Are you streaming shows as sharply as you should? What you need to know about HDTV, Ultra HD and 4K TV

  • 4K TV has four times the pixels, but you’ll have to sit closer to the TV to notice a difference.
  • HDR significantly boosts image color and contrast but is only compatible with 4K TVs.
  • HD content is much more widely available than 4K content.
  • 4K TVs are more expensive than HDTVs.

You’re familiar with HD, or high-definition TV, now meet the new and improved version: Ultra HD TV. Also known as 4K or UHD, Ultra HD TV is the next generation of video resolution.

The main difference between HD and 4K TV is in the number of pixels, but there are other factors as well. 4K has four times the number of pixels as 1080p HD and the result is a drastically better image. But watching 4K TV isn’t as simple, convenient or cheap as watching in HD. Because of this, the differences between HD and 4K TV go beyond the number of pixels.

HD vs. 4K — resolution

There is more to HD vs. 4K TV than the pixels, but that’s where the differences begin, so that’s where we’ll start as well.

HDTV comes in two possible pixel layouts: 1280 x 720 and 1920 x 1080. 4K considerably exceeds both HD resolutions with a 3840 x 2160 display.

ResolutionPixel displayNumber of pixels
HD1280 x 720921,600
Full HD1920 x 10802,073,600
4K3840 x 21608,294,400

Do the extra pixels of 4K Ultra HDTV make that much of a difference? Absolutely, but only if you sit the right distance from the TV.

Sit too close to an HD screen and you’re more likely to notice individual pixels and see images that are somewhat blurry around the edges. 4K delivers a sharper, clearer image, so you can sit closer to the TV for a more immersive experience without compromising picture quality.

On the other hand, if you sit too far from a 4K screen, your eyes won’t be able to discern the precise detail of the image. To the naked eye, the visual differences between standard definition, HD and 4K become less noticeable the farther you get from the TV.

4K TV and High Dynamic Range

Most newer 4K TVs come with the HDR, or High Dynamic Range, feature. While 4K gives you more pixels, HDR boosts what those pixels can do. HDR enhances the display’s contrast, rendering colors with brighter brights and darker darks for a more lifelike image.

Even if you can’t tell the difference between HD and 4K TV solely from the increased number of pixels, you’re likely to notice the deeper colors and contrast of HDR. This feature is only available on 4K TVs, making it one of the biggest differences between HD and 4K TV.

HD vs. 4K — available content

The frustration of trying to track down content is one drawback to 4K over HDTV. If you’ve got a 4K TV but are struggling to find something to watch in 4K, you aren’t alone. Simply put, there isn’t a lot of 4K content available yet.

With the exception of a few DIRECTV channels, no cable or satellite TV providers currently offer 4K channels. Even if you have DIRECTV, you’ll need a special DVR box to receive 4K content. Other TV providers, including DISH and Xfinity, have boxes that support 4K resolution but do not offer 4K content with any of their TV packages.

Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Youtube and iTunes offer select titles in 4K, but you’ll need a compatible 4K streaming device if you aren’t streaming directly on your 4K smart TV. Also, keep in mind that streaming in 4K will require faster internet speeds and use up much more data than streaming in HD.

In contrast, HD content is widely available. All major TV providers offer HD channels and many include HD service at no extra charge. And if you want to watch a movie in HD, you can likely find a decent assortment of 1080 HD movies On Demand or at your local Redbox.

HD vs. 4K — TV cost and size

As you can probably guess, 4K TVs are more expensive than HDTVs. You can expect to pay up to twice as much for a 4K TV as you would for a 1080 HDTV of the same size. In most cases, however, you aren’t just paying for the higher resolution. Many 4K smart TVs come with HDR, built-in apps, web browsing functionality and additional features that aren’t available with many HDTVs.

Another reason 4K TVs tend to be a bit more pricey: they’re bigger. 4K resolution needs a big screen to show its full potential, and consequently, you likely won’t find a 4K screen under 40 inches.

Is 4K worth it?

If you’re in the market for a new TV, yes. While there isn’t a ton of 4K content available yet, chances are good that more is coming. Even with the wait for more 4K content, 4K TVs still offer many features you can enjoy right now, such as HDR and built-in apps.

If you aren’t in the market for a new TV, consider holding off on that new 4K TV for now. Not only will more 4K content become available down the road, but the cost of 4K TVs will also likely continue to drop as the technology becomes more available.