4K TV: Everything you need to know about Ultra HD

4K TV: Everything you need to know about Ultra HD

4K, Ultra HD, 4K Ultra HD – call it what you want, the 'four times HD' TV technology is here to stay.

The TV market is awash with 4K TVs, Ultra HD Blu-ray players (and discs) are rising in number, and we now have 4K broadcasts and on-demand Ultra HD content (of sorts) courtesy of BT, Sky and more recently, Virgin. 4K streaming has also exploded thanks to services from Amazon, Netflix and iTunes.

Over the last few years, many, many Ultra HD TVs have passed through our test rooms, including 4K OLED TVs from the likes of LG, Sony, Panasonic, and Philips and 4K QLED models from Samsung. And, the value on offer is unlike anything we've seen before - there are 4K TVs to suit all budgets and room requirements.

So, what's 4K TV all about? On this page we'll run through the basics of ultra high-definition video, and get you up-to-date with the latest 4K news and round-up all the available content.

What is 4K Ultra HD?

What is 4K Ultra HD?

Officially, 4K resolution is 4096 x 2160 pixels. However, in order to shoehorn this higher resolution video into a normal 16:9 picture format, it has been altered to 3840 x 2160 – still four times the total number of pixels found on a Full HD 1080p screen (1920 x 1080).

In order to take full advantage of 4K Ultra HD you will, of course, need a compatible TV, a compatible source and the 4K content packing those all-important extra pixels.

And that had been the holdup. While we've been reviewing 4K TVs since 2012, it's only really the last couple of years or so that we've had any Ultra HD content to get our teeth into. So if you've resisted 4K until now, you may have made the right decision - but now is a good time to think about taking the plunge.

What about HDR?

What about HDR?

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, and is currently the Big Thing in the TV world. The term originates in photography, and refers to a technique that heightens a picture’s dynamic range – the contrast between the brightest whites and the darkest blacks. The theory is that the higher the dynamic range, the closer a picture gets to real life. HDR for televisions is basically the same idea.

An HDR TV is all about contrast and colour performance, and a TV must be able to deliver a certain level of brightness and black level to support HDR. The most readily available spec comes courtesy of the Ultra HD Premium badge, which requires that a TV delivers 4K resolution (3840 x 2160), 10-bit colour depth, BT.2020 colour space representation and, naturally, support for HDR video. This badge, therefore, claims to ensure the 'ultimate 4K performance'.

And its delivery would be simple were it not for several competing HDR formats - because tech just loves a format war! Alongside HDR10 and Dolby Vision, the two most prevalent formats, which can be found on Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, Amazon, Netflix and iTunes, and there is also the Samsung and Panasonic-backed HDR10+ and Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG), the latter intended for 4K broadcasts.

Still, HDR is getting out there - and not just on TVs and AV-related sources. More and more smartphones are supporting HDR video, including the LG G7 ThinQ, Samsung Galaxy S9 and HTC U12+. Even the iPhone XS and XS Max support Dolby Vision.

How can you watch 4K video?

To watch 4K video you need a 4K screen, a 4K source and 4K content. The good news is your options have increased exponentially in the last couple of years.

Most obviously, there are now lots of 4K TVs on the market, a fair few 4K projectors and, as mentioned above, even 4K phones.

Then you need a source. This can now be as simple as an app - Amazon, Netflix and YouTube all offer streaming 4K content, not only on 4K TVs and 4K Blu-ray players but also on 4K streaming boxes such as the Apple TV 4K, Amazon Fire TV 4K, and Google Chromecast Ultra.

For broadcast 4K TV, you'll need the relevant box - for now that means either the BT 4K box for the BT Sport Ultra HD channel, a Sky Q box for Sky Ultra HD or the Virgin TV V6 box.

We've seen 4K BBC trials for Dynasties, the World Cup and Wimbledon via iPlayer, although these were only available on compatible televisions and streaming devices.

Want to play discs? Then you, of course, need a 4K Blu-ray player - we'd point you towards the Sony UBP-X700 and Panasonic DP-UB9000.

How can you stream 4K video?

How can you stream 4K video?

Netflix 4K streaming arrived in 2014, with House of Cards: Season 2 making history as the first 4K content streamed by the service, with Breaking Bad in 4K following soon after. There are now over 100 titles, including Daredevil, Narcos, Marco Polo, Star Trek and Stranger Things. Naturally, more content – mainly original – is being added all the time.

To watch Netflix 4K you will need a 4K TV that supports the HEVC codec that Netflix is using in order to play the content, which is pretty much all 4K TVs brought out by the big brands since 2016. You'll find the necessary 4K content on your compatible TV's Netflix app.

Netflix has also launched on the Sky Q TV platform. The service is built into Q's menu system and supports 4K video, but not HDR.

Amazon's 4K content comprises mainly TV shows, such as The Grand Tour, Britannia and The Man in the High Castle, and these are available to stream for free for subscribers of the shopping goliath's Prime Video service. Other TV shows, as well as films, are available to stream in 4K, but for a fee. And compared to Netflix, fewer 4K TVs have the Amazon Prime Video app.

