Updated July 2020
So, you have invested in a 4K TV to recreate the movie theater experience at home. But, while having the right TV is an important starting point, it is only one piece of the puzzle.
Gone are the days when we put the latest Blu-ray into the player. Today, the vast majority of us stream our entertainment content. Streaming 4K content direct to your TV is currently more complicated than it sounds (and I think more complicated than it should be in 2020).
In addition to your television, if it is not a smart TV, you will need a TV box that is capable of processing and displaying 4K content. You also need a streaming service that provides 4K content. While your TV has some smart upscaling features that will make lower resolution 720p or 1080p content look better, it doesn’t compare to true 4K.
You probably paid quite a hefty sum for that TV, so you want to get the most out of it!
In this article, I will go through everything you need to know in order to stream 4K content the right way. I’ll explain some of the jargon and explain what the system requirements are to stream in 4K. I’ll also point you to where you can find 4K content worth streaming, and also talk about the kind of WiFi you will need to pull it off successfully!
Also Read: Best Streaming services for android TV
A 4K TV will only get you one part of that “movie theater experience.”
4K Features: What Do They Mean?
First, let’s get some basic vocabulary out of the way. Televisions have a lot of terminology that can trip you up, so let’s make sure we’re all on the same starting page.
UHD vs 4K: What’s The Difference?
Chalk this one up to “marketing hype.”
In practice, 4K and Ultra-High Definition (UHD) are the same thing. Both refer to a resolution of about 4000 x 2160. The “about” is the key point in that sentence.
At the risk of being too specific, true 4K resolution is a movie industry standard that uses a resolution of 4096 x 2160 and a 1.9:1 aspect ratio. In contrast, UHD is a television standard that uses a resolution of 3840 x 2160. For more details, check out Planar.com’s article on the topic.
Here’s why I call it marketing hype: Most television manufacturers will use the terms interchangeably—even those that are part of the UHD Alliance who came up with the standard.
What this means for you is that you can essentially ignore the difference between UHD and 4K when shopping for your next 4K TV.
How Many Pixels Are In 4K?
No matter what you call it, 4K TV is all about the resolution.
8 MILLION PIXELS of resolution.
That’s about four times as many as your 1080p TV had. That means you can get closer to the TV and still see that amazing picture you paid for.
You know those video loops that look so great in the store? They’re always showing close-up shots of food or flowers. The resolution of 4K TVs lets you get closer to the image and still see a stunning level of detail.
Don’t believe me? The next time you go to your local tech store, take a look at the difference between a 1080p TV running their video loop and the 4K video loop running on the latest TVs. You’ll see a lot more close-up shots on the 4K video loop and a lot more wide-angle, long-shot images on the 1080p loop.
If you want to be closer to the action, you need higher resolution.
What Is HDCP?
You’ll hear a lot of acronyms thrown about. We’re going to talk about two of them right now: HDCP and HDR.
It’s important that you understand both of them because they’re a big deal.
High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) is a form of digital copy protection developed by Intel to help prevent piracy. As I’m writing this, the current standard for HDCP is HDCP 2.2.
The important thing to remember about HDCP is that if one device in your system uses it, then every link in your system has to be compliant with that standard.
This is an especially big deal for those of you using the Amazon Fire TV. You’re going to need to be careful about which devices you hook up to it, otherwise they just won’t work.
What Is 4K HDR?
If you take away only one thing from this post, make it this: If 4K gives you more pixels on your TV screen, HDR makes all of those pixels look better.
Have you ever been watching a movie where the hero is walking through a dimly lit cave and all the details are lost in a sea of black? How about when you’re supposed to be seeing candlelight flickering, but you end up with more lens-flare than a J.J. Abrams movie?
In a nutshell, HDR affects the contrast levels of the picture to get a better balance between light and dark. You don’t get just an enhanced contrast level like you would if you simply jack up the settings on your TV. You get multiple levels of contrast, which reveals a whole new level of detail in the images.
