Why and how to buy a UHD TV

This is not a great time to buy a new television for your home as the industry is in transition from the old full HD 1080p standard to Ultra HD (UHD) standard, otherwise also known as 4k TVs.

But if you’re like me, whose faithful Samsung HDTV died after six years of service and it needed to get replaced, you would still have to figure out what type of TV to buy. I learned a lot of things when I was TV shopping back in June and am finally putting down my learnings here for people getting all confused about 4k, UHD, Full HD and all that jazz.

TV-buying is not as easy as buying a PC or a smartphone, so here’s the crash course.

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The Blacklist TV series streams in Ultra HD on Netflix. Look at the 2160 resolution at the upper right corner as an indication of UHD streaming quality.

I’d cut to the chase and say “Get a UHD TV”.

There will be plenty of people who say otherwise, usually with the following three reasons:

  1. 1080p is good enough, you cannot tell the difference between Full HD resolution and Ultra HD resolution.
  2. It is hard to find UHD or 4k content today.
  3. UHD is a fad, like 3D TVs

One such article is this. To those naysayers, I’d say this: You’re buying a TV that needs to last for at least five years, and technology and the content business are going to change rapidly in that time frame to catch up with today’s limitations of content.

If you’re on a tight budget, do buy the cheapest 1080p TV you can buy as it is a very mature and commoditized platform. Otherwise, go for UHD for future-proofing because you don’t change TVs every year.

I can still see those fat pixels on 1080p!

Saying 1080p is “good enough” is a little like people in the early 1990s telling me a VGA monitor (640×480 pixels, 256 colors) is good enough for computing use and I don’t need higher resolutions.

From 1990 till the mid 2000s, I was never satisfied with computer monitor resolutions because I could see the blocky pixels at my normal viewing distance. Today I’m using a 2560×1440 27″ Dell computer monitor and it’s all great.

Maybe it’s because I used to be a photographer, so I’m more eagle-eyed than the average Joe. But I can make out the scan lines or pixels on a 1080p TV screen even at a 2m viewing distance. The pixels jump out at me when I go TV shopping because the viewing distance is even shorter.

And in the age of “Retina” screens where we expect to buy devices where pixels are no longer discernable, 1080p screens fail in that aspect, especially if you have good eyesight (or properly calibrated spectacles). On smartphones, ultra high resolutions are great but drain battery life and are often not discernable in quality difference. Obviously, televisions are a different matter as they are so much bigger and don’t run on batteries.

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UHD pixels are four times smaller than a 1080p pixel, in screens of the same size. Image from Samsung.

On a UHD screen, each pixel is four times smaller than a 1080p screen pixel. A UHD display contains 3840 x 2160 pixels (8M pixels)  vs a 1080p TV’s 1920 x 1080 pixels (2M pixels)

That’s a phenomenal improvement if you ask me, in terms of reducing pixel visibility.

But how can you tell the difference?

Just try this when you go TV shopping. Look at the TV demos in the store and focus on the Samsung or LG logos that usually appear on an upper corner of each demo video. The same video is played on 1080p and UHD screens, and you can see how jagged the logos are on the 1080p screen compared to the UHD screen.

Whether you are using 480p, 720p or 1080p content, the video upscaling used in UHD TVs (or at least in the Samsung HU7000 I purchased) is great for non 4k content and you will get a picture with less “jaggies” and the colors appears more solid as the pixel density is increased (the faint black lines between each pixel have been further shrunk).

Of course, if you’re watching 480p (Standard Definition) content from cable channels, it’s going to look blotchy on any 1080p or UHD TV because the source content is so low resolution to begin with.

Do not use SD content as your basis of buying any TV – many of us can already receive free-to-air HD content from Mediacorp if you get a DVB-T2 tuner for your compatible HDTV. And hopefully, StarHub will stop charging extra for most of its HD pay channels and make them part of the basic package.

Netflix is the future of television and it’s UHD-ready.

While Netflix is not officially launched in Singapore, many of us are already on the service through workarounds like VPN or subscribing to ISPs like Viewqwest and MyRepublic. It’s an amazing content service with a wide range of movies, TV series and animation, and everything is ready on demand.

To anyone who tells me that there isn’t UHD content to be found anywhere, you need to go experience Netflix. It is slowly ramping up 4k/UHD content with TV series like House Of Cards, Breaking Bad and The Blacklist, and if your fibre connection is working well, it’s a religious experience watching UHD content streaming into your home in ultra sharp glory.

But you do need the latest 2014 UHD smart TVs from Sony, Samsung or LG and you can check the list here. These TVs have the latest Netflix apps that will stream UHD content with the right video decoders. (Note to fellow Singaporeans: My friend Sherwin reminded me that if you’re in Singapore, only Samsung UHD TVs allow for region switching to access the Netflix USA app, so you’re out of luck with other brands if you need Netflix.)

I don’t think you can stream Netflix UHD to your PC (yet), and Apple TV doesn’t support UHD resolutions, only up to 1080p. You also need to be a bit savvy and know how to sign up for Netflix outside of the USA, so here’s a useful guide.

Netflix will not be the only UHD streaming service forever, I’m pretty sure as competition heats up for subscribers, there will be other players coming in to offer UHD content in Asia.

