Seiki SE50UY04 review: Cheap 4K TV has pixels aplenty, poor picture

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MSRP: $1,499.00

The Good The Seiki SE50UY04 is inexpensive for a TV with 4K/Ultra-High Definition resolution. Looks good from up close with 4K-compatible PC games; decent color accuracy; three HDMI inputs; simple styling and feature set.

The Bad Must sit close to the 50-inch screen to realize the benefit of 4K content; very little 4K content currently available; picture quality with non-4K content is worse than that of most other TVs in this price range, with light black levels, poor screen uniformity, and subpar video processing.

The Bottom Line Seiki's SE50UY04 can't compete with most standard HDTVs at this price in terms of picture quality, but at least it breaks new pricing ground for 4K resolution.

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5.0 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Features 4
  • Performance 5
  • Value 5

Any review of the Seiki SE50UY04 has to begin with its price. At around $1,300 it's still expensive for a no-name, bare-bones 50-inch flat-panel LED-based LCD TV. On the other hand its price is unprecedented for a 4K, er, UHD, TV. Sure, other no-name 4K TVs are bound to arrive stateside soon, but for now the next-cheapest 4K TV I know about is the 55-inch Sony XBR-55X900A, for a cool $5,000.

So the question for prospective buyers becomes, is the Seiki's extra resolution worth the extra money compared with other 50-inch TVs? For most people the answer is a resounding, "No!" perhaps preceded by an expletive.

The only two groups who might get their money's worth purchasing those extra pixels are computer gamers with high-end rigs, a close seat, and a singular thirst for resolution; and cutting-edge tech fiends who want a 4K TV, any 4K TV, badly enough that this set's downsides don't matter to them.

Those downsides are substantial, and any number of non-4K TVs provide much better value, including stalwarts like the 55-inch Panasonic TC-P55ST60 and the 60-inch Sharp LC-LE650U. They both cost about the same, have bigger screens, and offer better picture quality, despite their lower pixel counts. Once you get up to 1080p, resolution is far from the most important contributor to picture quality. That's one big reason why we think small-screen 4K TVs are stupid.

Don't get me wrong: I love the idea of a 4K TV that costs a third less than what brand names like Sony are charging. Unfortunately, the one-trick Seiki SE50UY04 can't compete with the multitalented 1080p TVs available today.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A thin bezel clad in glossy black plastic atop a non-swiveling, low-profile stand. The Seiki looks as unassuming as any TV out there, aside from the wide status LED below the screen. It illuminates blue when the TV is on and Cylon red, minus the oscillation, when it's off.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The remote is plain bad. Too many tiny, indistinguishable buttons dot its too-small face, belying the company's "simple" marketing message. Many of them are devoted to the built-in tuner and many more to manipulating USB photos and music. At least the menu system is simple, with just a handful of categories and mostly familiar settings.

Key TV features
Display technology LCD LED backlight Edge-lit
Screen finish Matte Remote Standard
Smart TV No Internet connection No
3D technology No 3D glasses included No
Refresh rate(s) 120Hz Dejudder (smooth) processing No
DLNA-compliant No USB Music/Photo

If the goal is simplicity, this feature set has it in spades. Aside from the TV's resolution, the only other item of note is a 120Hz refresh rate. Unlike most so-equipped TVs, however, it lacks the option to engage smoothing, aka the Soap Opera Effect. The LED backlight is the standard edge variety, illuminated from the sides and without local dimming.

The USB ports are equipped to handle only MP3 music and JPEG photos, not video.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Picture settings: The selection here is completely bare-bones, with three nonadjustable picture presets and a fourth, User, that allows rudimentary tweaking. You get three color temperature presets, a couple of noise reduction settings, and that's it beyond the basics of contrast, brightness, color, tint, and sharpness. Sorry, no backlight control.

Sarah Tew/CNET

You can swap between four different aspect ratio modes with non-4K content, but none of them display 1080i/1080p video with zero overscan; the best, called "wide," chops a bit off the sides and top. On the other hand that's less of an issue with a 4K panel, since all content aside from 4K needs to be upconverted to fit the native pixels anyway. You cannot adjust aspect ratios with 4K material on this TV: it's all scaled pixel-for-pixel.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Connectivity: The connections on the SE50UY04 are surprisingly ample. The lineup of three HDMI ports, one component-video (shared with composite), two USB, and even a VGA-style PC input will handle as much gear as you're likely to have.

