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Buying a 4K TV is a nightmare

Don’t worry, we’re here to help

Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images

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The act of purchasing a 4K television is a ridiculous, frustrating mess. There is nothing about the technology or its use that’s simple, but if you care about visual quality, it can be worth the effort.

The problems include the fact that enthusiasts are presented with an endless array of choices; casual buyers may be taken advantage of; and the options available to you during calibration may keep you in menus longer than you’re watching a movie or playing a game. And if you want the best image, you’re going to want to spend the time in those menus.

There are no easy fixes for these problems, and holy shit, are they ever problems. I went through the process of buying a 4K TV myself last month, and was exhausted and enraged by the time the experience was over.

Still want a 4K TV? Then let’s go!

Keep in mind that you’re an early adopter, and it’s possible you’ll find little help in retail stores. But if you’re careful and put the time into the process, you’re going to end up with a display that makes watching movies and playing games much more pleasurable. 4K TVs are clearer and often brighter than existing screens, and present a sharper image that can completely change how you look at films and games.

It’s a shame that the act of getting there is such a gigantic, and often anti-consumer, pain in the ass.

Why is this so hard?

I had decided on the 65-inch Vizio M-Series 4K TV after a ridiculous amount of research. The best way to get there is to start at an online retailer, find displays in your price range with the features you want, and then Google the exact model number and read reviews. You’ll likely find issues with your first few choices. Keep going: This is a marathon, not a sprint, especially if you’re looking for value.

We’ll explain what you’re looking for as we go.

I couldn’t justify the price of an OLED TV — although they do look much better than the midlevel LED screens that were more in my price range — and I decided that a bit more screen real estate was more important than the slightly better image quality of TCL 55P607, a display that has gained nearly mythic status among value-conscious television enthusiasts.

I personally recommend either the aforementioned TCL or Vizio if you’re in the market. I will say that you’ll want to get at least an entry-level sound bar either way. One of the corners cut to get a display of that quality is the inclusion of built-in speakers that mimic that sounds of a human butt rather than offer a satisfying auditory experience.

The Walmart website said it had the Vizio in stock, but when I arrived, the salesperson tried to sell me the E-Series model in the same size, for the same price. This is shady as hell, and the worst part is that I can see people falling for the bait-and-switch.

Television companies release models annually, and often sell tiered selections within those yearly offerings. Vizio’s E-Series TVs aren’t terrible, but they’re a step down from the M-Series displays, which themselves aren’t quite as good as the P-Series models. I’m not even sure the display the employee was trying to foist on me supported HDR, as previous E-Series displays lacked the feature entirely.

Since good HDR support is one of the primary reasons someone would get a 4K television at all, that’s kind of a big deal.

airplane at sunset in HDR
An image showing off simulated HDR color.
Sony

HDR, which stands for high dynamic range, is a display technology that offers higher contrast between brightness levels. In an image, the blacks will be darker and the whites will be brighter. These days, HDR is also used as shorthand for a separate but related technology known as wide color gamut (WCG). A screen that supports WCG can display a much greater range of colors than other screens. The combination of HDR and WCG in a screen can deliver a significantly more vibrant and lifelike image — as long as the content you’re displaying on it supports the technology.

It’s worth noting that there are two different standards of HDR, and that some sets handle each one better than the other. Dolby Laboratories created a proprietary format for enhanced colors called Dolby Vision, while the open standard is known as HDR10. Either way, even competent HDR is enough to make a huge difference in image quality if you’re used to 1080p displays. Getting a 4K display without HDR will save you some money, but you’d be missing one of the primary benefits of upgrading, and we can’t recommend that you buy a 4K TV in 2017 or beyond that doesn’t support HDR.

It’s the less expensive televisions you have to watch out for

The years and model numbers on those boxes mean something, even if the physical displays look nearly identical on the shelf until they’re turned on and calibrated. The choices are overwhelming, the salespeople can range from uninformed to actively misleading, and it can be hard to figure out what you want without spending the necessary time in research.

