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Do You Need a 4K TV, or New Glasses?


New 4K TVs got a lot of attention at CES, but they're not for everyone.

These flat screens? I'll tell ya, no glare, high definition. I was watchin' "On the Waterfront" down at Sears. Karl Malden's nose hairs looked like ****ing BX cables.
--Paulie Walnuts, HDTV Expert

CES is always a great time of year for tech heads looking for the next fix.

The 2014 show held last week was no exception. There was something for everyone -- supercharged laptops, 3-D printers, video game systems, wearables, and the subject of this piece -- 4K TVs.

So what Is 4K?

4K televisions (also known as Ultra HD TVs) have a resolution of 3840 x 2160, packing four times the pixels of a traditional 1920 x 1080 HD display into the same screen size with the goal of providing a more detailed and less-pixelated image. For those who need to see even more of Karl Malden's nose hairs, there is also an 8K standard, which has a resolution of 7680 x 4320.

Television manufacturers like Samsung (OTCMKTS:SSNLF) and Panasonic (OTCMKTS:PCRFY) have a simple goal here: They want you to buy into a new upgrade cycle the same way most people did when they switched from a tube TV to a flat screen. The electronics companies want to recreate that sales boom.

And on the content side, streaming video companies like Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) and Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) are gearing up to deliver 4K content.

Netflix has partnered with Sony (NYSE:SNE), LG, Vizio, Samsung, and others to preload the 4K-ready Netflix Instant app onto TV sets.

Amazon is also working with Samsung, along with film and TV production companies like Warner Bros., Lions Gate (NYSE:LGF), 20th Century Fox, and Discovery.

However, while 4K is new and allegedly sexy, you don't necessarily need to run out and buy a new TV. You may find visual improvements to be modest at best -- or even nonexistent.

But if 4K is tickling your fancy and you're thinking about plunking down your hard-earned bucks, here are the questions you should be asking yourself first:

1. Do I Need New Glasses?

The biggest knock against 4K is that there is a biological limitation to appreciating it.

The human eye, for all its amazing ability, can only resolve so much detail at reasonable television-watching distances.

In other words, to see the difference between a 1,080p display and a 4K display, the screen has to be really big, and you have to be really close.

Blogger Carlton Bale estimates that for a 6-inch TV, the full benefit of 4K is only noticeable at a viewing distance of about four feet, which means you'll be sitting on the coffee table blocking everyone else's view.

So in fact, the biggest obstacle to perceived image quality lies within you, and you may be better served by getting your eyes checked than buying a new TV.

Also -- and I wish i were joking about this -- but have you cleaned your old TV screen lately? I wipe mine down only about every six months, and I'm always surprised at the difference a good cleaning can make.

2. Can I Tell If I'm Watching HD Now?

Some people can't tell, or just don't care about whether they're watching 1,080p HD content.

My theory is that most people just want a flat screen TV that looks cool in their living rooms, and it doesn't even occur to them to connect the TV to an HD source.

In 2010, Nielsen released a study saying that HDTVs were in 56% of US homes, but that more than 80% of the programming being watched was standard definition. A Nielsen spokesman said this: "Sometimes people don't really know the difference between an HD channel or an SD channel and they tune in to a standard-definition channel not knowing they they're missing out on HD."

Another study from the British Video Association found that almost half of people who believed they were watching HD content were actually mistaken.

And finally, 2013 data from the Leichtman Research Group indicated that 75% of US households owned at least one HDTV, but that at least 40% were not watching HD programming.

So if you can't detect 1,080p, or never bothered to seek it out in the first place, what's the point of 4K?

3. Do I Often Complain That There's Nothing to Watch on My 500+ Channels of Cable TV?

There isn't a lot of accessible 4K content out there. Netflix and Amazon are leading the charge by releasing their exclusive shows and some other licensed content in the higher resolution, but still, the selection is going to be fairly limited for the time being.

The highest-profile example is the second season of Netflix's hit series House of Cards.

So if you complain now that there's nothing to watch, you're almost certainly going to be disappointed with the small selection of 4K content out there.

However, 4K libraries should ramp up significantly as more TV shows and films are produced in 4K.

4. How Fast Is My Internet Connection?

More pixels equals more data. And a 4K signal has four times the pixels of a 1,080p one, meaning four times the data will be coming down the same pipe.

And that's just assuming frame rates stay the same. Some recent films, most notably The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, were shot at 48 frames per second instead of the Hollywood standard of 24. The Hobbit was released in both 24 fps and 48 fps versions, but if 48 fps versions of films are streamed, then we'll be dealing with eight times the data.

So if you have a spotty Internet connection caused by a lousy wireless router or some other issue, you may have issues streaming 4K content.

Additionally, think about the solution to the 4K bandwidth challenge: data compression.

Data compression is not inherently bad.

In fact, I think it's inherently good because it means a more reliable signal. I'll take some pixelation and drops in resolution over a loading screen any day of the week.

But remember -- our eyesight already theoretically limits our ability to appreciate a 4K image. If that image gets degraded through compression, it's going to be even harder to see what all the 4K hooplah is about.

5. Have I Booked a Vacation Yet?

The good news is that, like their 1,080p forefathers, 4K TV prices are going drop like a rock, and there's already plenty of relatively affordable models. So if you can't swing this $40,000 84-inch Samsung, don't worry -- Vizio is planning a 50-inch model that will sell for under $1,000. On Black Friday 2014, you'll be able to nab one for $600-700, assuming you're ready to inflict some violence on your fellow shoppers.

But at the end of the day, as with all technology products, you should be asking yourself, what problem does this object solve for me?

And if you can't answer that question conclusively, consider putting the money toward travel. Remember, buying experiences produces more happiness than buying stuff. No one laid on their deathbed reminiscing about a TV's picture quality.

Of course, if you're filthy rich, you can ignore everything I just said and go buy the TV.

Just book the vacation, too.

See also:

This Is How Popular Apple's iPhone Is in Japan

Wii U Was a Nightmare to Design For, Reveals Developer

Live From CES: LG Shows Off a Heart Monitor, and So Does Everyone Else

Twitter: @Minyanville

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