if you are already buying a new TV, it’s almost silly not to get one.

    Agreed. And agreed with JJ’s post that there is no reason to buy a new 4K TV if you have a HD set that you are happy with.

    I bought a new TV last year and bought an LG 65″ OLED 4K, which is a lovely thing. We get 4K movies via Apple TV and Netflix, which is nice, but it’s not worth writing a big check for. There is virtually no sports or other live 4K content available, which might make 4K worth the upgrade.




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  5. motopilot says:

    My 15 year old Pioneer Elete plasma TV has a great picture, but I have to admit to being impressed with some of the new OLED models. Thought about getting one, but as noted in the article above, it requires infrastructure to support it. Where I live our only option for an ISP is Century Link, and they would rather sink hundreds of millions of dollars into football stadium naming rights than develop their infrastructure. On a good day our internet speed is 1.3 Mbps. Netflix comes across in very low resolution and pixelated on the TV and often pauses during a movie to fill the buffer again. I’ll have to move to an area where other ISP’s provide service before it makes sense to buy a 4k model.




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  6. James Pearce says:

    An alternate way to frame this story, I suppose, could be “4K HDTVs…not just for early adopters anymore.”




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  7. MarkedMan says:

    I think better advice would be “If you are going to replace your existing TV, buy a 4K”. But just remember that all 4K TV’s are not alike, nor are all HDTV’s. In late 2015, when I was buying a TV (first time in 30+ years!), the salesman couldn’t understand why I didn’t want the 4K model which was on sale for almost exactly the same price as the HDTV I ended up with. But it was obviously worse picture quality. Still, I’m pretty sure he was sincere in his puzzlement over why I didn’t want the “better” model. The other reason not to buy a new technology too early, is that it takes a while for engineers and product managers to really understand how it works in the real world, and design around it. When Blu-Ray came out, and then again when HDTV arrived, existing, high budget movies all of a sudden looked like made-for-TV movies. The incredible detail revealed things like makeup, lack of detailed texture in background material, etc. But over a few years the designers learned how to compensate for this with image processing. But you couldn’t retrofit that processing into existing TVs so whoever paid the premium at the beginning was stuck with the original look.




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  8. I just bought a 65″ Hisense 4K TV with HDR for under $700 from Sam’s Club last month, and the picture is substantially better than any TV I’ve ever had before. I haven’t calibrated a thing and just stuck it on the wide TV stand I’d bought when I moved in my new place (I figured at some point I’d end up buying a 65-75″ TV). The only hard part was putting on the legs and moving the thing.

    Yeah, prices will come down and features will get better, but then again I get to enjoy 4K HDR for the two years until OLED drops to the same price and still come out ahead over buying OLED today even if I end up donating this TV away.




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  9. Ben Wolf says:

    Dr. Joyner, I think you could have a career as an electronics reviewer.




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  10. michael reynolds says:

    I watch most of my TV on my laptop which, when perched atop my belly, is as big relative to me as a TV ten or twenty feet away. I didn’t fall for 3D TV, ain’t falling for this. Get me a TV with its own drone that can follow me around the house, and we have a deal.




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  11. Guarneri says:

    “No, It’s Not the Time to Buy a 4K TV”

    Sure it is. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are upon us……..




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  12. Tyrell says:

    Vizeo 4k ultra HD 55″ is $398 at Sams here. That is good enough for me. Beat that.
    One thing I have noticed is that people are buying these inexpensive big screens for every room.
    A few years ago I borrowed a friend’s projector. I showed movies on a wall all weekend. The picture was bright, clear, and huge. The drawback is that the room must be dark or at night.




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  13. James Joyner says:

    @Guarneri: But the NHL playoffs aren’t in 4K!

    @Neil Hudelson: @Chris Lawrence: @Tyrell: Yeah, I think the argument for buying a cheap 4K is much better than that for buying a state-of-the-art model.




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  14. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Yep. I’m cheap.

    My 65″ Panasonic Plasma is still going great. And when it wasn’t, I troubleshot it myself (with help online), ordered a replacement board, and it’s still going strong.

    (So many people don’t even bother to try to fix their stuff… Sad, really.)

    However, let’s go back to that cheap thing… Plasmas sets stopped being manufactured because the average person couldn’t appreciate the better picture. People saw LCD/LED sets at a fraction of the cost and bought those.