The HDMI ports can handle 4K (3,840x2,160-pixel resolution) at refresh rates from 24Hz to 30Hz via HDMI according to my early tests. I was unable to test whether higher refresh rates were supported because according to Nvidia, the graphics card I used can only do higher refresh rates via DisplayPort, a connector the Seiki lacks. I also did not test VGA, although the company claims it too can handle 3,840x2,160.

Picture quality
The main thing that confuses many people new to the resolution topic is that after a certain point, having more pixels doesn't necessarily mean a better picture. Geoff Morrison goes into great detail on this issue in his article "Why 4K UHD TVs are still stupid," but the takeaway is that at normal seating distances, even the best 4K content in the best-case scenario isn't going to look more detailed on a 4K TV than on a 1080p TV. Factors like contrast and black level, color accuracy, and screen uniformity play a larger role in pleasing our eyes.

The Seiki's picture just can't compete in those areas compared with other TVs in its price range. Black levels are poor, shadow detail murky, color relatively inaccurate, and the screen less than uniform. Its color isn't terrible, however, and there's nothing spectacularly wrong with the way it converts normal high-def content, like 1080i and 1080p, to fit the 4K pixel array. Yes, given 4K content it can look more detailed as long as you sit close enough, but conversely, at those close distances its imperfect video processing makes the best 1080p content look less detailed than on a 1080p TV. And at this point in time, nearly everybody will be watching 1080p content on the Seiki.

4K testing
I've divided my testing into two parts, with 4K and non-4K content, below. It's worth stressing that many of the problems I saw in non-4K content, for example in black level and uniformity, are visible with 4K sources as well.

The Seiki is the first 4K TV I've reviewed, and at this point actual 4K content is exceedingly rare. Aside from a few test patterns, I don't have any 4K video in my test arsenal. Seiki, to its credit, provided me a small server with three short 4K clips on it and a couple of high-resolution photos. Unfortunately, the video wasn't up to the standards I saw from Sony during another 4K hands-on, for example. Two of Seiki's clips, one the "Sintel" trailer and another a montage of clips from, didn't look much better than HD to my eye, and in some cases looked softer and noisier.

The third and best was a short clip of scenes from Tokyo, with a highly detailed cityscape and a shot of pedestrians on one of the city's many bustling crosswalks. Even this shot, however, didn't seem to pop with the same detail I remembered from the Sony material, and I saw some softness and compression artifacts when I got what I considered close enough to appreciate the extra resolution of 4K. I'd wager that the same clip in 1080p would look almost as good, and compared with superb 1080p like the "Samsara" Blu-ray, it was disappointing.

Of course content is everything, and I'm sure the Seiki playing good 4K content can look extremely detailed, as long as you sit close enough to appreciate the difference. According to my favorite calculator on the subject, assuming 20/20 vision you have to sit 3 feet, 8 inches away to get the full benefit of 4K from a TV of this size. To get a 1 percent or higher improvement in visible resolution compared with a normal 50-inch 1080p set, you have to sit 7 feet, 3 inches or closer to the Seiki. Of course that range of possible perceived benefit assumes the best-case scenario, of superb 4K material without much movement.

I was able to test some of the assumptions in the calculator because I do have a 4K resolution test pattern (supplied by Joel Silver of ISF). To see it I connected a Velocity Micro Edge Z55 PC, equipped with a high-end Nvidia GeForce GTX 680 video card, to the Seiki via HDMI and fired up the pattern. The TV resolved every line both horizontally and vertically, and showed no moire in the diagonal sections once I reduced the Sharpness control all the way. At about 3 feet away, however, the lines began blending together, and were impossible to distinguish at about 3 feet, 6 inches. That jibes with what I'd expect from the calculator -- I have 20/20 vision with my prescription lenses -- and proved you'll have to sit very close to this TV to notice any benefit from 4K.