You’d be forgiven for doubting the staying power of 4K TVs, new sets that have four times the resolution of HD (and can also be called Ultra HD, or UHD, TVs). After all, the companies pushing them are the same ones that just finished telling you how much you need a 3-D TV in your living room. But unlike 3-D, 4K has a shelf life: With the exception of Craig Sager, 4K stands to improve everything you watch, not just Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.
The best HD TVs have 1,080 horizontal lines of resolution, each consisting of 1,920 pixels. 4K TVs, however, have twice as many lines and twice as many pixels per line. The result is a picture with four times the number of pixels–and clarity–as HD. Just remember to temper your expectations: Going from clear to clearer won’t provide the same jolt as going from SD to HD. SD to HD was kind of like trading in a bus pass for a Mercedes. Moving from HD to 4K is more like swapping that Mercedes for a Maybach.
But even a Maybach is nothing without gas. Right now, no network broadcasts in anything higher than 1080p. To get around this, many 4K TVs have built-in upscalers. They work, slightly improving your picture quality, but they’re not going to blow you away.
Until 4K is adopted by broadcasters (which probably won’t happen for at least five years), the best way to experience it is by watching video through a 4K media player, like the FMP-X1 from Sony ($700; store.sony.com). When I hooked up the X1 to a 65-inch 4K Bravia XBR ($4,500), even the menu screen surprised me; it was like looking out a freshly cleaned window after years without Windex. Flip to the wrong show and a bird would fly into this thing. Granted, the movie the player first offered was After Earth, which no one should watch on any TV, but once I moved on to the other options, both the TV and 4K shined. After a day or two of movies, I found myself clicking on video options I wouldn’t normally be interested in–mostly underwater nature videos, and a puppy getting a bath–just to appreciate the image clarity.
For now, unless you really love movies or just hate discretionary income, you don’t need a 4K TV. Even if you give in and watch After Earth, you’ll exhaust the native 4K options relatively quickly. Besides, most of us watch more TV shows than movies, so until UHD becomes standard, 4K TVs remain a tantalizing promise of what TV can and will be. But at least the ball is rolling. Hopefully toward that adorable puppy.