Don’t let anyone talk you into another model number or year unless you know exactly what you’re getting.

This bullshit tends to find its home primarily in the midtier or entry-level displays. Stores will try to sell you cheap 4K TVs without HDR, and finding a television with at least HDR10 support is important.

That’s the base level, and it has the widest adoption in the games and media you’re going to be viewing on the TV. Look for it, and don’t accept a TV that doesn’t have it. Dolby Vision is a bonus, and it’s something to consider, but HDR10 should be non-negotiable. Don’t let the salespeople tell you differently.

Descriptions of displays and even many reviews often leave out input lag, which is one of the most important things to pay attention to if you’re buying a TV for video games. A display that’s aimed at movies may offer an amazing image with ridiculously high input lag ... which doesn’t matter if you’re not interacting with the image.

High input lag is death for gaming, however, and there is a wild variance in lag between different displays. Even worse, input lag can vary wildly depending on a TV’s display settings — generally, you’ll want to enable “game mode” to reduce lag as much as possible — and what you’re viewing on it: Some TVs won’t let you use game mode with HDR media.

Ask about input lag before buying a TV, and make sure it’s mentioned in any review of a display you’re considering. It’s often discussed in the comments of reviews that leave it out of the main text.

The lower the number, the better. Do not buy a television if you don’t know how it handles lag, and be aware you may have to dig a bit to find this information. It’s an important topic, and many salespeople are completely unaware of which models are good for gaming and which aren’t. It’s shocking how little information is presented in stores on a topic that’s so crucial to your experience.

Input lag is one of the reasons that the TCL model I linked above is such a great buy at 55 inches. “Its input lag is excellent, and it produces very little motion blur, giving a clear image free of annoying trail,” the Rtings review states, letting you know exactly what you’re getting. The M-Series display I purchased also has relatively low input lag, but it’s not quite as responsive. I’ve found it tolerable, especially after a bit of tweaking, but you may not, especially if you’re playing games where every frame matters.

You’ll also have to be careful setting up your content source, whether it’s something like the PlayStation 4 Pro or the Xbox One X, because many less expensive televisions only offer one HDMI 2.0a port, which is what you need for 4K running at 60 fps with HDR enabled. It’s easy to miss this detail, connect your system to a less-capable port, and never realize that you’re missing out on much of the promised image quality.

The HDMI port information can be poorly conveyed in the store or in the instruction manual ... which many customers may not even read. Make sure you’re using the correct HDMI port if you don’t have one of the higher-end displays that offer HDMI 2.0a ports across the board. I was willing to deal with a single high-end port on my TV to save some money, but it presents risk if you’re not paying attention during setup.

And oh my Steve, the setup.

Let’s get to tweaking

Televisions have always offered a variety of image settings — some worse than others — but even midtier 4K displays are on a whole other level. 4K televisions can get ridiculously bright, and offer a nearly endless array of image options and settings to make sure your display looks as good as possible in the space you’re using it. Which means you need to be ready to do a lot of fiddling.

You’ll want to calibrate a television in a living room with a large window differently than you would if it were set up in the basement with less ambient light. And the settings that make movies look good are different from the settings that make games look their best. And Netflix is going to look different than disc-based 4K movies do.

I take joy in this process because I’m a giant nerd, but my son often pleads for me to just let him play Assassin’s Creed while I ask him which setting looks the best as I carefully try every possible option in every possible menu. And some options mean that other options will become unavailable, while other adjustments may improve or exacerbate input lag. The number of settings is already bonkers, but when you consider how they interact, it can become even more overwhelming.

Thankfully, my Vizio lets me save certain configurations, so I can easily switch between a calibration that makes Netflix look amazing and a custom mode that’s aimed at video games. A good strategy is to search for other folks who have the same model of television and see how they have their displays set up.

