The Black Friday advertisements are already out there, and there are some amazingly tempting products being offered at extraordinary seeming discounts by big-name retailers.
In particular, one of the most appealing things for many of us is a lovely new 4K television – either to replace an older lower resolution set, or as an additional unit for somewhere else in your house. Most of the 4K sets can even be used as outsize and very high-resolution computer monitors, too.
Even better, unlike the old sets, new televisions are lightweight and easily carried. Reasonably large screened units weigh less than 20lbs and are as little as a couple of inches thick, making it easy to move them around and opening up many new possible locations to mount a screen.
But if you’re going to get a “new” television, it is very definitely a case of buyer beware. Indeed, the quotes around the word “new” point to the first trap that applies to many of the items being discounted at this time of year – there’s a very good chance you might be getting a discontinued model that is now being remaindered off.
With 4K televisions, there have been lots of developments in the technology over the last short while. The newer sets are of course better.
Whether new or not quite so new, if you’re considering a 4K television, there are three important things to keep in mind.
High Dynamic Range
Perhaps the most profound impact on the picture quality you’ll experience on a 4K set is whether it supports high dynamic range or not. Most of the less expensive 4K televisions do not. These days there is no longer any appreciable extra cost to choosing a set that does support high dynamic range, and so we urge you to only consider sets that do.
Some sets will make vague claims about supporting high dynamic range, but be careful. You want a set that specifically supports either or both of the two major industry standards – HDR10 and/or Dolby Vision. Beware of sets that claim to be high dynamic range capable, but which only offer some sort of proprietary enhancement technology that isn’t compatible with the major industry standards.
Dolby Vision is slightly superior to HDR10, but the difference is not profound, and HDR10 is a much more commonly found format than Dolby Vision. There is also a new HDR10+ format starting to emerge that is better than HDR10 and more comparable to Dolby Vision.
There is another standard, HLG, and usually, if it is offered, it seems to be offered as well as HDR10 on television sets.
Don’t sweat the details, but make sure your set supports at least the HDR10 format, and if it also supports Dolby Vision, or HLG, or HDR10+, so much the better. Any of these are so much better than a set which doesn’t support any type of industry standard high dynamic range, although they’ll only show a better picture if the video they are playing has been encoded with the extra information to create the improved picture quality.
HDMI Interface and Cables
Make sure the television set supports at least HDMI 2.0. Better is HDMI 2.0a or 2.0b or even 2.1, but as long as it supports 2.0, it will be sufficient for just about everything you need (possible exception – some types of gaming consoles).
If you are connecting other devices to the television (such as a Roku streaming player or 4K capable Blu-ray player or game console, for example), you’ll need an HDMI cable for the connection. These vary in price from under $10 to over $100.
Now for the good news. There is absolutely totally utterly no need to spend any more money than the very least amount of money possible on a connecting cable. Because the connection and data is all digital, the cable either works perfectly, or not at all. There is no truth whatsoever to claims that one brand of (very expensive) cable will give you better quality color or sound or anything like that. Sometimes you’ll also see a cable manufacturer offering two or three different styles of cable at differing price points – “this one is good for 1080P, this one for 4K, this one for 4K HDR”. That too is a nonsense claim.
The only thing to watch out for is that the cable is an HDMI certified premium/high speed cable; other than that, buy the cable length you need (or slightly longer for future flexibility) and the lowest priced cable you can find.
Cnet have tested cables and echoing our recommendations, endorse the low-priced Amazon Basics cables. A 6 ft high-speed cable is $6.99 on Amazon at present. Slightly confusingly, as well as the Amazon Basics branded cable for $6.99, there is also an “Amazon’s Choice” cable, made by Monoprice, that is $6.58, and equally good.
Television Screen Size
Back in the “bad old days” of regular/standard television, we had to sit far away from small screens so as not to have the low resolution and scan lines too obviously apparent. As video resolution has steadily improved, we’ve been able to get larger sized screens and/or sit closer to them without having the scan lines, or, with modern digital sets that no longer have scan lines, the individual pixels, visually apparent.
With a 4K set, you can sit much closer to it than with a 1080 “full HD” resolution set, or, you can have a larger sized screen at the same distance. Not only can you do this, but you should do this. If you sit “too far” away from a 4K set, or if the screen size is “too small”, you’ll not notice the extra picture quality and resolution compared to a 1080P set. This is important – there’s no benefit to buying a 4K set if you have it too far away for the extra resolution to be apparent.
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Bonus Feature – “Smart” or Not?
It is common to see most new televisions describing themselves as “smart”. There are perhaps three defining elements of a smart television :
- It supports internet streaming as well as regular television/video inputs
- It has internet access (usually Wi-Fi)
- It might also be compatible with Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Assistant or offer its own voice control and other features
It is certainly nice to have a television that can directly access the internet (make sure you don’t need to buy any optional extra adapter), if for no other reason than to be able to update the television’s firmware from time to time. Ideally, the television will support one of the more recent and faster Wi-Fi standards and both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands.
The internet streaming might be something developed by the tv manufacturer, and limited to only a few internet streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, etc) or might be more extensive. In particular, many smart televisions incorporate a “built-in” Roku player that can do pretty much everything an external Roku device can do, thereby saving you the cost of buying a Roku streaming device (usually costing between about $40-$100 for a unit that supports 4K).
The thing to be aware of is that a built-in streaming device may not be as readily upgradeable as an external device, and may not be as fully featured either. We’ve noted that Roku’s external devices tended to get new features such as supporting higher resolutions and surround sound significantly before built in Roku capabilities on televisions.
But that’s not necessarily a deal breaker. If/when there’s a new streaming feature not supported by your television, simply buy an external streaming unit and plug it into one of the HDMI inputs on your set.
Maybe there is some value to having your television compatible with the various voice control systems that are becoming more common. If a television has its own voice recognition feature, it is probably not nearly as sophisticated as those offered by Amazon and Google.
So – should you pay extra for a “smart” television? To answer that depends on how much extra you would be asked to pay, and what exactly you are getting in return. We see value in having built-in Roku capabilities, and having our television connected to the internet. Maybe you also see value in having it Alexa-enabled too.
Which means an answer of “maybe”. We’d not pay more than $100 for these capabilities, and would prefer to pay under $50.
Reality Check – Streaming 4K Video
The easiest way to get 4K video is probably via the streaming services such as Amazon Video, Netflix and Hulu. If you’re planning to access 4K content via one of these services, you need to be sure that your internet connection will be fast enough to support it.
Whereas a regular Full HD 1080P stream requires about 5 Mbps, a 4K stream with some HDR included will soak up a massive 25 Mbps. That means that unless you will dedicate your entire internet connection to only your television, you should have at least a 30 Mbps internet connection, or ideally, even faster. That way, someone can be surfing the internet, someone can be sending/receiving emails, you can be watching a 4K streamed program, and everyone enjoys smooth experiences with no slowing down.