I’m not sure if there will be much of a future for 4k Blu-Ray packaged content, since people are transitioning to streaming instead of filling up their houses with more discs and jewel boxes.

UHD is not a fad, it’s here to stay

3D TV was definitely a fad and although TV makers did so much marketing around it, it never took off. Personally I think 3D movies or TV content is silly because the effect is never fully immersive and you need to wear special glasses for it. I don’t know of any one who owns a 3D HDTV and actually uses that feature frequently.

4K and UHD is clearly a march towards the future, just as we went from CGA screens to VGA to today’s 4k computer monitors, from 286 PCs to Core i7s.

In TVs, we’ve gone from 480p cathode ray tubes to 720p to 1080p in less than 10 years, and I’m pretty sure 4k will be adopted even more rapidly than 1080p as upgrade cycles shorten and TV component prices continue to fall.

So how do I shop for a UHD TV?

Size

Go for at least 50″-sized screens (yes, even if you stay in a small HDB flat) because that’s the current popular size and the argument that you should not have large screens in a small room no longer holds true when you have really tiny pixels. Playing the new Destiny console game (Xbox One or PS4) on a big UHD screen is just awesome, people.

55″ seems to be the current sweet spot for viewing distance of 2-3m in a living room, and above that size, prices start to get really really high. There are 40″ UHD TVs but I think at that size, you’re better off with a cheap 1080p model.

Also, do prepare to mount the 50″ and above screens on the wall, instead of placing it on a TV cabinet. You save a lot of space and it’s just a better experience. Make sure the TV is mounted with the center of the screen aligned to your viewing height when you’re seated on the couch (for most people, it’s between 1m to 1.3m from the ground up to the center of the TV screen)

Price

At this juncture, UHD is still a premium feature so it’s not going to be cheap. These days, a 32″ HDTV can be gotten for under $600 (pretty amazing value!) so paying over $2500 for a TV may seem exorbitant.

But if you shop around carefully, an entry-level 50″ or 55″ UHD TV is going to be comparable to a high-mid-range 1080p TV of the same size.  I paid around $3100 for my Samsung 55″ HU7000 and received a $500 shopping voucher as part of Samsung’s promotion, so it was cheaper than their premium 1080p TVs.

There are just two things to remember about price

Never accept the suggested retail price. Haggle and ask for a discount with the salesman because they have margins to play with. And shop around at several places for your intended model and you will realize how discounts can vary depending on the store manager.

Wait for good seasonal promotions, either during IT Shows or holiday periods. And don’t go for crappy freebies like free speakers or DVD players, go for cashback or shopping vouchers that have real value.

Avoid the frills

You don’t need useless 3D, you don’t need fancy ultra-thin bezels (they’re already so thin!), and you probably don’t need upgradeable CPUs for your TV. I’m still not sure about the value of fancy curved screens, but I like my screens flat like a painting.

You need a decent amount of HDMI and USB ports, but HDMI ports are easily expanded if you use a UHD-ready AV receiver (otherwise known as the stereo amplifier to the layman)

And chances are the TV makers have a basic, no frills UHD model waiting for you (they do realize not every TV buyer is a fool).

Yes, go for Smart TVs

Most UHD TVs should be smart TVs with inbuilt apps, and you always have to make sure they come with Netflix app with UHD streaming capability (check this list again!). Hulu is also another great streaming app service for the latest US TV series. I don’t use my Smart TV function for browsing or games but the software is frequently updated with the latest firmware and apps.

It is also way more convenient than hooking up an external box to stream Netflix too.

For Singaporeans using Samsung TVs, you do need to change your region setting to USA through a simple step from SG to USA to be able to access the Netflix app download. At this juncture, I’ve been told other TV brands do not support such region switching so you can’t access Netflix yet on them.

Once you’ve narrowed down the list of UHD TVs, you can focus on testing the desired models.

Don’t trust the demo videos. Bring your own USB stick.

Demo videos (UHD or 1080p) tend to look good on almost any TV because they are carefully edited and calibrated to do so. I also noticed that these videos avoid showing uniform swaths of colors and show many night scenes so you can’t discern screen uniformity of colors.

My suggestion is to download HD or UHD trailers online onto a USB stick and bring them along to plug into the showroom TVs. Look for motion smoothness, overall color rendition and listen to your gut feeling!

Also remember to download these simple grey and red screens I’ve created to test the screen uniformity – look for uneven patches across the screen and along its edges. The showroom TV will not be the same TV that is shipped to your home, but it gives a good idea of the general quality of the TV panel.

By the way, sometimes you do get lemons: I had a poor experience with the original Samsung HU7000 I purchased as it had really visibile vignetting across the screen edges, and kudos to both Gain City and Samsung customer care for getting me a decent screen replacement. I suspect the original set came from a batch with poor QC, but at least I’m really happy with the current replacement.

All the best with your TV shopping!

4 Replies to “Why and how to buy a UHD TV”

  1. Hi, I came across your blog and find it very interesting and engaging..
    I have a quick question to check: do you have a recommended calibration for Samsung UA50HU7000? So that i have a start to play around the picture display.

    Thanks!
    Jocelyn

    1. Hi Jocelyn, thanks for reading my site. I don’t have any recommended settings as it’s very subjective and depends on your taste and room lighting. I just fiddle with the contrast and mode settings to make it less bright than default.

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