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Four Must Have Features to Look for When 4K TV Shopping

The era of 4K is finally upon us. No matter your budget, you can find a decent 4K set that will look better than your previous HD television. However, there have been more improvements since the last time you went TV shopping than just adding more pixels. These are the four features you should look for to get the best picture possible.

Bring the Vivid Colors With HDR

HDR (short for High Dynamic Range) is arguably a much more important innovation than 4K to your television. 4K adds more pixels, but HDR lets those pixels display a wider range of colors and brightness levels. This gives you an even better picture than you’d see with a 4K upgrade alone. Depending on how far away you sit from your TV, simply upgrading to 4K might not change much but HDR fundamentally changes what your shows look like.

There are a couple different types of HDR but either one will be better than not having it. The important thing to keep in mind is that HDR10 is free and almost every TV supports it. Dolby Vision, on the other hand, is technically capable of better pictures, but manufacturers have to pay for it so your TV might end up more expensive. On top of that, content has to specifically support Dolby Vision so you could end up getting a more expensive TV but the movies you care about don’t even make use of that extra powerful HDR. If you want to spare no expense, Dolby Vision is for you but otherwise as long as your TV supports any kind of HDR, you’ll have a better picture.

Get Better Black Levels With Local Dimming

If you have a ton of money to blow on a television, OLED displays are going to be gorgeous. They light each pixel individually which means that black is actually black. By contrast, LCD TVs use an LED backlight run through a filter, which means black is really “the closest to black we can get.” Unless your TV comes with local dimming, that is.

Local dimming is a feature that lets your TV make certain parts of the back light brighter than others. So, for an image like the Eye of Sauron, for example, the LEDs behind the Eye itself would be brighter, while the LEDs behind the dark, shadowy mountains would be darker. This makes the Eye stand out, while the shadows are appropriately dark and intense. It’s not quite the same as having an OLED display, but it’s a far cry better than a single, evenly lit back light panel.

Improve Your Old Content With Good Upscaling

A 4K TV can display content made for older 1080p displays with a process called upscaling. This process stretches a lower-resolution image to fit the higher-resolution screen, then uses complicated algorithms to fill in the gaps. This process is never as good as watching a movie that was designed to use your high-res display—you can’t create detail that’s not there, you only can try to approximate what it might be—but good upscaling can make your older movies look a little less crap.

It can be a little tough to find out how good the upscaling is on a TV, since stores and salespeople prefer to show you the best content for the TV, rather than the stuff you’re more likely to watch. Fortunately, even if you end up with sub-par upscaling algorithms on your set, you can find 4K Blu-ray players that can offer superior upscaling.

Keep the Motion Natural With A 120Hz Refresh Rate

All movies and shows are a series of still images played rapidly on your screen. Some content shows more frames per second than others, though. To make sure you keep the motion as smooth as possible, you’ll want a TV that can show up to 120 frames every second (referred to as 120Hz). Anything higher than that, though, and you (probably) don’t need it.

Most content you see, whether it’s movies or TV shows, is filmed at around 30 frames per second. The highest quality video games play at a blazing 60 frames per second. None of these need the full 120 frames we recommend, so what does your TV do in between those frames? Well, some TVs try to guess what those middle frames would look like, but this results in an unnatural “soap opera effect” that you can (usually) turn off. Otherwise, they’ll just repeat frames. So if a movie is 30 frames per second, it will display each frame four times.

However, most movies are shot at 24 frames per second. If you’re watching this on a 60Hz TV, it can’t repeat the frames an even number of times, since 24 doesn’t divide evenly into 60. Most TVs use a technique called “3:2 pulldown” which repeats some frames 3 times and some frames 2 times. This can create a judder effect that doesn’t look as smooth. 120Hz TVs don’t have this problem, since they can repeat each frame 5 times (5 x 24 = 120). You may hear a salesperson suggest you could get even better motion out of a 240Hz TV, but unless you’re looking at 3D televisions, you won’t need this.

The biggest thing we hope you take away from our suggested feature list is: there is so much more to your TV purchase than the number of pixels on the screen. It’s absolutely not worth replacing a really nice 1080p set with a bargain bin 4K set just to get more pixels in the same space. It is, however, absolutely worth upgrading if you’re purchasing a high quality set with HDR enhanced color display, local dimming, fantastic upscaling, and a faster refresh rate.

Eric Ravenscraft Eric Ravenscraft
Eric Ravenscraft has nearly a decade of writing experience in the technology industry. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, PCMag, The Daily Beast, Geek and Sundry, and The Inventory. Read Full Bio »