If you've wandered into the television section of your local electronics shop lately, you've seen sets sporting something called "4K."
The feature designates a new, super-high resolution picture standard. Retailers have created special displays to tout such sets, and a growing number of models you'll see in their showrooms have the feature built-in.
4K sets, which have four times the number of pixels as regular high-definition ones, have actually been available for more than a year now. But they've plunged in price over the past six months or so. While you used to have to pay thousands of dollars extra for a 4K set, you can now find some at smaller screen sizes that are comparable in price to the top-of-the-line non-4K models.
But if you're thinking it's time to rush out and buy a 4K TV, take a moment to catch you breath first. Here are some things to consider:
Size matters -- a lot. The ability to perceive all the extra visual information in 4K pictures is a function largely of viewing distance and the size of the screen. The smaller the screen or the farther you sit from it, the less likely you'll be able to notice the benefits of a 4K picture.
American viewers typically sit about 9 feet away from their televisions. At that distance, people with 20-20 eyesight can't distinguish the difference between a high-definition picture and one that's of greater resolution if the screen is smaller than 70 inches, said Raymond Soneira, president of DisplayMate, a research and consulting firm that focuses on display technologies. And even on a 70-inch screen, the difference is marginal.
So, if you're shopping for a smaller television, don't expect to see any great difference between a 4K set and one that only has regular high-definition. Even if you get a jumbo-sized set, you may not be able to tell any difference if your couch is farther away than that of the average American.
Prices are down, but still high. The first 4K TVs to hit store shelves back in the fall of 2012 were 84-inch behemoths that cost more than $20,000. By contrast, you can now find a 50-inch 4K model through Best Buy's Web store for as little as $1,400. That's about what you'll pay for 50-inch LG model with all the bells and whistles except 4K. But you can find entry-level 50-inch sets for less than $500 and ones from major brands such as LG for less than $700.
The price differences between 4K and regular HD sets increase as the screens get larger. A 4K Sharp 70-inch screen costs $3,500 at Best Buy, or about $700 more than you'd pay for one of Sharp's top-of-the-line non-4K 70-inch models.
4K content remains hard to find. When Sony debuted one of the first 4K TVs less than two years ago, about the only thing you could watch on it -- besides slide shows of high-resolution photos -- were a handful of movies stored on a hard-drive device that shipped with the set.
Today, you have a somewhat broader selection. Sony offers a revamped media player for its 4K TVs that provides access to some 200 ultra-high definition movies via the Internet. Netflix now offers some of its collection of streaming movies and TV shows in 4K, including "Breaking Bad" and the second season of "House of Cards." And YouTube offers a collection of 4K videos, though most are shorts uploaded from users.
Beyond that, though, you're not going to find much. You can't get 4K content through your pay-TV service yet. Nor can you find 4K movies on 4K Blu-ray discs. Moreover, most online video services -- such as Vudu, Apple's iTunes and Hulu Plus -- don't yet offer 4K content.
"As soon as you bring that new 4K TV home, it's not like you're going to get that much bang out of it," said Claudio Ciacci, test program leader for televisions at Consumer Reports.
4K TVs offer other advantages. 4K sets generally offer many of the same features found in high-end non-4K TVs. They generally have smart TV features, are usually capable of displaying 3-D content and often have premium speakers and sleek designs. What's more, said Soneira, they often have high-quality innards as well, featuring the better glass panels, image processors and screen calibration than the typical television. He said a 4K set will deliver better picture quality because of those because of those advantages, even if you're not watching 4K content.
The sets also generally include the ability to "upscale" standard HD content to 4K resolution. This doesn't magically transform the content to full 4K quality, but it can make images look less pixelated if you're sitting close enough to notice the difference.
One other advantage of 4K sets is that some of them allow you to display up to four HD video streams on the screen at once. So you could potentially tune into two different baseball games at the same time, while also viewing box scores from both games streamed from the Web.
Ultra-high definition 4K TVs are becoming more prominent at electronics retailers; here are some things to know before you buy:
Source: Mercury News research