Brief thoughts on 4K in TVs

Last week I bought a long-awaited and exciting hardware for my room, the 55-inch LG B6. It’s an exceptional OLED TV that does 4K and HDR. Don’t let the similarity of the panel acronyms fool you: going from LED to OLED is a monumental leap in image quality, as significant as the jump to Retina screens in Apple devices. While the colors are richer and more vibrant on an OLED panel, it’s the black levels that are jaw-droppingly good. I never owned a Plasma TV, so I never witnessed blacks like this before. It took a few minutes for the LED TVs across the house to feel ancient in comparison.

I went from a 1080p non-HDR LED TV to a 4K HDR OLED TV. I was curious to track the source of my amazement. Am I impressed by the increased resolution (4K is quadruple the pixels!), the increased dynamic range in HDR content, or the panel technology? Am I attributing my amazement correctly? Is it the culmination of all these display technologies, or is there a major player in all of this?

Below is by no means comprehensive or thorough, so take it with a grain of salt, but this is what I noticed in my brief time with the TV:

– From a normal viewing distance, 4K streams from Netflix and Amazon Video Prime are indistinguishable from 1080p. The Amazon Video app on the LG TV is helpful: when I pause a video, it tells me whether it’s currently displaying a 1080p or Ultra HD picture. I sit about 6 feet away from the TV, and I never – not once – noticed the drop from 4K to 1080p or vice versa. I’m sure the difference is noticeable if I hold a magnifying glass to the TV, but under normal conditions it’s largely imperceptible. Some shows on the Amazon app, like The Grand Tour, stream in 4K and HDR. HDR works whether the stream is 1080p or 4K. When the video compression is handled well in a TV show (like in The Grand Tour) the colors and blacks are fantastic and perceptibly flawless regardless of the resolution.

– Games running at 4K from a capable PC are noticeably sharper and crisper, but that depends on the game itself. For some games that don’t have 4K textures, an upscaled 1080p is still nearly as good from 6 feet away. User interface elements will always look fizzy and bad when upscaled, however, so I find that I mostly don’t like to run games in non-native resolutions because of the resulting UI. The image itself is very similar.

– Surprisingly, my 1080p Blu-ray collection looks absolutely breathtaking. 4K is quadruple the resolution, so you’d think that a 1080p video would look compromised or revealing, but that’s not the case. The OLED screen adds a new dimension to my Blu-ray films, and upgrades the image quality at no added cost simply because of the display technology. The opening panoramas of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey have never looked this vibrant and captivating before. Additionally, my brother and I were gasping at every outer-space scene because of the incredible black levels. It would be interesting to compare 1080p and 4K Blu-rays, but I bet the perceptual difference at that distance is negligible.

HDR is a nice addition. I find that it sometimes detracts from the established mood or setting, so it’s not always a win in my opinion. A vibrant game like Forza Horizon 3 looks stunning in HDR, but The Last of Us – while looking appreciably brighter, with more dynamic range – looks a bit too bright or lively at points. (I didn’t progress far enough to form a definitive opinion.) The Last Guardian handles it well, in which the mood and feel are largely unchanged but the image quality is noticeably improved. I don’t mean to say that HDR is bad – it’s just stylistically different and varies per game. (I don’t have an opinion on its usage and implementation in Blu-rays or streaming services yet.)

– The OLED panel is the real showstopper here. It’s far more important and significant to my content (and eyes) than 4K and HDR ever hope to be. “OLED’s clearest improvement comes from its utter lack of backlight,” explains Sam Machkovech at Ars Technica. “Instead, individual OLED pixels are made from an organic material that emits light from within whenever it’s fed electric current. If a pixel receives no current, it emits no light in the red, blue, or green color spaces. This creates the purest black. Once you can deliver pixels with absolute-zero values for color and brightness, you enter a new realm of contrast-ratio territory. Even the littlest hint of light in the blackest part of an image changes the perceptible contrast ratio.”

What this means is that when you step into a dark environment in a game, or a dark scene in a movie, the TV doesn’t crank itself to figure out how to properly display blacks. There’s no color manipulation, no backlight, no fake-black-that-looks-gray. The individual pixels shut themselves off and you end up with a properly pitch-black scene.

I tested a few selected favorites and the result is always stunning, with the image quality looking perceptually superior at any sitting distance. The true blacks are a wonder to behold when playing games or watching movies for anyone who never owned a Plasma TV before. Sections that previously looked washed out and unclear suddenly come to life, better than ever.

Given the choice, I’d pick a non-HDR 1080p OLED TV over any top-tier 4K LED/QLED TV in a heartbeat. 4K and HDR are nice to have, but at this time, they’re merely part of a checklist. I’d be bold and say you’re not missing much here. At least I don’t feel that I am. The vibrant colors and the true blacks of this OLED display make for a transformative experience, one that feels as significant as the jump from SD to HD. I’d invest in that above all else.

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