Sky Q, HDR, 4K, Streaming: There's Never Been a Better Time to Own a TV

By Gerald Lynch on at

Video is everywhere. All the time. Playing. On. Now. In your phone, on your laptop, in fancy battery-powered greeting cards and on distracting motorway signage. What once was the reserve of the living room is now truly ubiquitous – that iconic, once-futuristic Blade Runner scene of the 100ft multi-screen geisha has not only become a reality, it's been surpassed in ways director Ridley Scott could never have dreamed of.

With this proliferation, saturation of always-available video content, you'd think that the humble TV would be crumbling. With the rise of YouTube and pocketable streaming devices, often slow-to-evolve TV standards can lead to predictions of television's demise. Kids want iPads. Kids want Minecraft. Television's days are numbered, right?

A recent study suggests that's not entirely the case – sure, kids are often getting their entertainment fix elsewhere, and the trend towards multiple device viewing continues to grow as the millennial generation comes into its own. But the Childwise survey of 2,000 six- to 16-year-olds shows that the TV is still the device of choice for the yoofs when it comes to watching anything longer than a Vine clip.

And why wouldn't it be? No matter what your age, there's never been a better time to own a TV.

For the first time in years, 2016 seems as though it's going to see a confluence of new TV hardware technologies, services and pricing that isn't purely aspirational.

Firstly, this month's big headline UK tech launch – Sky Q. We've already called it "the future of TV", and it's easy to see why. Not only will it offer 4K programming, but its user interface is among the slickest we've ever seen from a set-top box service. Sky seems to have thought of everything, from seamless multi-room viewing to the ability to watch local downloads on its mobile app, to even turning each set-top box into a Wi-Fi extender when paired with the latest Sky router. With pricing set to start at £42 a month, it's not even really an extravagant premium over the top of old man Sky+ HD.

Related: Sky Q Price, Release Date, 4K Features and More - Everything You Need to Know

Though its 4K set-up is less flashy, let's not forget that BT, with its BT Sport service and latest YouView boxes, already established its own 4K delivery service last year. And very impressive it was too – though it's limited currently to sports coverage, it was visually stunning and stable over a standard fibre optic connection. Contract 4K options are getting better all the time then.

And of course there are the "veteran" streaming services. It's insane to feel like I can legitimately call Netflix a veteran platform, having only launched in the UK back in 2012. But when phrases like "Netflix and chill" enter the common parlance, it no longer feels so outlandish. There's a good chance that, by this point, even your nan "gets" Netflix. With its 4K service growing all the time, and Amazon Instant Video ready to match it every step of the way, subscribers to the services may not even realise they've already got access to streams that are visually so super-sharp. Add on top of that free-for-all, 4K-supporting YouTube being built into every connected TV device worth its salt, catch-up platforms (iPlayer, All4 etc) of varying degrees of competence from the major UK broadcasters, a bevy of pay-per-view stores (from Google Play to iTunes) and good-enough broadband for most to be able to enjoy all of the above, and you begin to realise that we live in an age where basically any recorded show or film, EVER, can be watched whenever we like.

Stop and think about that. It's mad.

The argument still stands that most of these services and features could still be enjoyed, to some degree, on mobile or computing devices. But with prices of 4K screens dropping to very affordable prices with brands like Hisense and Finlux entering the budget UHD realm without scrimping on the features, you can get in on the "luxury" action without breaking the bank. And, depending on how far down the rabbit hole of home cinema tech you're willing to go, you can assemble an AV assault full of flashy screen and audio tech to make even the most cash-flushed MTV Cribs star blush.

We all knew that curved TVs were a stupid idea, but this year's "next big thing", High Dynamic Range (or HDR), is genuinely excellent. TV signal standards haven't changed since the days of the CRT, but when HDR streams and broadcasts kick off, they'll make greater use of current flat screen panel tech. Light sources in videos will look realistically blinding, making for richer images and greater definition in scenes where the contrast between lighter and darker elements are at their most pronounced. I got to take a look at Sony's 2016 flagship, the XD93 (pictured above), earlier this week, and it was phenomenal. Using a showcase demo reel of neon-lit Las Vegas, the gaudy colours looked startlingly bright and sinful, while darker corners retained detail in shadows that a non-HDR enabled TV could only dream of. It's as close to real life as a consumer TV image has ever looked, and when HDR content starts rolling out en masse later this year, there will be no looking back.

Related: What is HDR TV, and Should I Start Saving For It?

Amazon's video platform has already committed to HDR and Netflix is aiming to shoot more of its own originals using the advanced picture standard. 4K HDR streaming may have an advantage with a pre-existing install base, but it's with UHD Blu-ray discs that 4K and HDR enthusiasts will get the most bang for their buck, not having to lean on compressed web streams to get their fix. The first 4K Blu-ray players will land this year, and the initial wave of 4K Blu-ray discs is beginning to take shape. Though it's taken far too long, the UHD Alliance has finally settled on a standard for the discs, letting studios master their content without fear of alienating certain hardware.

TV sound has seen fewer advancements, admittedly – Sony announced that it will not be pursuing side-mounted speakers in its TV sets in the foreseeable future after some admirable experiments, and all other manufacturers are content to let soundbars or surround systems do the heavy lifting. But Dolby's immersive Atmos speakers are now available for the home, too, giving you a dome of sound in your living room. (It's worth noting that Dolby's also working on its Dolby Vision tech, which can be viewed as an alternative to HDR in that it too is deemed to improve picture quality using a different technique, though anecdotally it seems fewer TV manufacturers are immediately concerned with adopting it).

And that's before you consider the incredible lift in quality in TV shows over the past few years. While Hollywood will always play to its own tune, the TV industry is going through a mini revolution. What could be characterised as the "HBO Effect" has pulled TV programming up by its boot straps. Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, War and Peace, Making a Murderer, The Man in the High Castle, Orange is the New Black. Whether it's the pressure being applied by original content coming out of the newer streaming stables, or simply a new generation of writers and producers with more refined tastes, every studio is upping its game. There's a reason we're all binge-watching now.

Perhaps TV's day last days will come, and perhaps sooner than this love-letter would like you to believe. Virtual reality has the potential to not only present entertainment in a fantastically novel new way, but to incorporate social and interactive elements in the way that TV broadcasts have never really managed. Facebook doesn't start throwing money into something if it doesn't get its social juices flowing. And then there's always the shadow of the hologram or holodeck, sitting in the minds of dreamers and sci-fi fans, eternally.

But today, tonight, as you settle down on the living room sofa? Your TV's never looked healthier.