You still can’t find a lot of 4K ultrahigh-definition (UHD) content to watch, but UHDTVs now dominate the market among models that are 60 inches or larger.
In the past 2 years, UHDTVs that deliver four times the pixel resolution (3840 x 2160) of a high-definition (HD) TV surged into the market. In 2017, manufacturers expect to ship 15.6 million UHDTVs in the United States, which is up 390 percent from the 4 million UHDTVs that were shipped in 2015, according to Consumer Technology Association.
We found that UHDTVs make up all of the models that are 80 inches and larger and 92.7 percent (113 of 122) of the models that are 60 inches and larger, compared with 69 percent of models that were 60 inches and larger in 2015. The good news is that the higher resolution comes at a lower price than it did before. We found that 60-inch UHDTVs now start at $750, compared with $1,500 before. The smallest UHDTV that we found is 40 inches ($380), compared with 43 inches ($600) before.
Unfortunately, more than 95 percent of all TV content still is in HD resolution, according to Ray Soneira of DisplayMate Technologies, which is an independent laboratory. Your best sources to get 4K content are Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs and specific streaming services.
4K content is increasing slowly. As of press time, we found 329 Ultra HD Blu-ray titles, compared with about 100 1 year ago. Most major movies now are released in Ultra HD Blu-ray format and typically cost $10–$30.
As of press time, Netflix had 122 series, shows and movies that are available in 4K, and it shoots all of its original content in 4K. Amazon has shot all of its original content in 4K since 2014 and had 100 4K titles as of press time. Hulu introduced 4K content, including almost all of the “007” movies, in late 2016. What’s good news is that almost all UHDTVs that were introduced in the past 2 years support 4K content from Amazon, Hulu and Netflix.
FandangoNow, Sony Playstation Video, Sony Ultra, UltraFlix, Vudu and YouTube stream 4K content. However, we found that the 4K-streaming apps work only on select TVs that come from a few manufacturers. In other words, your TV probably supports YouTube’s video-streaming app, but it might not support YouTube’s 4K video-streaming app. If you want to watch 4K content, you should check compatibility before you buy a UHDTV.
Satellite-TV services Dish and DirectTV deliver 4K content live and on demand. We found that their selections were limited as of press time, but the two companies say they’ll continue to expand their 4K libraries.
In 2015, Comcast talked about introducing a cable set-top box that would support 4K broadcasts, but it tells us now that it has no immediate plans to do so. The company wouldn’t say whether it plans to release a 4K set-top box in the next 2 years.
One source of 4K content still is missing: broadcast TV. Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) sets the broadcast standards for all of the over-the-air TV stations, and all U.S. stations use the ATSC 2.0 standard, which supports resolutions that are up to 1080p. At press time, ATSC was finalizing its ATSC 3.0 standard, which would allow U.S. TV stations to broadcast their signals in 4K.
However, at press time, it wasn’t clear when ATSC 3.0 implementation would begin in the United States. Experts say that will take place in 2018 at the earliest. Unfortunately, existing UHDTVs aren’t compatible with ATSC 3.0, so you’d have to buy a compatible UHDTV or get a separate external adapter or tuner to see any benefit from the new standard. You still would be able to watch TV, but it would be at a lower image quality than what 4K provides. Experts say that eventually—at least 4 years from now—only 4K signals will be used, so you’ll have to have an ATSC 3.0 tuner or a UHDTV that has built-in ATSC 3.0 capability, so you can watch TV. It’s the same sort of transformation that happened when broadcasters stopped using analog TV signals.
South Korea’s major TV stations started to broadcast in 4K in May 2017, and LG announced plans to introduce the first UHDTVs that include built-in ATSC 3.0 tuners in South Korea in fall 2017. You should stay tuned for U.S. release plans.
A BETTER PICTURE. The vast majority of the TVs that are available in the United States are LED models, which means that they have LCD panels and LED backlighting. However, organic LED (OLED) TVs and quantum-dot LED (QLED) TVs are the latest innovations in image quality.