Plenty of people online will go into numbing detail about their displays, but remember that this is your television. While I could calibrate my HDR and color settings to mimic reality, I don’t want to see reality. I have my television set up for a precise purpose: To give you that wonderful feeling you get when you’re in a beautiful park and the weed has just started to kick in. I like surreal, deep colors that make games pop and give everything a dreamlike look, but that aesthetic may annoy others. The important thing to keep in mind is that what looks “best” is often subjective. Going by your gut is a perfectly valid way to adjust your TV.

But there’s nothing easy about any of this, and you can’t expect your TV to look its best — or even good — out of the box. Fiddlers will be in heaven, but others who don’t have the fortitude to take a college-level course in image calibration may spend years with their television wondering why everything looks so bland.

And the issue is even worse than the options built into the television. Not even the Xbox One X offers native 4K at 60 fps with HDR for everything, which means you may even want to adjust your display on a per-game basis.

This is technology that’s filled with competing standards and versatility, in terms of what the image can do, depending on what source is connected, which is good in some ways but maddening in others.

It can be a disaster for anyone who just wants to play Horizon Zero Dawn, and have everything look and feel as good as possible, with as little work as necessary. We’re just not there yet.

So what do you do?

Standards will settle down and all the consoles and streaming services will get better at labeling and providing content. The world will hopefully improve its internet infrastructure so everybody who wants to stream 4K video will be able to do so.

But those things will happen in the future, which means that knowing what you want and finding the 4K display that fills those needs within your budget is your responsibility. And then you have to set the damned thing up, which can be an overwhelming process on its own. This is a time commitment, not an easy purchase that you can just plug in and enjoy.

Vizio P-Series Verge photo Chris Welch/The Verge

I can vouch for the two TVs discussed in this article. Higher-end OLED displays will blow them out of the water ... but they also cost much more: well north of $1,600 for 55-inch models. Don’t trust how things look in the store, either — the lighting in your home is more important, and display models are often calibrated to exaggerate brightness or contrast.

So here’s how to make the best of things, in as few words as possible: Make sure you can return whatever you buy if you find it’s not a good fit for your home or the type of movies or games you like to watch or play. Avoid stores with restocking fees. Walk away if the salesperson can’t answer your question, or seems like they’re trying to mislead you. Figure out your maximum budget and your desired size, and then get ready to compromise between the two.

Make sure you know your goals for your display — some models are great for movies but terrible for games — and figure out which corners you’re fine with cutting to save money. Most basic 4K TVs will have horrid sound, for instance. You might be able to find a less expensive display with horrible smart TV features ... and then just plug in a Fire TV stick or something similar to make up for it.

Make sure your display has HDR, and make sure you’re aware of the amount of input lag introduced by the display and any settings you turn on. Make sure you’re using the right HDMI port, and be ready to spend some time calibrating things; your television may even come with useful tools to test your image. Remember that there is no “best” image; what matters is how good it looks to you.

Also, don’t actually smoke weed in parks — it’s probably illegal in your area.

You also have to make sure you’re watching the right things. While all PS4 systems support HDR, you’ll need a PS4 Pro or an Xbox One X to really see what your display can do in terms of 4K gaming. You could also use a high-end gaming PC to really push things to the limit. Either way, you need an image source that can do your display justice.

Xbox One X with controller in front and vertical Xbox One S to the left Austin Pikulski/Vox Studios

You’ll need a fast internet connection to stream 4K content, though you can buy 4K Ultra HD Blu-rays that are optimized for the display ... just remember that only the Xbox One S or Xbox One X, not the PS4 Pro, can play them. Even finding the right thing to play or watch on your display can be a pain in the ass. Every piece of hardware has a gotcha or a potential pitfall. The Xbox One X really does seem like the best option right now if you have a 4K TV, or are getting one.

Buying a 4K television is a nightmare, but with the right preparation, attitude and choice of content, you can end up with an experience that’s perfect for you. Games look amazing on my new TV, and even though I could have spent much more for a better-quality image, it still blows away my old 1080p set.

Knowing what you want — and cutting out what you don’t need — will help you get the set that’s right for you and your budget. It’s a shame the process itself is so hostile and confusing.