Sure, your TV looks pretty good. You can watch Wonder Woman or play video games on it just fine. But what if those things could look even better?
4K TVs have been available for a few years now, but they have been prohibitively expensive for most families. Now, if you're buying a new TV, chances are high it will be capable of 4K.
People who care very deeply about audio/video quality -- the kinds of people who can tell you all about nits and refresh rates -- probably already know whether they're ready to jump onto the 4K bandwagon. But what about everybody else? What if you just want Stranger Things to look good without having to get a science degree to understand why?
So here are simple answers to the simple questions you might have about 4K entertainment.
What is 4K, anyway?
To put it as simply as possible, 4K is the next big leap in digital picture quality. You can think of it like the transition from standard definition (SD) to high definition (HD) visuals, though the jump might not seem as impressive to the naked eye, at least if you're not looking at HD and 4K side-by-side.
Why do so many things, like Blu-ray discs, talk about UHD?
There is a technical difference between 4K and Ultra-High Definition (UHD, or sometimes called Ultra HD), but going into it requires a lot of in-depth talk about resolutions. It's enough to just say that they're roughly referring to the same thing. If you buy a TV that says it can output at 4K, it can play UHD content.
What's this HDR thing I also keep hearing about?
HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, and many people argue that it's actually much more important than 4K (though the two tend to go hand-in-hand in modern TVs). It's all about contrast, brightness and color. HDR makes the color black on your TV look really black (like, "Is that TV actually on or did we accidentally turn it off?" black). On the other end of the spectrum, bright colors and effects shine brighter than before.
HDR helps you experience lighting in movies that is much closer to a director's original vision. On a more basic level, it makes colorful animated movies really pop.
Is this just like the 3D TV gimmick?
No, but that is absolutely a valid question. TV manufacturers spent a lot of time and money telling you that 3D was the thing you needed to have in your home. "Who cares if you need to wear goofy and sometimes uncomfortable glasses? It looks like those fish are swimming right at you!" It was an expensive and inconvenient trick that never really caught on.
4K and HDR have an effect that is not only noticeable, but accessible. Everyone can enjoy a crisper image -- not just people wearing special glasses. And because it's not an extra, tacked on feature, it's going to be standard in TVs moving forward, whether you think you need it or not.
Can I watch the Super Bowl or other sports in 4K?
While Fox will be filming the Super Bowl in 4K this year, you won't be able to watch it that way live. The game will only be broadcast to viewers in HD.
4K video is much bigger in size than HD is, requiring more information to be transmitted to you at home. Broadcasters are still working on improving their technology so they can serve you better images on a regular basis -- and the FCC is pushing them along to do so -- but it won't happen by February. And when it does happen, you might need a new box from your cable or satellite provider.
Better looking sports broadcasts are coming, but if that's the thing you most want to see in 4K, you can hold onto your old TV for now.
What about streaming services like Netflix?
Provided your internet connection is up to snuff, you can stream a fair amount of stuff in 4K. Netflix recommends a steady speed of 25 megabits per second or higher, so if you're on the cheapest internet package you could find, you might not be fast enough.
Netflix has a growing library of movies and shows in 4K, and they've made a point to release their original content (like Stranger Things and Daredevil) in higher resolutions. There's a catch, though: You'll need to upgrade your subscription plan with them. 4K will cost you a few bucks more a month: $13.99.
Amazon Prime subscribers can take advantage of that service's 4K content (which includes original Amazon programming like Mozart in the Jungle) for no extra charge. You can also watch Ultra HD movies that you purchase from digital services like iTunes.
How about video games?
Two video game consoles currently boast the ability to play games in 4K: The Xbox One X and the Playstation 4 Pro. Each is the premium, more expensive version of Microsoft and Sony's respective game consoles.
Between the two, the Xbox One X gives you more power for your dollar. Not only does it play UHD Blu-rays (which the PS4 Pro does not), it is capable of playing supported games at higher resolutions and framerates than the competition. The list of supported Xbox One X games isn't massive, but it should continue to grow bigger and bigger going forward.
As someone with multiple game consoles in my house, I have started playing multiplatform games (games released on both the Xbox and Playstation, usually with negligible differences between the versions) on the Xbox One X. Games like Assassin's Creed Origins and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor look and run better enough on Microsoft's newest console that I would rather experience them there. The better image quality won't make a bad game good, but it can make a good game slightly better.
Games themselves are not more expensive for 4K versions, but downloading the higher quality visuals to your console will require more hard drive space and more bandwidth from your internet provider.
What would I need to buy in addition to a TV in order to experience 4K?
That will depend on you. If the only things you want to watch are streamed from services like Netflix and Amazon, and you buy a smart TV that can run those apps out of the box, then you're all set. You might want to purchase a sound bar or speaker setup (the internal speakers on today's thin TVs often leave something to be desired), but you can enjoy your new TV right away.
If you want to watch UHD Blu-ray discs, you'll need a UHD Blu-ray player. An Xbox One S or Xbox One X will be your best option if you also want to play video games, but it might be your cheapest solution even if you don't.
Let's say I'm sold. How do I pick a good TV?
Even though 4K TVs have been on the market for awhile, manufacturers are just now starting to work out some of the early kinks. It would be wise to compare some reviews on popular models before investing big bucks in a big TV.
I personally used Wirecutter, the product review website owned by The New York Times, when buying my TV. Their current "Best TV" recommendation, the TCL 55P607, was highly rated and also fit into my modest budget. I've been using it for months and have been very happy with the purchase, but your options open up quite a bit if you can spend more money or want to get a screen larger than 55 inches.
OK, so... Is it worth it?
The answer will depend entirely on you and your entertainment habits. As someone who primarily uses my TV for video games and Netflix (and who almost never watches sports), a 4K TV paired with an Xbox One X has been a wonderful combination. Even the little improvements -- like sharper and more readable text on game menus -- have been welcome.
That said, it wouldn't kill me to go back to HD, and most people will be perfectly fine holding out until they're in the market for a new TV anyway, perhaps because their old one has seen better days.
One thing is certain, though: 4K is here to stay. Eventually, we will all have Ultra HD displays somewhere in our home. It's just a question of when.