Skip to main content

The hidden costs of buying a 4K TV are way higher than you think

Toshiba 55-inch-class C350 series 4K smart Fire TV on a gray shelf and light gray background.

There’s never been a better time to buy a 4K TV. Prices have continued to drop even as screen sizes and smart TV features have continued to grow. But now that 4K TVs are priced within reach of almost anyone who wants one, are you actually going to be able to enjoy all of the extra detail and picture quality that 4K promises? The answer is, sadly, not as often as you expect, and not without some considerable extra investment over and above the cost of the TV.

Modern 4K TVs are packed with a lot of impressive technologies that can make picture quality look amazing, no matter what you’re watching. With upscaling driven by complex algorithms and often aided by AI, even watching an old DVD on a 4K TV will look way better than it did on an HDTV from 10 years ago. But to truly get the best possible results, you need access to native 4K content, preferably with some flavor of HDR, like Dolby Vision, HDR10, or HDR10+.

The good news is that virtually every streaming service can now offer you a variety of TV shows and movies in 4K HDR, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Max, Disney+, Apple TV+ — the list goes on. The bad news is that we’re beginning to see these services charge extra if you want to watch at 4K resolution.

Technically, Netflix has always done this. The only way to Netflix and chill at 4K/HDR/Dolby Atmos is to sign up for the company’s most-expensive Premium plan at a not-so-chill $23 per month. Max (the service formerly known as HBO Max) used to include 4K/Dolby Atmos streams in its $16 per month Ad-Free tier. But as of December 5, 2023, those subscribers will have to pay $20 per month for the service’s Ultimate Ad-Free plan if they want to maintain access to this higher-quality content. YouTube TV charges $10 per month on top of its regular subscription price if you want to access its 4K content, while Paramount+ requires you to buy its Paramount+ with Showtime plan (at double the cost of its standard plan) if you want 4K, HDR, and Dolby Atmos.

It’s true that so far, this pay-to-play strategy has only taken hold at four major VOD streaming services, but it’s worth keeping in mind that between Netflix and Max alone, we’re talking about a combined 348 million subscriptions worldwide. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the cost of accessing 4K content is actually just one part of the equation. You’ll also need an internet connection capable of streaming all of that extra resolution.

We’re still trying to figure out why, but each streaming service has its own ideas about how much speed you’ll need. On the low end, Netflix says 15 Mbps will work, however Disney, Apple, Paramount, and Google all require 25 Mbps — and Max wants you to have at least 50 Mbps.

That bandwidth can be surprisingly difficult to come by. “While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) claims that most Americans have access to a connection of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload,” Tyler Cooper, editor-in-chief of BroadbandNow told Digital Trends, “we’ve found those claims to be overstated. In [our] most recent audit, we found that 42 million Americans do not have access to a connection meeting that 25 Mbps threshold.”

If you’re fortunate enough to be among the group of Americans who live in an area that is serviced by some version of high-speed internet, you probably have all the bandwidth you need. 88% of those of us who have access to high-speed broadband are subscribed to speeds higher than 200 Mbps, according to Cooper.

And, yet, that service doesn’t come cheap. You’re likely paying about $50 per month for 25 Mbps service, according to a survey by Forbes. But given that this speed is the minimum for a single 4K stream, you’re probably subscribed to a much faster package. The same survey showed that the average price for 1,000 Mbps — otherwise known as gigabit — is $90 per month.

At one point in time, it looked like free, over-the-air TV broadcasts might be the solution for folks looking to get 4K for a reasonable price. ATSC 3.0 otherwise known as NextGen TV, has been touting its technical benefits for years, including pristine quality 4K resolution, HDR, and advanced surround sound. But ATSC 3.0’s rollout has so far been a total letdown as far as picture quality is concerned.

Of the 121 stations currently broadcasting using the ATSC 3.0 format, none are broadcasting in 4K and there doesn’t appear to be a timeline in place for that to change.

There’s no question, it’s a great time to buy a 4K TV. Just make sure you set aside some money to pay for some 4K content, or you may not get the picture quality improvements you thought you were paying for.

Editors' Recommendations

Simon Cohen
Contributing Editor, A/V
Simon Cohen covers a variety of consumer technologies, but has a special interest in audio and video products, like…
Why aren’t sports in 4K and HDR? It’s harder than you think
Fox Sports Camera

I don’t know if we can pinpoint a moment at which 4K content became normalized -- it sort of snuck up on us -- but today 4K and 4K HDR content is not hard to come by. Netflix, Amazon, Disney +, HBO Max – they all have it, and plenty of it. So we’re starting to get used to it. We’re hungry for 4K and we expect it on our plate. This has a lot of folks wondering: Why is it so hard to get sports in 4K?

Three years ago, I was fortunate enough to fly down to Florida to go behind the scenes with Fox Sports as it delivered the first-ever 4K HDR Super Bowl broadcast. Not only did I get to watch the Fox team do its live daytime broadcasts from South Beach, but I also got to go to roam around Hard Rock Stadium, where I had totally unfettered access to the stadium and all the cameras in it – as well as a massive broadcast compound. I got to go in every production truck, I saw every step of the production, from the cameras to the outbound feeds, and I got every question I asked answered by some of the top video production pros in the business. I learned so much while I was there.

Read more
Samsung shows off the first two 77-inch QD-OLED 4K TVs at CES 2023
Samsung S95C QD-OLED 4K TV.

Samsung was the first company to show off a 4K TV based on QD-OLED technology at CES 2022, and now, at CES 2023 it has unveiled two new QD-OLED models -- the S95C Samsung OLED and S90C Samsung OLED -- and each will be available as 77-inch models. Both will also be offered in 55- and 65-inch sizes.  The news came one day after Samsung Display confirmed it would show its next-gen "QD-OLED 2023" panel at the show in a 77-inch size.

When QD-OLED-based TVs debuted in 2022, Samsung and Sony revealed the first two 4K TVs models within hours of each other: the Samsung S95B and the Sony A95K. Both TVs proved to be absolutely stunning in terms of picture quality, leaving our reviewer no choice but to award them a rare 10/10 rating. But the TVs themselves weren't especially large; only 55- and 65-inch sizes were introduced.

Read more
YouTube TV did 4K sports right — so maybe it’s time to cancel it
World Cup in 4K on YouTube TV.

Let us stipulate a few things: When it comes to video, higher resolution is better. Sure, there are diminishing returns — I wouldn't go out and buy an 8K television just yet. But going from 720p to 1080p is a huge leap in quality. Maybe a little less so when you go from 1080p to 4K, but that's also very much going to depend on your circumstances — television size, what room you're in, etc.

And one more stipulation: 4K for World Cup 2022 was pretty much a necessity. If you've ever watched live sports in 4K, you probably already knew that. FuboTV has had some live sports for years now, and YouTube TV — which is the most popular live service in the U.S., and more than five times larger than FuboTV with more than 5 million subscribers at last count — has had it as an option since the summer of 2021. You also could watch in 4K via the Fox Sports app, provided that you already had a subscription to a cable, satellite, or streaming service.

Read more