The Best TV You Won’t Buy for Years

Your next TV is going to be beautiful, but you won’t buy it anytime soon, or at least you probably shouldn’t.  Two TV standards, 4K and OLED are vying for your living room, but each of them have issues.

They are big and beautiful, but when will the new TVs be ready for primetime?

What’s 4K?
4K TV (also called Ultra HDTV) has 4 times the resolution of existing high definition TV.  The extra pixels packed into 4K displays don’t really make a visual difference on sets under 50 inches.  But on bigger screens, 4K keeps the image crisp and beautiful, full of rich detail where existing high-def starts looking a little jaggy and washed out.

Why 4K?
Right now about 75% of US households have an HDTV.  Historically people replace their TV sets starting around the 7-year mark. As early adopters start thinking about their next TV, almost all of them are opting for bigger screens. Those bigger screens make room for a higher resolution format like 4K.

TV Manufacturers are Betting on 4K
At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) almost all the big TV manufacturers have announced TVs in this new format: Samsung debuted an 85- and 110-inch 4K TV. Westinghouse has 110-inch model, LG has an 84-inch 4K TV, Sony has 55- and 65-inch 4K TVs, and Sharp debuted an 8K TV.

4K Problem 1: Price
Sharp 60-inch 4KTV:  $25000.
Sony’s 84-inch 4KTV:  $25000.
Samsung’s 85-inch 4KTV will “cost under $30,000.”

This isn’t surprising; traditionally, new TVs are astronomically priced, but then decrease in cost as the sets go into mass production. We’re already seeing that paradigm from LG. They have a 55-inch 4KTV that’s been in put into production already and they say will cost less than $10,000.

4K Problem 2: Content
There is almost no 4K video available today.  Just as TV studios and camera crews had to upgrade to HD cameras, now they will all have to get 4K cameras and start shooting in this format.  Then the networks will have to get the equipment to broadcast in 4K, then providers like DirecTV or Comcast will have to figure out how to pipe that much data into our homes. In fact, DirecTV has said they don’t see it happening until at least 2016.

Sony did announce that they will make their movies available in 4K through a streaming movie service, but 4K has a long way to go in the content field before you can actually watch something worthy of its massive pixel count and massive price tag.

Also, as this detailed article on 4K explains, the higher resolution of 4K content is incredibly data heavy: to watch a standard 90 minute movie in the 4K format at home would mandate 200 Blu-Ray disks.  There’s a lot of work to be done to get the content delivery systems in place and standardized (and please industry – not another Blu-Ray/HD DVD format war).

OLED TVs
There’s another beautiful TV technology at the show called OLED. Organic Light Emitting Diodes are thinner, lighter, and more energy efficient than existing LEDs, but the big improvement is the image. OLED is capable of very deep blacks, which is a standard measure of image quality in the TV industry. If the blacks are deep and inky, not grey or mottled, it means color saturation is rich and beautiful.
With OLED TVs, you get all the bright, vivid whites and yellows that pop off the screen like a standard LED, but you get black levels that are comparable to those you only see in the plasma TVs of today. That’s a lot of tech jargon to say the OLED sets are gorgeous. They use the same HD video of our sets today – there is no resolution change in the TVs; the only change is how they display the video.
OLED vs 4K

While you might think that these two technologies are poised for a format war; that may only be true in the very short term.  If you wanted to buy a TV today (at those insane prices) you might have to decide between 4K and OLED. But here at the Consumer Electronics show, both Sony and Panasonic are showing their vision of the future: a combined OLED TV that is also 4K. Looking at these combo sets you see insanely vivid image quality that jumps off the screen. Sony’s OLED 4K TV was the most beautiful set I’ve seen in the 8 years I’ve been coming to the show.

This technology may be in its commercial infancy, but come talk to me in 2016 when I’ll be looking to buy my next TV, and boy, is it going to be beautiful.

[Related: Which TV Specs Really Matter]