4K TV: What you need to know

No longer the purview of early adopters and technology aficionados, 4K TVs are going mainstream. Here's what you need to know about what they are, how they work and what you can do with them.

Rogers, TSN offering live sports broadcasts in enhanced resolution as 4K technology gains momentum

A Sony 85-inch Bravia XBR-X950B 4K television plays video at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. 4K TVs have been around since 2013, but a drop in prices and an increase in available content is now pushing them into the mainstream. (Steve Marcus/Reuters)

No longer the purview of early adopters and technology aficionados, 4K TVs are going mainstream. 

With sales picking up as prices drop, 4K TVs and Blu-ray players were on display in full force at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month. And Canada's big cable companies are catching up to streaming services by increasingly offering 4K content.

Rogers has announced it will be broadcasting the first-ever NHL game in 4K this Saturday — the Toronto Maple Leafs versus the Montreal Canadiens.

"4K is pretty much the standard now. This is what everybody will be using for the rest of the year continuing forward," Adrian Bulzacki, founder of interactive video software company ARB Labs, told CBC News.

But before you rush out to buy a 4K television, here's what you need to know.

What is 4K?

Despite the streams of techno-babble and acronyms that seem to make up every 4K product description — It's incomprehensible, so it must be top of the line! — 4K is a pretty straightforward concept.

It means more pixels. That's it. 

Pixels are the tiny dots that make up on-screen images. The more of them you have, the sharper the picture. 

Imagine your TV as a grid. A standard HD display has a resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 — that's 1,080 rows and 1,920 columns of pixels. 4K, by contrast, is usually 3,840 by 2,160. 

It's called 4K because it's almost 4,000 pixels wide, and 3.84K just doesn't have the same ring to it.

You'll also sometimes hear it referred to as ultra-high definition, or UHD.

Will you notice a difference?

It depends. 

In a press release for its upcoming hockey broadcast Rogers promises you'll be able to see "the flex of the stick and the grooves in the ice."

But setting aside the fact that you might not want, or need, this level of detail, you might not be able to perceive the difference, anyway. (When's the last time you thought: "That was a very compelling episode of Breaking Bad, but I wish could have seen Walter White's nose hairs more clearly?") 

With a 4K display on a big enough screen at a close enough distance, the level of detail can be stunning. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

The human eye has a finite resolution. You can see individual blades of grass and grains of sand up close, but not off in the distance.

Similarly, to really get anything out of a 4K TV, you need a big screen: 48 inches at the very least, and you have to sit close to it. To get an idea of whether it makes sense to have one in your living room, check out this Associated Press interactive

What can you watch?

Just having a 4K TV isn't enough — you have to be watching 4K content. A year ago, that was hard to come by, but that's rapidly changing. 


Streaming services have been the earliest adopters of 4K. YouTube has had it since 2010, and Netflix offers almost all of its in-house content in 4K if you upgrade to an $11.99 per month package. So you can get really up close and personal with Kevin Spacey during those intimate House of Cards monologues. 

Imagine how intense this stare would be in 3840 x 2160-pixel resolution. (Netflix)

Canadian streaming services are catching up, too. 

Shomi, the streaming video partnership between Rogers and Shaw, will offer more than 100 hours of 4K entertainment, though a timeline for that rollout hasn't been announced. Bell's Discovery Go streaming video service on Samsung's Ultra HD TVs also has a lineup of 4K titles. 

Just remember, you'll need a fast internet connection handle all those sweet, sweet pixels. Netflix recommends at least 25 megabits per second. 


Cable providers are getting excited about 4K — Rogers' president of media business, Rick Brace, recently called it "a revolution" — and they're pushing out the content to match their enthusiasm. Especially sports. 

After the NHL's 4K debut on Saturday, Rogers has committed to 4K resolution on Sportsnet for another 19 NHL games, as well as 81 Toronto Blue Jays home games. Bell broadcast a Toronto Raptors home game in 4K on Jan. 20 and promises more 4K programming on its TSN channels later this year.

Rogers has announced it will broadcast an NHL game live in 4K for the first time on Saturday, when the Montreal Canadiens take on the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

Still, most cable TV favourites won't be offered in 4K this year, so if you're not a big sports fan and you don't stream, you might want to hold off on purchasing a 4K TV. 

Home movies

You can also catch some Hollywood movies on special Blu-ray discs re-mastered in 4K, but in addition to the TV, you'll require a 4K Blu-ray player, which costs around $150.

How expensive are they?

In 2012, you would have shelled out upward of $7,500 for a 4K TV. Now, basic models start between $700 and $1,000. That's what Bulzacki calls "the sweet spot for TVs."

"Thousands and thousands of dollars is a huge premium, and that premium seems to be gone now," he said. 

What's next?


Another buzzword you'll hear a lot in 2016 is HDR, which stands for high dynamic range. (Tech folks just love their acronyms and abbreviations.)  While 4K offers more pixels, "HDR significantly expands the range of contrast and colour that those pixels can show," explains David Katzmaier at CNET.

A lot of 4K technology rolling out in 2016 will also be HDR-enabled. 


OLED, which stands for organic light-emitting diode, is another technology that enhances colour display. The only screen that doesn't use backlight, OLED TVs are particularly thin and energy efficient, and they show colour with intense vibrancy. 

OLED 4K TVs offer vibrant colours delivered more efficiently, but they don't come cheap. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

4K OLED TVs are on the market now, but the cheapest option will set you back more than $2,000. 

Virtual reality 

Bulzacki predicts 4K will one day push virtual reality to the next level. 

"We're going to be dumbfounded when we get into things like Oculus Rift," he said. "That's not a 4K device, but once you start seeing 4K quality in headgear, it's going to become extremely lifelike."