Previously, LG was the only manufacturer that made OLED TVs, and it sold six models that started at $2,300. Today, LG has 22 models that start at $2,000, and it also manufactures OLED displays for Panasonic, Philips and Sony. Sony introduced its first two OLED models, the 55-inch XBR-55A1E ($4,000) and the 65-inch XBR-65A1E ($5,500), in April 2017, and it’s considering whether it will add more OLED models in 2018. Panasonic and Philips introduced OLED TVs in 2017 in United Kingdom, but at press time neither company sold consumer TVs in the United States.
LG’s latest OLED displays use a proprietary technology that’s called WRGB (white red green blue), in which each OLED pixel receives its own electrical current and emits white light without the help of a backlight through white, red, green and blue subpixels to produce color. If a pixel receives no current, then it emits no light, and the result is black.
In fact, we found that OLED screens deliver darker blacks and deeper contrast than do conventional screens that use LED backlighting to emit light. That’s because typical LED backlighting transmits light to areas of the screen, rather than emitting light from individual pixels. In other words, LED backlighting isn’t as precise as are emissive OLED displays. The backlighting will dim in parts of the screen that call for black, but experts say it won’t get as black as does an OLED screen. Experts also say that the average viewer will notice the difference that’s between LED and OLED displays.
Because OLED TV screens don’t have LED backlighting, they’re typically at least an inch thinner than are TVs that have backlights. LG’s new W series OLED TVs (starting at $8,000), which move all of the inputs and circuitry into a soundbar that comes with the TV, are less than three-thirty-seconds of an inch thick. Experts say that’s about as thin as a TV can get. However, in summer 2017, LG and Samsung demonstrated transparent, flexible OLED TV prototypes. In other words, within 3–5 years, OLED TVs could be see-through when they aren’t in use, and they could roll up out of the way the way that a projector screen does. A 55-inch transparent, flexible TV could cost about $25,000, according to a report in Business Korea.
Although OLED TVs achieve superior black levels, they struggle to produce as much light as do some LED TVs that have backlighting. As a result, we found that the latest backlit LED TVs produce more-vibrant colors in bright scenes than do OLED TVs. We believe that the average viewer will be able to notice the difference.
In the past year, Samsung introduced 10 QLED TVs that start at $2,000. Judging by the name, one might assume that QLED TVs are some variation of OLED TVs. However, they’re more similar to conventional LED TVs.
QLED TVs have a layer of quantum dots, or nanoparticles, that are in front of the LED backlighting panel. The quantum dots glow red, green or blue when light hits them. Because of quantum physics, the quantum dots absorb many colors and emit one pure color of light, depending on their size. Small quantum dots emit blue light; larger ones emit green and red. By placing a sheet that’s filled with quantum dots in front of an array of LED backlights, QLED TVs can create any color by mixing red, green and blue light. We found that QLED TVs produce a wider range of colors and deliver more brightness than do other TVs. However, we found that OLED TVs still deliver the best contrast of any TV, because they don’t rely on backlighting.
Experts tell us that an OLED TV’s superior contrast is most noticeable when you watch the TV in a dim or dark room, where no ambient light competes with the screen.
“You pick a TV according to the environment it’s going to operate in,” says David Birch-Jones, who is a longtime TV reviewer. “If the environment is floor-to-ceiling glass and no blinds, you have a brightness battle between Mother Nature and your TV, and I’m not going to recommend OLED. I’m going to recommend the brightest QLED.”
Samsung says it’s developing QLED technology in which individual quantum dots emit light, as individual pixels do in OLED lights. The benefit is that the individual pixels can be turned off to deliver OLED-level contrast. As of press time, the company hadn’t released a prototype and didn’t expect the new technology to hit the market until 2020 at the earliest.