4K Frames Per Second
One of the most overlooked things on the spec sheet is how many frames per second the device can run 4K video.
Think back to the old movies. No, I mean the REALLY OLD movies—the black-and-white, silent films when the industry was just getting started.
Remember how jerky the motion was? You could tell the film was made up of still images hobbled together to give the illusion of movement, but they had a long way to go. They were shot at anywhere between 12 to 40 frames per second.
When you see that many devices will display 60 4K frames per second, those old movies seem pitiful. But are they really?
100fps has a great synopsis of the differences between refresh rate, frame rate, and how they both affect the human eye. It’s pretty technical, so there’s your advance warning. The human eye only needs about 24 frames per second to see motion as “fluid.”
Basically, if you’re going to be specifically looking for the minute details in the image, the higher the frame rate, the better. Think about those cool nature videos or tourist videos for planning your next vacation. If you’re watching a movie, you’re able to get by with a lower frame rate as long as you can still see it as fluid motion.
The short answer to that long discussion is that, depending on what you’re watching, the maximum frame rate of the best streaming devices may not matter much.
Better Sound From 4K Audio
They call it a home theatre for a reason.
Imagine if you went to the movies and sitting next to that huge screen was a pair of little bookshelf speakers. I’m going to bet that even Rogue One would be a disappointment.
I’m just going to come out and say it: Any self-respecting person should have at least a soundbar hooked up to their streaming device and TV. If you want to go all out and get a home theatre receiver, tower speakers, or in-wall speakers, then go for it.
But a soundbar and subwoofer are the bare minimum.
Think about it this way: Almost every major TV manufacturer also makes home theatre speakers. Why? Because it’s an easy way to get that movie theatre experience right in your living room.
What About Your TV Box?
If you have a 4K TV, there is a very good chance it’s a smart TV and you can connect streaming services directly to it. But, if your 4K TV is not a smart device for some reason, or you choose to use a TV box with your smart TV because of the other features it enables, your TV box will also need to be 4K compatible and ready.
If you stream via a TV box, your content is being processed by that TV box before it hits your screen. If the box does not have the capacity to process 4K, that definition will not hit your TV, despite the fact it is 4K compatible.
So, if you do get a TV box for your 4K TV, make sure it matches your TV in terms of 4K image and audio capabilities.
You can find some of the best Android TV boxes currently available in our 2020 review list. Our top picks for 4K streaming are:
- It has high-end 4K specs so you can stream 4K content to your snazzy 4K TV if you have one. It is also Widevine certified, which is essential for accessing 4K content on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
- It has lots of storage for all your content and a powerful processing unit, which means that load times are lightning-fast and waiting is negligible.
- The interface is slick and intuitive, and even includes Google Voice Search.
- Brand new in 2020, this box supports both 4K and 6K resolution, and it even supports 3D.
- It has 32 GB of storage plus an SD card slot (missing from many new models) and fast USB transfer, so there is plenty of space for all your media.
- It comes with the latest version of Kodi already installed, and is all set up to access 4K options on Netflix and Amazon Prime.
- Redesigned by this PC gaming graphics powerhouse for 2020, this powerful machine comes with a high-end Tegra Xi CPU, 3GB or RAM, and a graphics processor with 256 cores.
- It plays 4K with crystal precision and it will unlock 4K content on Netflix and Amazon Prime for you (you need a device that they recognize as 4K compatible).
- It is a Kodi Diamond Sponsor, so is always ahead with Kodi updates, and it supports voice search using Google Now.
Don’t forget that you will need a 4K compatible HDMI cable to make the whole setup work. Nothing worse than setting yourself up and finding you are missing that essential piece. Sadly, they do not always come as standard with your TV box.
Is 4K Content Available?
Yes, but I’ll be the first to admit that 4K streaming content is pretty limited.
That’s because content providers—you know, the television stations and producers—experienced the same sticker shock that consumers did when the industry tried to roll out the 4K standard.
