A show attendee looks at Sony's 4K Ultra HD TV at the Sony booth at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013.
Is it worth paying for extra pixels when you can't put them to good use?
The 4K Ultra HD format is designed to be the successor to 1080p Full HD, cramming in four times as many pixels on the screen as a Blu-ray movie. To do a 4K movie justice you need to invest in a new 4K television, although so far only a handful have hit the Australian shelves.
These new 4K televisions are still expensive, as you'd expect, but the problem is there's nothing for Australians to watch in 4K. The industry hasn't even agreed as to how it's going to deliver 4K movies, considering we're talking about file sizes of 100GB or so. Right now in Australia there are no 4K movies on disc, no 4K television broadcasts and no 4K streaming movies services.
The Ultra HD TCL 65-inch television.
This of course begs the question; why would I spend top dollar on a new 4K TV when there's nothing to watch in 4K? Sony gets around the problem by bundling a special 4K media player with its televisions, pre-loaded with a handful of Ultra HD movies like Spiderman and Ghostbusters. As far as I know it's the only Australian television vendor which supplies any 4K movies with its televisions.
In the US Sony has recently launched a 4K online rental service offering around 100 movies, but there's no word as to when we might see it in Australia. Even if we did, few homes would have the download speeds to make it practical. You'll also find a few "Mastered in 4K” Blu-ray discs, which are still 1080p but optimised to look a little better on a 4K screen.
This brings us to TCL's giant E6591 65-inch, 2160p 4K Ultra HD television, with the relatively low price tag of $4999. When it was announced a few months ago it was the first Australian 4K television to cost less than $5000. Others have since snuck under the $5K mark – like the new 55-inch offerings from Sony, Samsung and LG – but it looks like this 65-inch TCL monster currently offers Australia's best bang for your buck in terms of 4K screen real estate.
So how do you test a 4K television when there's nothing to watch on it? TCL also loaned me a 4K player designed for in-store demonstrations. Unfortunately it only came with two short 4K clips, so I downloaded a few more. The results were certainly impressive, especially when it came to the tiny details such as individual strands in bird feathers. But I wouldn't say the picture is breathtaking. It's not as impressive as the jump from 576p to 1080p. I think there's a law of diminishing returns when it comes to picture resolution. Every time you double the pixel count it's less of a noticeable jump in quality than the time before – but you're expected to pay top dollar if you're an early adopter.
Of course you can only entertain yourself with two-minute Ultra HD nature clips for so long. Eventually you'll want to watch a movie or TV show and that's going to mean dropping to a lower resolution and upscaling the content to fit that 2160p screen. This is the real test of a television – not what it does with a perfect picture in its native resolution but how it copes when playing lower-res content. If you buy this television today, practically everything you watch for the next few years will be upscaled from 1080p if not lower.
The trouble with upscaling is that it takes an educated guess where to include that extra detail. You're at the mercy of the television's video processing capabilities, and in this department you generally get what you pay for.
The TCL can hold its head high when it comes to upscaling 1080p, handling Blu-ray movies well with smooth action and vivid colours. Unfortunately the deep blacks and contrast fall a little short of the high-end Sony and Samsung LED TVs I've looked at this year. You might consider disabling the overly aggressive dynamic contrast, which is very distracting as it continually adjusts the picture.
As with most high-end LED televisions, you'll also want to disable the TCL's intrusive Motion Control which can make the picture look fake – known as the "soap opera" effect". The television also handles 3D Blu-ray movies admirably, although I did notice the occasional spot of ghosting when wearing the supplied active 3D glasses.
Unfortunately when you switch to video content lower than 1080p the TCL starts to struggle because it has to upscale the content so far to fill that giant 2160p, 65-inch screen. The Motion Control distorts standard-def content terribly, not just creating the "soap opera" effect but also warping the picture. The fact that it's enabled out of the box is going to make a bad first impression on people who don't understand what's causing the problem and how to disable it.
Even once you deal with this, upscaled digital television and DVDs can still look a little pixelated and murky at times, regardless of whether or not your player is applying upscaling before it hands it over to the television.
Some people might argue that they never watch anything in less than 1080p, but the fact is that most people do and will continue to do so for several years. Australia's television networks seem in no rush to screen HD content. What is broadcast in HD is terribly compressed, something which really stands out on a large television.
Of course you're asking a lot when upscaling SD and HD content to Ultra HD on a 65-inch screen. To be honest I think this size is overkill for most lounge rooms and you'll get better results if you stay under 60 inches. No one expects upscaled content to look pixel perfect, but I've seen other more expensive brands do a better job than this TCL.
That's the compromise you're making if you spend less than $5000 on this 65-inch, 2160p television today. If you have an eye for detail you're likely to notice that this TCL can't stand toe-to-toe with its more expensive rivals.
Whether or not you have an eye for detail, right now there seems little point in buying a 4K television of any brand. By the time there's actually something worth watching in 4K you can bet that 4K televisions will be much cheaper. At this point you'll either save money or be able to put those savings towards a premium brand with better video processing. Today you're paying top dollar to be a 4K early adopter when there's nothing to actually adopt yet.
At this stage I think the kinds of viewers who are in a rush to embrace 4K will also be the kinds of viewers who have an eye for picture quality. Bigger isn't always better and you should certainly compare this TCL to its rivals before you hand over your money.