Here’s why HDR, not 4K, is the most important upgrade for your next TV

“4K” is the latest buzzword with TVs.

Most advertising would have you think that 4K is akin to the leap we made from standard to high-definition TVs, but that’s not totally true.

Instead, when you’re buying your next TV, there’s another feature you should be more focused on: HDR.


First, it’s important to understand what 4K really means.

source
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Standard definition (SD), high definition (HD), and 4K (or Ultra HD) refer to a characteristic called resolution, or the number of pixels (or tiny display bits) that make up a display.


A common HDTV has a resolution of 1080p. In simple terms, it’s 1,920 x 1,080 pixels: 1,920 pixels going across the display horizontally, and 1,080 pixels going across it vertically.

caption
The televisions retail for thousands of dollars.
source
Best Buy

A 4K TV simply boosts that pixel count: Usually, 4K refers to a display resolution of 2160p, or 3,840 x 2,160 pixels. That’s roughly four times larger than a 1080p picture, hence the term “4K.”

source
TCL

(Technically, 4K isn’t the same as 2160p, but the technical differences are so minor that it doesn’t really matter.)


Here’s why 4K is misleading: Companies love the “4K” buzzword since it sounds bigger and better than normal HD, and 2160p sounds like a bigger and more appealing number than 1080p.

source
Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

If a 4K TV is four times larger than a typical HD TV, it should be four times better, right?

Of course, that’s not the case.

This Carlton Bale article puts it into perspective: From about five feet away, you’d need something like an 84-inch TV to see the additional sharpness. With a more common 42- or 50-inch TV, you’d have to sit about two to three feet away. So, it’s not going to happen, basically.


4K isn’t worse than 1080p, but your eyes are physically incapable of noticing those extra pixels unless you have a fairly large TV set, and plan on sitting close to it.

source
Samsung

This <a href=”http://carltonbale.com/does-4k-resolution-matter/”target=”_blank”>Carlton Bale article</a> puts it into perspective: From about five feet away, you’d need something like an 84-inch TV to see the additional sharpness. With a more common 42- or 50-inch TV, you’d have to sit about two to three feet away. So, it’s not going to happen, basically.

source
Antonio Villas-Boas/Business Insider

Also, the 4K effect only works when you’re actually watching content that was natively shot in 4K. A 1080p program that’s “upscaled” to 4K doesn’t provide any more detail.

source
4K.com

But here’s the best part: Your next TV will probably be 4K regardless.


The cost of a 4K TV has fallen dramatically over the past several years. Today, <a href=”https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=4k+tv”target=”_blank”>you can find</a> a competent 4K TV set for well under $500.

source
TCL

The price reduction for 4K TVs also makes regular 1080p HD TVs much cheaper as well, but that’s not really a good thing. Basically, it means that the really important stuff that makes up a good TV display — higher contrast ratios, smoother motion, and better colors, for example — has been stripped out of 1080p TVs to cut costs, and put into 4K TVs instead.

source
Best Buy

Unless you’re buying a very small TV (think 32 inches or lower), or you’re not looking to spend much money, you’ll want to buy a 4K TV set as your next TV, even if the actual “4K” aspect isn’t worth the hype.

source
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

4K may not be all that, but some 4K TVs do have one important feature that makes it worth the purchase: high-dynamic range, or HDR.

source
Justin Sullivan/Getty

HDR boosts a display’s contrast ratio, which is the difference between the brightest and darkest colors your TV can show. It allows for much finer detail in the shades in between those light and dark colors.

source
Dolby

HDR also usually comes with another feature, called wide-color gamut (WCG), which lets a TV produce more colors than most displays are capable of.

source
NX Gamer/YouTube

The combination of 4K, HDR and WCG results in a picture that’s more vivid and lifelike. Colors are less muted, and objects appear to have more depth. It’s not a gimmick, but a real improvement to picture quality.

source
NX Gamer/YouTube

The big issue with HDR is the same issue with 4K: You need content shot in that native format, and there isn’t much of it. While that’s changing, with Netflix and Amazon Prime Video getting into the game, HDR has still yet to go mainstream.

source
Fly Denver

In short, HDR is the real deal.

source
Business Insider

Here are the most important takeaways:

4K and HDR aren’t mutually exclusive. There are already plenty of 4K HDR TVs you can buy right now, and 4K and HDR will probably go hand-in-hand moving forward. That said, some 4K TV sets do HDR much better than others.

You don’t need a 4K HDR TV right this second. For now, HDR is still a high-end feature, and it’s going to take some time for more HDR content to be come widely available. There’s nothing wrong with getting a 1080p TV right now.

Between HDR and 4K, HDR is the real step forward. If you can wait for the HDR market to mature before making your next TV purchase, no problem. But if you have the cash to get something good right now, HDR is certainly a buzzword that earns its hype.

Jeff Dunn contributed to an earlier version of this story.