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What do I need for 4K?

With 4K TVs cheaper than ever, and more 4K TV shows and movies here today and on their way tomorrow, what do you need to get 4K into your home?

Aloysius Low/CNET

What do you need to get 4K in your home? I'll give you a hint: it's more than just a TV.

While the 4K-compatible TV is the most obvious part -- and prices on those TVs have never been lower -- there's also content, external devices, cables, and more to consider.

So here, in five easy steps, is what you need to get 4K in your home and to your eyeballs.

1. The TV

Not all 4K TVs are the same. Yes, they all have 3,840x2,160 resolution, but that's not the whole story. If you haven't bought the TV yet, there are a few features to consider to get the most out of your 4K experience.

The two biggest are High Dynamic Range and Wide Color Gamut. The added resolution of 4K is cool, but not really that big of an improvement by itself. Consider getting a TV with HDR and WCG. These are big improvements in picture quality, and we're starting to see more and more content encoded in HDR.

At the very least, consider one with local dimming, as it will almost certainly look better than a TV without. Or just empty your wallet and get an OLED.

If you already have the TV and are here to check out getting some 4K content, make sure your TV has HDMI 2.0 inputs (with HDCP 2.2). Most do, but many first- and some second-generation 4K TVs didn't. Google your model number and "HDMI 2.0" if you're not sure. If you want to do HDR, you'll need HDMI 2.0a.

For great TV options, check out CNET's picks for Best TVs.

2. A source

You need 4K content to make full use of your 4K TV. Otherwise it's just upconverting, which can be done well, but is definitely not true 4K.

Most 4K TV include apps that will stream 4K (like Netflix and Amazon). This is certainly the easiest option.

If your TV doesn't or you want other options, there are a handful of boxes that will stream 4K. The new Roku is CNET's favorite because it offers the most 4K service providers. It also streams HDR.

Regardless, you'll need an Internet connection that is fast enough to stream the content. Most services recommend at least 15 megabits per second. If your speed dips to less than that, particularly during popular prime-time hours, you'll typically be bumped down to 1080p, "Super HD" or whatever the service calls its sub-4K tier.

With Netflix you'll also need the highest-level service plan. Lower-cost plans don't have 4K. Amazon Prime members get access to some 4K videos automatically. YouTube's 4K is free, but not supported by all TV apps. Other services vary, but expect to pay more for the 4K version of anything you buy or rent.

Beyond streaming, this year you'll start seeing Ultra HD Blu-ray players, and discs. The only such player available in the US today is the Samsung UBD-K8500. Discs cost around $30 each, but most include HDR for compatible TVs, as well as the standard Blu-ray in the box.

3. Content

As you probably gathered, you need specific 4K content. This will be labeled 4K or UHD, and if it doesn't have a such label, it probably isn't.

A good selection of movies are available in 4K today, and many of Netflix and Amazon's original series are too -- think "Daredevil," "The Man in the High Castle," etc.

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CNET

For more on streaming 4K via apps, check out Where can I get 4K Ultra HD TV shows and movies today?. If you've got an HDR TV, check out Where can I get HDR TV shows and movies for my new HDR TV?.

For more on the first batch of Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, check out Do I need to upgrade to Ultra HD Blu-ray?.

4. Cables

Your current cables should work fine. High-speed HDMI cables can carry 4K signals. However, if your cables weren't up to the high-speed spec, they may not work.

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Geoffrey Morrison/HDMI.org/CNET

There's no such thing as "HDMI 1.3" cables or "HDMI 2.0" cables or "4K HDMI" Cables. There are just High-Speed and Standard-Speed (and their various flavors). The connection in your TV or receiver is what needs a specific HDMI version, and for 4K to work you need HDMI 2.0 or 2.0a. If you've bought your TV and other gear within the last 2 years, you're probably all set (and your cables will almost certainly work). If your gear is any older, you'll need to check. It might say on the back panel, but you're better off Googling the model number and/or checking out the manual.

Note: If the cables don't work, you'll either get no picture or dropouts (or rarely, sparkles). If you're getting a 4K signal, it's the same 4K picture quality regardless of how "good" the cable is. If your cables don't work, try a different cheap HDMI cable.

CNET's TV testing lab has been using the same inexpensive HDMI cables from Amazon Basics and Monoprice for years. They've had no issues passing along 4K or HDR content.

For more info, check out 4K HDMI cables (are nonsense). You'll see some cables labeled "Premium HDMI Certified," but you shouldn't necessarily pay extra for them.

5. Receiver?

CNET

Unfortunately, you might need a new AV receiver. Most older receivers, even ones with HDMI, won't pass a 4K signal. If your receiver doesn't, and you currently use it to connect all your gear, you have an annoying choice.

One option is to connect the 4K source to the TV directly, and send optical audio (in the case of the Roku 4, for example) to the receiver. Not ideal, but cheaper than a new receiver. The same applies if you plug everything into your soundbar with HDMI. If the soundbar isn't HDMI 2.0, it won't pass 4K either.

The other option is to buy a 4K-compatible receiver.

Some 4K sources, like the Samsung UBD-K8500, have a second audio-only HDMI output you can use for your older receiver, so you don't need to buy a new one.

Check out Do I need a new AV receiver to go with my 4K TV? for more.

Bottom line

Getting 4K into your home is far more involved than just buying a 4K TV. You need all the pieces of the puzzle for it to work, otherwise you're just watching upconverted 1080i/1080p, which isn't bad, but it's not 4K.


Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics such as why all HDMI cables are the same, LED LCD vs. OLED, why 4K TVs aren't worth it and more. Still have a question? Tweet at him @TechWriterGeoff then check out his travel photography on Instagram. He also thinks you should check out his sci-fi novel and its sequel.

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