Cutting the Cord: Smart TVs can be the ticket to 4K

USA TODAY 8:59 a.m.

Samsung’s 78-inch Ultra HD TV.(Photo: Samsung)

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Cord cutters may lead the way to 4K.

Broadband homes that use Net-delivered video services such as Netflix and Amazon rather than traditional pay-TV services could help drive consumer acceptance of the higher-definition content format, several trends suggest.

That’s because Netflix and other streaming services are leading the way in delivering 4K video. Also known as Ultra High Definition, it has four times the resolution of current HD.

And "smart" Ultra HD 4K TVs from LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Sony and Vizio are the first to let you stream 4K content directly from Netflix, which has movies such as Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon, TV series such as Breaking Bad and The Blacklist, and some stunning nature documentaries.

Samsung sets can also stream pay-per-view movies like Sin City: A Dame to Kill For on the DreamWorks Animation and Technicolor-owned Net video service M-Go and deliver them from DirecTV. Other TV makers and video services plan to expand their 4K efforts, too; Samsung and Sony also have hard drives that store 4K movies.

This combination of smart TV and 4K could explode this holiday season because lower prices are bringing smaller 4K sets down to $1,000 or less — and larger 4K displays have big discounts, too.

These holiday deals could help the number of Ultra HD 4K sets purchased in the U.S. surpass the 1 million mark by year’s end. Growth in the installed base could, in turn, lead to more content and more consumers, and so on.

Those in the market for a new smart TV might want to consider a 4K model to future-proof their purchase.

I’ve spent some time test-driving Samsung’s 78-inch curved smart UHD set, which is currently priced at $6,999.99. That’s a hefty price tag — you can find many smaller models for $2,000 and less — but this impressive set could serve as a true home theater centerpiece.

For starters, all the stuff you watch now — live TV, DVR’d shows, Blu-ray discs and DVDs — is converted to look better on the display. (All Ultra HD sets that I have come across do this, too.)

Video games such as Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Dragon Age: Inquisition really pop. And the slightly curved display does seem to immerse you into the action.

The Samsung 78-inch Curved 4K UHD TV with M-Go 4K movie menu on-screen.(Photo: Mike Snider, USA TODAY)

But with true 4K content, the set really struts its stuff. The increased resolution is evident when watching Netflix’s House of Cards. You may find yourself rewinding the show’s sightseeing introduction to re-watch the monuments and skyscapes of the nation’s capital. I did get some fluttering in video during Crouching Tiger‘s iconic bamboo tree-top scene, but it didn’t detract measurably from my viewing.

The hyper-realism of Frank Miller’s graphic novels brought to life in the Sin City sequel was striking when I rented the film for $6.99 on M-Go.

Samsung sent along a hard drive packed with several films and the image quality on The Counselor and World War Z was pristine.

The upgrade from 4K to HD is not the dramatic night-and-day difference between HDTV and original analog TV. But you can see it and you will likely want to upgrade at some point.

And the smart TV lets you do a lot of other things, too, beyond using apps on-screen. In the case of this Samsung model, I can get relevant tweets while watching prime-time TV or sports, and can use a split-screen to search the Web while watching live TV.

Smart TVs will drive 4K adoption until companies such as Amazon, Apple and Roku begin adding the higher-res feature to their Net devices, Joel Espelien of the Diffusion Group said in a recent 4K forecast. "It will be a niche market for at least another five years," he says, "with widespread viewing of 4K content arriving in 2019 and growing quickly beyond."

Eventually, broadcasters are expected to deliver 4K content and pay-TV providers will update their set-top boxes to be 4K-compatible

Until then, cord cutters can ride the early adopter wave, if they wish.

"Cutting the Cord" is a regular column covering Net TV and ways to get it. If you have suggestions or questions, contact Mike Snider via e-mail. And follow him on Twitter: @MikeSnider.

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