    So here we are again, talking about $2500 OLED sets and rock-bottom 4K sets. History is repeating itself. Yes, the crap 4K sets have a chance of looking better than a crap 1080p set… but no way can they compare to an OLED picture.

    PLUS… the power draw on an OLED set is much lower than my plasma set. THAT may be the thing that finally makes me purchase one. Once my Plasma dies again, of course. And, my Onkyo amp can upconvert to 4K, and many of the OLED sets will do so as well.

    So once that 77″ size OLED set hits $2000… I’m all in. 🙂




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  15. RGardner says:

    Mine is bigger than yours. I agree with the above on 3D, curved screens, whatever. But the true predictor of future tech hasn’t changed since I saw a Time Mag in 1997 (I was waiting to see a lawyer Dr JJ knows, Dunlap) that said over half the VHS tapes sold were porn – the concept is still true today.
    There are two “good” times to buy electronics, Thanksgiving to Christmas, and March-April. The later is after the big electronics shows in Vegas (CTIA, CES) where the new products are announced and the previous ones are on clearance.




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  16. Tyrell says:

    @Liberal Capitalist: What is next? Virtual tv without a screen?
    I have not tried the virtual reality headsets, but I plan to.




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  17. Liberal Capitalist says:

    @Tyrell:

    What is next? Virtual tv without a screen?
    I have not tried the virtual reality headsets, but I plan to.

    Good question.

    “VR TV” is already a thing (google it)… but in most cases, watching TV is a shared event (unless it’s porn). So headsets and sitting side by side in an immersive solitary environment with headsets will not replace a picture in front of you.

    Augmented images watched with a see-through device (like Google Glass) can bring a whole lot more to a event. But still, more a distraction than a real augmentation to the actual movie.

    e-Gaming may have an impact on where this is all going.

    Right now the OLED is the shit. Just out of our likely price range is what we want but most just don’t know it yet: a 4K short throw laser projector.

    Here is an article on the 147″ projected image Sony: http://www.mandatory.com/living/846535-sonys-147-inch-4k-laser-projector-turns-living-room-theater

    We’re gonna need a bigger boat living room.

    And, with it being a screaming deal at only $50,000 (list) you can order one online: https://www.sony.com/electronics/projector/lspx-w1s




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  18. Miles Wright says:

    This article is pretty spot on. But if you’re a cord cutter who watches movies, Amazon & Netflix, then the future is now. For broadcast and cable it is far away, with directv only airing the masters in HDR this year and Pebble Beach already. That’s it for sports.

    You can buy great HDR 4K TVs from TCL for very cheap right now (55 inch for less than $600) or at the other extreme get the exquisite 2017 LG oleds. Devices can be had cheap like the Roku Premiere+ refurbed for $55 and the amazing Apple TV 4K gets you access to great deals from iTunes on 4K Dolby Vision/HDR movies (free 4K code upgrades that may have come with your bluray purchases). You can steal an Apple TV from Direct TV Now who is giving them away free with three months service ($105 gets you a $180 device). Vudu has all sorts of streaming movies with Atmos. So prices are very, very cheap right now and the iTunes 4K movie deals may not last forever. And then if that wasn’t good enough you can get amazing Atmos sound bars that can be configured to upmix non-Atmos content to Atmos. (And yes Atmos and HDR are jaw dropping stuff to what has come before and represent a holy grail of sound and video quality.)

    So if the HDR content mentioned above interests your or YOU ARE IN THE MARKET FOR NEW ELECTRONICS, the time is now to buy this stuff. If you want Atmos sound from a sound bar, you’ll need a PHD in setting up gadgets to get it all work and even the expert users at avsforum are just figuring out the possibilities with sound bars.

    The various manufacturer’s products don’t play nicely right now and they still won’t in 2018. For those who want to do an Atmos home theatre setup with a receiver, life is much easier especially if you build around the 2017 LG TVs which now do almost everything (except Vimeo and iTunes) and will output Atmos from those services via an HDMI ARC connection to many receivers (they even allow disc players to be connected directly to the TV and pass Atmos.)

    One thing that seems to be happening is that not everything will come out on 4K disc. Many titles are going direct to these services and not to disc. The future is moving from discs to these services and Apple’s involvement has quickened the pace. The regular consumer is poised to have the quality of a high end video setup with network attached storage and slick access to all of one’s movies and music. No need for expensive home theatre pcs and NAS storage for the regular consumer, just relatively cheap devices and streaming services to store everything in the cloud safe and sound.




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