YouTube also has a selection of 4K videos, but unless you're watching on a 4K TV, you'll need to make sure you have a compatible 4K monitor. YouTube uses the VP9 codec developed by Google, and it's been running in the Chrome browser since 2013. As with HEVC, you'll need to make sure your TV or monitor support VP9 before trying to stream. For those who have the required hardware, YouTube even has an 8K video lurking on the service.

What about 4K media streamers?

4K media streamers are now on the market, too, and the UHD Alliance has recently brought them under its UHD Premium umbrella.

The Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K delivers Ultra HD content from Amazon's own library on Prime Video and from Netflix. The Roku Streaming Stick + offers a similar proposition, while Google's Chromecast Ultra and Sony's PS4 Pro games console only offer 4K content from Netflix and YouTube (although the PlayStation 4 Pro did also support the BBC's 4K World Cup 2018 trial on iPlayer).

As you can tell from the name, the Apple TV 4K can stream Ultra HD content which you can find on Apple's iTunes store. It's also available in HDR (either HDR10 or Dolby Vision where available).

Can you watch 4K broadcasts on TV?

Can you watch 4K broadcasts on TV?

The road to 4K broadcasts has been a long one but we do now have two options: BT Sport Ultra HD and Sky Ultra HD. Both offer live 4K sport - BT mainly shows football, while Sky broadcasts football, cricket and Formula 1 – to owners of their flagship set-top boxes. Sky also has 4K TV shows, including dramas and natural history programmes, plus movies via its on-demand service.

In 2018 Sky also broadcast the Isle of Wight Festival in both 4K and Dolby Atmos for the very first time, while Virgin has recently launched its own 4K entertainment channel.

In December 2017, the BBC launched a 30-day trial where owners of compatible TVs could stream its Blue Planet II series in 4K (and HDR) through the BBC iPlayer.

2018 has seen the BBC ramp up its 4K coverage, using its iPlayer streaming service to trial 4K streams. We saw the first 4K iPlayer live broadcast of an entire rugby league match which was soon followed by a 4K broadcast of the second half of the FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Manchester United.

This culminated in an extensive 4K trial, using iPlayer, for the 2018 World Cup, where 29 games were broadcast in Ultra HD on compatible TVs and set-top boxes. The BBC followed this up with another 4K trial for its Wimbledon 2018 coverage.

The BBC also showed the Dynasties nature documentary series in 4K HDR on iPlayer, albeit only on selected compatible TVs.

It's worth noting that the BBC and Sky are also part of the UHD-Forum, which has been formed to promote 4K TV. Led by the Digital TV Group, the forum aims to push for industry consensus around common technical standards and is focused on (among other things) developing guidelines that will help implement workflows and systems required for live and on-demand distribution of 4K content.

While we're still getting our heads around 4K, it seems that Japan is way ahead of us with 8K broadcasts and we've now seen plenty of new 8K TVs launched at CES 2019, following in the footsteps of last year's 8K Samsung TVs.

Ultra HD Blu-ray discs

Ultra HD Blu-ray discs

Since Ultra HD Blu-ray became official in 2015, it's since picked up steam, with most major Hollywood studios - even Disney - now behind the format. It's a good job really, considering the increasing number of 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray players on the market.

Hundreds of titles from Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures are now available around the world and in the UK, with that list continually growing. In fact, all the 4K discs on sale and coming soon can be found in our exhaustive list.

The majority of discs on the market feature HDR10, and more titles are now getting the Dolby Vision HDR and HDR10+ treatment.

How much does a 4K TV cost?

With the lion's share of big brands' TV line-ups comprising 4K sets, there's a good chance that when you buy your next TV it will be a 4K screen whether you like it or not.

A 43in Hisense 4K TV can be bought for under £400, while we've also reviewed 40-something-inch screens from Panasonic, Philips and Samsung that are available for under £500.

To make the most of Ultra HD, we wouldn't recommend using anything too small, but a much wider choice in both screen size and price can only be a good thing for the technology.

Want something larger to really make the most of those pixels? How about the Panasonic TX-55FZ802 (£1499), the Samsung QE55Q8DN (£1499), the LG OLED55C8PLA (£1699), and the Philips 55OLED803 (£1799).

Of course, if you want to break the bank, you can. Your average 65in OLED sits in the £3000-£5000 ballpark while mammoth 77in models are also offered by some manufacturers.

But don't let those huge TVs deter you. 4K TVs in realistic sizes and at realistic prices are now available.

4K TV verdict

4K TV verdict

If you previously doubted whether 4K would ever make the breakthrough into the mainstream - and we wouldn't have blamed you - it's clear now the resolution is firmly here to stay.

We're happy to recommend a number of Ultra HD 4K TVs - in fact, unless you're buying a small TV or on a very strict budget, we wouldn't recommend anything less than 4K resolution.

Streaming 4K video has arrived with content growing by the month; 4K broadcast plans are well and truly underway; and Ultra HD Blu-ray is very much here.

Sold? In that case, you might want to check our round-up of the best 4K TVs you can buy...