“But we just upgraded everything to HD a few years ago…”
If you think a good 4K TV is expensive, try outfitting entire film crews with 4K cameras.
Still, some of the best streaming services will have 4K content available—usually at a premium. Here are some of my favorites:
4K Movies On Netflix
If you’re a fan of Netflix‘s original content, you’ll want to get the upgraded subscription that enables 4K streaming. Most of their shows are shot in 4K HDR, so you’ll be able to binge-watch Casa de Papel and The WItcher in all their glory.
A side benefit of Netflix’s 4K subscription level is that it also lets you stream content simultaneously to four devices.
One of the first things I binge-watched when I got my new 4K HDR Sony television was The Grand Tour on Amazon Prime Video. There’s nothing quite like million-dollar cars in stunning detail.
There’s more 4K content available on Amazon Prime Video, though. Like Netflix, most of their original content is shot in 4K HDR. If you’re already a Prime member, you’ve got access to their streaming video service as part of your subscription. If not, Amazon is offering a 30-day free trial.
YouTube 4K Video
YouTube has a growing library of amateur and professionally produced 4K streaming content. Actually, they’ve been hosting 4K content since 2014.
Best of all … it’s free.
It’s up to the individual content creators whether they shoot their videos in 4K or not. But with the cost of 4K-capable cameras and camcorders coming down, more and more YouTube creators are taking the plunge.
Ultraflix has both free and paid content available to stream in 4K. That makes it worth a look, even if you just want a quick demo to see how good your 4K TV looks.
Currently, there are more than 100 hours of free 4K content and 600 hours of paid 4K content available.
One word of caution though: According to their FAQ section, all content is only available in stereo sound.
Vudu is one of the best movie rental services I’ve found. If I just can’t wait until the Blu-ray comes out or the show I want to watch hits Netflix’s catalog, it’s nice to know there are still rental options.
Because Wal-Mart owns VUDU, you might see cheaper prices here than on some of the other services on this list. Movies are generally between $3.99 and $5.99 to rent, and there are options for SD and HD in addition to 4K. Keep in mind, this is a movie rental service, not a streaming service like Netflix or Hulu.
While we were very disappointed when Hulu pulled all of its 4K content back in 2018, it has started to rebuild its library for users to enjoy.
It does have relatively limited compatibility; you will need to be watching on Apple TV 4K, Chromecast Ultra, Amazon Fire TV, LG TV, or Xbox in order to unlock the fast growing content library. But it is available with all standard subscriptions, which start at $6 per month.
Disney+ has the advantage of being a relatively new streaming service, so they are not struggling with upgrading compatibility. They already have more than 600 movies and shows available in 4K.
Pretty much all the new films and shows are available in 4K, and all are part of the standard subscription fee, which is just $6 per month.
Not So Fast: What About 4K Streaming Bandwidth?
Here’s the bad news.
4K streaming takes up a lot of bandwidth.
Chances are pretty good it’ll max out your Internet speeds unless you’ve got an upgraded plan through your provider.
Requirements vary depending on the service, but expect to be using around 15 Mbps for each 4K stream you’re playing.
For example: I have a 60 Mbps connection into my home, which has been tested at just above 50 Mbps on all of my devices. Because there are a lot of devices in my home competing for that bandwidth, I take another 10 Mbps off the top, assuming that something is going to be using it at any given moment.
That meansI can safely stream 4K video to two of my televisions, but the third would probably hit my cap and slow things down for everyone.
You don’t need the math to be exact here. Ballpark figures are usually good enough, but you’ll definitely want to think about that before you start trying 4K streaming to all your devices.
FAQs About 4K TV Streaming
How Do I Stream 4K?
In order to stream 4K movies or shows, you need both a 4K TV and access to a streaming service that makes 4K available. You can currently find some nice 4K content on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Youtube. You will also need sufficient WiFi to enable the transfer of the content. You will need at least 15 MBps of available bandwidth when streaming in 4K.