Unsurprisingly, LG, which is Samsung’s South Korean rival, has its own take on QLED. Instead of quantum dots, LG uses a layer of what it calls nano cells on its Super UHDTVs. The company has seven such models that start at $1,200. Experts say quantum dots and nano cells deliver similarly vibrant colors but that Samsung has a slight edge in overall quality.
CINEMA EXPERIENCE. Beyond backlighting enhancements, in the past 2 years, manufacturers tweaked high dynamic range (HDR) technology, so today’s UHDTVs display brighter whites, darker blacks and a wider range of colors than ever before.
Most of the content that you see on your TV is filmed in a standard color gamut, which is known as Rec. 709, that TVs can reproduce. Most movies are shot with a color gamut that’s called DCI-P3, which is much wider than is Rec. 709 and is the reason why movies look more vibrant on the movie screen than they do on your TV. In addition, movies in the theater have a higher dynamic range.
Manufacturers want to bring this cinematic experience to your home, so they developed two HDR technologies: Dolby Vision and HDR10. The two technologies work in different ways, but each standard allows UHDTVs to display a wider range of brightness than do non-HDR-capable UHDTVs and improve overall image quality. UHDTVs use the wider range of brightness to display content that’s filmed through the use of the wide color gamut (WCG), which is a swath of the color spectrum that includes at least 1 billion colors, compared with the 16.7 million colors that an HDTV can display. All HDR content also includes WCG. Experts tell us that the average viewer can see the wider range of colors in WCG when it’s viewed next to a non-WCG TV that shows the same content.
In January 2016, the UHD Alliance, which is an industry group, established the specification for HDR as 1,000 nits and 10-bit color depth, which all HDR-capable UHDTVs can deliver. Non-HDR-capable TVs typically produce a dynamic range of 300–500 nits, which is a measurement of contrast. To explain: Total black is zero nits. More nits equal more brightness, and more brightness means that colors appear to be more vibrant.
Although HDR10 supports up to at least 1,000 nits and 10-bit color depth, Dolby Vision supports up to 10,000 nits and 12-bit color depth. Both technologies meet the HDR specification, but experts tell us that Dolby Vision delivers more vibrant colors than does HDR10. Dolby Vision also supports a higher theoretical range. We say theoretical, because no HDR-capable TVs support 12-bit color depth. Experts say that might change in 2–3 years.
In 2015, we found six HDR-capable models, starting at $3,500. Today, 58 HDR-capable models start at $380. All HDR-capable UHDTVs support HDR10, which is an open standard that was developed by Samsung, Sony and a few other manufacturers. If you wonder whether a UHDTV supports HDR10, you should look for the Ultra HD Premium logo. If your UHDTV doesn’t support HDR10, you still will see an image, but it will be in the standard Rec. 709 color gamut. We believe that the average viewer is able to notice the difference.
Dolby Vision is a proprietary standard that’s licensed by Dolby, and it typically requires built-in hardware. As a result, it isn’t as common as is HDR10, which can be added to a UHDTV as software. Dolby announced in February 2017 that Dolby Vision was available as a software upgrade, so experts tell us that we’ll see it in more models in the next year.
We found 20 models (starting at $650) that now support HDR10 and Dolby Vision. Hisense, LG, Sony, TCL and Vizio sell models that support Dolby Vision and HDR10, but Samsung doesn’t support Dolby Vision.
As for HDR content, all Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs support HDR10, but the first Dolby Vision Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs—“Despicable Me” and “Despicable Me 2”—were released in June 2017. Sony, Universal and Warner Bros. say they’ll release Dolby Vision titles in the next year.
Most streaming services include HDR10 content, but only Amazon, Netflix and Vudu have limited Dolby Vision content.
We look forward to seeing more HDR content in the next 2 years, as we do with 4K.
Richard Baguley has written for PCWorld, Tom’s Guide, Wirecutter and Wired, among others. He has covered consumer electronics for 21 years.