Don’t Buy a 4K TV Before Reading This

Your next TV will be 4K. Are you ready to handle it?

Getting into 4K

 Lifewire / Daniel Fishel

Grasping a lightsaber for the first time, Luke Skywalker powered it up and swung the bright white blade in a small arc. Beside me, my son groaned, “It looks terrible!”

He was right.

After waiting years to buy my first 4K TV, a massive 65-inch TCL unit finally sat on my living room TV stand. Most broadcast and cable TV maxes out at 1080p, but who watches that anymore? I have tons of 4K-friendly content on most of my favorite streaming platforms, including the new ones: Apple TV+ and Disney+. The latter has the entire Star Wars series remastered in 4K. Luke, Leia, Han, C3-PO, R2-D2, and Chewie should look amazing.

They do not.

Luke Skywalker
This lightsaber in this GIF looks a thousand times better than it did on my 4K TV.  LucasFilms-20th Century Fox

Primetime for 4K

It is finally the season of 4K. Like many other display technologies that have come before it, the product was ready before the market. Consumers didn’t want to spend $2,000 to $3,000 or more for a 4K-capable HDTV and there was still scant 4K content available. However, a number of factors have turned things around:

  • An explosion of streaming platforms that have changed viewing habits and do not operate under the same cable and broadcast constraints
  • The arrival of 4K content on those streamers
  • The rise of companies like TCL, Hisense, Visio, and their insanely-affordable HDTVs
  • New display technologies like 8K and OLED that created a fresh price ceiling

When I travel to CES in January, I expect to see a dozen or more 100-inch-plus 8K televisions. Tech journalists will write about them but none of those sets will make it to your local Best Buy, at least in the near future. Considering the limits of human visual perception, I wonder if homes will ever take to 8,000 pixel displays.

I do not agree with those who say we can’t tell the difference between 1080p and 4K. I know I can, it’s essentially the difference between a photograph and a 3D diorama. The best 4K images remind me of looking through a window. When the imagery is good, I have the urge to reach through the display to touch the pretty flowers.

This is 4K’s watershed year because companies like TCL and Hisense are replicating the best of 4K HDR (High-dynamic-range) technology in sub-$800 sets. As I was shopping for my first 4K TV, I settled on a 65-inch 4K without considering just how big a 65-inch set is— they do not look as big in the store or online—because I found multiple $500-to-$700 65-inch 4K TVs online, in circulars, and in brick and mortar retail shops.

Hisense 4K TV
Companies like TCL and Hisense are surging in popularity, mostly because of affordable, high-performance 4K TVs like this new Hisense R8F ULED.  Hisense

Affordable upstarts like fast-growing TCL and Hisense are smartly blending custom-silicon with off-the shelf smart TV technology. In the case of Hisense, which I met with a few weeks ago to talk about their new Hisense R8F ULED, this means integrating the popular Roku streaming system with their own proprietary Hi-View chipset. This way, Roku can focus on integrating technologies like voice control and the latest streaming partners (TV+ and Disney+), while Hisense focuses on its Hi-View chipset and AI engine that can manage color gamut, input lag, upscaling of legacy 1080p content, and can enhance the 4K viewing experience. TCL has a similar proprietary display technology called AiPQ Engine.

As a result, consumers buying these cheaper 4K TVs don’t notice the tradeoffs, which these days mostly boil down to display thinness, weight, local dimming (for deeper blacks), and richer integration of voice assistants like Samsung’s Bixby, Amazon Alexa, and Google’s Assistant.

According to a recent study by IHS Markit, though, Samsung and LG maintain a substantial sales revenue market share lead. However, this may be more a measure of the costs of these sets as compared to those from TCL, Hisense, and others. IHS Markit also found that TCL is the current market share leader and, according to Hisense, the company is now the second-fastest growing HDTV brand (behind TCL).

In other words, consumers are now snapping up these affordable 4K TVS and leaving traditional and more expensive CE brands behind.

Caution Ahead

TCL 4K TV
I could not resist the $699 Black Friday deal.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

But let’s get back to my new TCL.

I now realize that just because someone will sell you a 65-inch TV for $700 doesn’t mean you should buy it. 65-inches refers to the diagonal size of the screen, not the width or the height. But at 57 inches by 33-inches, the set is the size of a very large picture window and is a little intimidating. Even turned off, the panel demands attention.

I figured it could dampen my opulence shame with movie-theater-quality (and size) imagery.

TCL 4K TV
Is my TV too big?.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Even though the TCL TV, thanks to Roku, natively supports Disney+ and Apple TV+, I was anxious to test the set’s 4K chops immediately. So, I connected my Apple TV 4K and started streaming the wildlife documentary, The Elephant Queen. This is an intense and emotional film, but I was initially crying because I literally saw sparkles inside all the on-screen blacks. A quick online search revealed that those sparkly anomalies are often the result of sub-par HDMI cables.

4K needs a high-speed HDMI cable, which I happened to have. As soon as I swapped it in, the sparkles disappeared. For years I’ve been telling people not to overspend on HDMI cables, but now I’m not so sure. What kind of cable will 8K need?

Even with that cable, I noticed multiple anomalies from both external sources like my cable box and the Apple TV, and from the internal Roku-sourced streaming platforms like Netflix, TV+ and Disney+.

First, virtually all 4K content (whether filmed or digitally recorded) looked like video. Some people call this the “Soap Opera” effect. It made one of my favorite films, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, look like it was filmed by the Days of Our Lives team.

Ghosted

Yet, that wasn’t the worst of it. Every bit of 4K content I watched was full of visual anomalies. Characters had halos around their bodies. Moving objects stuttered or smeared across the screen. My son could not believe what was happening with Luke’s lightsaber. The white laser had a bizarre box around it and appeared to almost break in half. I mean, I know George Lucas has done some crazy stuff with the original Star Wars trilogy, but nothing like this.

Back when I met with Hisense, one thing they said stuck with me. “Most people never go back into settings.” I realized I hadn’t touched any of my TCL settings. However, as I searched online for tales of 4K ghosting and other anomalies, I stumbled on the “Soap Opera Effect” and “motion smoothing.” TV manufacturers apply smoothing to help bridge the gap between 24 fps (frames per second) content, which is most TV shows and movies, and 4K TV’s 60 fps resolution. The result is content that looks either pleasingly or unnaturally smooth. In the worst-case scenario, it results in the set over adjusting for all people and objects in motion.

4K TV
It would be nice if 4K TV manufacturers either left Action Smoothing off or made it a top-level menu option.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

It’s so bad that many film and TV directors have campaigned to get HDTV makers to turn these settings off by default. I think one reason they don’t do so is that when you pair motion smoothing with the canned content that’s shot for and displayed on these sets in stores, it looks amazing.

That wasn’t my experience, of course. So, after an evening of wondering if I’d made a 65-inch mistake, I found my 4K set’s Action Smoothing settings, which were buried under Advanced Settings and set for “Medium” on a per-input basis, and turned them off.

So What

Star Wars now looks like a normal film again—the lightsaber is fully repaired—and most of the movies and TV shows I watch have regained their motion-picture-like look. I can see that there may still be some per-content adjustments to be made, but I no longer regret my buying decision. 

As for you, if you haven’t already, 2020 will be the year you buy your first 4K TV. Don’t buy anything larger than 65-inches if you don’t want it to dominate the room and be prepared to buy a better HDMI cable and learn a little about managing some still somewhat esoteric settings. Then enjoy the 4K lifestyle, because we’re all going to be living with it for a good, long while.

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