Which Streaming Service Is Best For 4K?
Most of the major streaming services now offer at least some of the content in 4K, though you may need to pay a premium to stream this content. If you are looking for the big-name movies and latest shows, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video both offer 4K streaming content, and all of their original shows are filmed in 4K.
If you want some free 4K content to experiment with your set up, try YouTube 4K video and Ultraflix 4K. Both have a selection of 4K content that can be streamed for free.
How Do I Know If I’m Streaming 4K?
If you want to check to find out if what your TV is showing you is 4K, most 4K TVs have a button on the remote that allows you to see the resolution your TV is currently displaying. If it is higher than 3840 x 2160, then you are successfully streaming in 4K.
Is Netflix True 4K?
Whether what you are watching on Netflix is true 4K depends on … well, what you are watching. Your 4K TV has a lot of smart processes in the background that lets it improve the quality of lower resolution content so it looks better, but this is not true 4K. For true 4K, the content needs to have been both filmed and mastered in 4K.
Netflix’s original content is now filmed in 4K. But if you are watching older content, or content created by other studios, the content you are watching may have been upscaled rather than being true 4K.
Is Ultra HD The Same As 4K?
While Ultra HD and 4K are very similar, they are not exactly the same. 4K is the film industry standard for high definition and is 4096 x 2160 pixels in resolution. Ultra HD is a television standard which is 3840 x 2160 pixels. But when you are watching, this will make no difference at all.
Do I Need 4K HDMI Cable?
There is some debate over whether a 4K HDMI cable makes a difference when connecting your Blu-ray player or streaming device to your 4K TV. You will certainly still get a good quality picture using a standard high-speed HDMI cable, as it can transfer 4K. But, if you want all the juice your 4K setup has to offer, it is worth investing in the 4K HDMI cable.
Standard high-speed HDMI cables only have a HDR range of up to 30 Hz, while a 4K HDMI cable has a HDR range of up to 60 Hz. HDR manages contrast levels to ensure the image you are seeing is always optimized for light. So you will get better image quality with a 4K HDMI cable.
How Do I Watch 4K On Amazon Prime?
You can watch 4K videos on Amazon Prime Video if you are using the Android Amazon Prime Video app, which is available on all Amazon Fire TV devices and Android TV boxes via the Google Play Store. Access to 4K content is included in your standard Amazon Prime subscription, so it’s just a matter of browsing the content that is available in 4K and then streaming it through the app.
How Does 1080p Look On 4K TV?
Most 4K TVs have the ability to upscale 1080p videos to improve picture quality. How well this is done depends on both the original quality of the video and how your TV goes about upscaling. While detailed nature documentaries might be a disappointment, most standard movies shot in 1080p will look very good on a 4K TV.
How Do I Activate 4K On Netflix?
In order to get access to 4K content on Netflix, you will need a platinum account, which costs $1100 per month. If you have this subscription and are on a device that supports 4K, you will see an “Ultra HD” symbol on content that is available in 4K while browsing. You can also choose Ultra HD as a filter when searching Netflix.
Just purchasing a 4K TV will not immediately upgrade your home theater to a cinema experience, though it is a serious step in the right direction. You do need to ensure your whole system is set up for 4K. This means making sure your TV box also supports 4K and investing in a decent sound system that can deliver 4K audio, among other things.
But, on top of this, you also need content created in 4K, and if you are a streamer, that means finding streaming services that offer 4K content.
Both Netflix and Amazon Prime offer quite a bit of 4K content, and all of their new original content is shot in 4K.
Should you rush out and buy a 4K TV today? Maybe not. The content currently available to stream in 4K is relatively limited, and we should see an increasing number of 8K TVs hitting stores over the next two years. If your TV is still new, it might be worth waiting.
What do you think? Is 4K streaming here to stay, or is it just another expensive upgrade? Leave a comment below!