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Are 4K Televisions Finally Ready for Primetime?

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Yahoo Tech

(Photos by Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

BERLIN — Ultra High Definition televisions (aka 4K TVs) have been readily available for a few years now. Good reasons for buying one? Much harder to find. That may be changing, however, thanks to announcements from a handful of big-screen manufacturers at the IFA trade show here in Berlin.

But instead of focusing on 4K’s superior resolution, the vendors at this annual consumer electronics show sounded like they were advertising high-tech washing machines, making claims for brighter colors! whiter whites! and deeper blacks!

The reason: an upcoming upgrade to the UHD standard called HDR, short for “high dynamic range.” You may have encountered HDR on your camera phone; it’s the option that can make a shot of a sunset explode with color. HDR works a little differently on TVs but the end result is the same: vivid colors that are much closer to the range of hues your eyes can distinguish.

Related: 4K TVs Tested: Here’s What to Buy Now

UHD has been dismissed by some because its nearly 4,000 pixels of horizontal resolution can be hard to appreciate on a smaller screen. But the difference between everyday images and the HDR versions is obvious. It’s as if a layer of haze has been peeled off the screen.

HDR has been making its way onto UHD TVs for months under different names, such as Samsung’s SUHD TV. At IFA, however, Sony, Panasonic, LG and Philips are all calling HDR “HDR.” And a week before this show, the Consumer Electronics Association announced an agreement on a standard definition of “HDR compatible.” 

Bottom line: If a TV maker advertises that its latest and greatest sets boast HDR, you can be reasonably sure you’re getting one with brighter colors, whiter whites, and deeper blacks. 

Blu-ray meets ultra high def 

But that wasn’t the only boost 4K TVs got at IFA. In Berlin, Samsung unveiled what it says will be the first Blu-ray player to support UHD (including its version of HDR). This model will ship early next year at a price as yet unannounced. Many viewers in the U.S. don’t have the bandwidth for Blu-ray streaming, so popping in a disc is the only way to get the full Blu-ray ultra-high-res experience.

Samsung says its player can also amplify regular old high-definition Blu-ray titles to UHD resolution, but didn’t demonstrate that feature. Panasonic, in turn, showed off a UHD Blu-ray player, but its hardware was kept behind glass. Translation: Don’t expect to find either of these under the tree this holiday season.

The other big question is, of course, whether there’s anything worth watching in 4K. At IFA, TV vendors touted some new moves to help expand UHD and HDR content. Samsung announced that it’s working with the European pay-TV services Canal+ and Astra to launch sports UHD channels, while Sony said it’s doing the same with Amazon to bring HDR TV shows and movies to its streaming viewers.

As we saw with HDTV, we’ll know that UHD has really gotten rolling when it hits mainstream sports programming. At a press dinner here Wednesday, Panasonic government-affairs vice president Peter Fannon called the 2016 Olympics “a key goal” for UHD.

Your TV shopping just got more complicated

The industry expects UHD sales to continue to accelerate. In July, a CEA forecast called for U.S. shipments to hit 4.4 million units, and Fannon suggested that that number could be closer to 7 million.

If you’ve been iffy about buying a 4K set, the addition of HDR may make this option look more interesting. But at the same time, you might want to wait until the feature becomes part of a manufacturer’s entire lineup instead of being confined to high-end models.

The prospect of UHD coming to over-the-air broadcasts — a test in Cleveland of a system that puts HD and UHD video in one signal showed promising results, including stronger indoor reception — might provide an additional reason to hold off on that TV purchase until 4K content is more readily available.

What if you’ve already bought a UHD set and don’t want to miss out on HDR? You may get those whiter whites and deeper blacks via a firmware update like the one Samsung is providing for all of its 2015-vintage UHD sets, or you may find that your early-adopter habits cost you, and no upgrade is available. Either way, please don’t blame us; we’ve been counseling patience for years.

The bigger the screen, the more UHD makes sense

Whether your set boasts HDR or not, you’ll still need an enormous screen to appreciate UHD at its finest. Smaller sets like the 40-inch screen in Samsung’s IFA exhibit do this format no justice, unless you stand right in front of the screen the way your parents always told you not to.

Sadly, a 40-inch display is nowhere near the smallest UHD screen on display here. Toshiba introduced a Radius laptop with a 12.5-inch 4K screen—which itself seems gargantuan compared to the 5.5-inch 4K screen on Sony’s Xperia Z5 Premium smartphone.

That’s 806 pixels per inch, almost two and a half times that of the iPhone 6’s display and far more than any human eye can discern. In non-numeric terms, it’s ridiculous. Dear electronics industry: Either give this resolution obsession a rest or include a magnifying glass in the box.

Disclosure: Most of my travel expenses, along with those of a group of other U.S.-based tech journalists and analysts, were covered by IFA’s organizers.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.