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4K TVs are ranging in size and growing more affordable all the time. The LG 49UB8500 (MSRP $1699) is a prime example: This 4K LED TV is only a couple hundred dollars more than a comparable non-4K option, and delivers great extras like 3D and LG's new webOS smart platform.
At first glance, the price might grab you, but be warned: This TV will never be king of the home theater. While it dazzles with excellent color and adept motion performance, the black levels are extremely lackluster, making the UB8500 a poor candidate for dark-room movie night.
If you tend to watch TV in sunnier environments, however, you'll thoroughly enjoy the UB8500's rich colors and bright, flashy design—it all depends on your room's lighting conditions. Just know that, unlike many TVs, the UB8500 only operates optimally in a brighter locale. If you're a fan of the vaunted home-theater environment, you might want to check out other options.
4K televisions like the UB8500 have four times the pixels of their Full HD (1080p) compatriots, but that doesn't give them a pass to skimp on basic picture-quality requirements. This 49-inch LG is a mixed bag in terms of performance, and lacks flexibility when it comes to watching in a range of settings, meaning dark, dim, and bright rooms.
To illustrate, time in the lab revealed a number of drawbacks: The TV's poor black level makes shadowy areas look grayish and washed out, especially if you're watching in the dark. This inability to reign in its excessive luminance also causes problems in terms of shadow details. Transitions between black tones and the darkest grays are glossed over, making valuable details (like the subtle folds in a wrinkled black shirt) difficult to appreciate. Ultimately, the TV works best when producing a lot of luminance, making it less than ideal for family movie night.
If you prefer to watch in a well-lit room, though, with the sun shining in, you'll be pleased with the UB8500's performance. In Cinema mode, it's set up for optimal viewing in brighter environments, and the somewhat poor contrast is bolstered by the LED Local Dimming software. This software automatically darkens and brightens areas onscreen as content requires. In a dark room, eagle-eyed viewers will notice the dimming flicker in real time—but in brighter environments, the poor black levels won't look as obvious, and the dimming software works much more effectively and subtly.
Fortunately, in terms of color production, the UB8500 is spot-on. I measured against the international standards for HDTV color, and found practically no flaws. Everything from ripe, red apples, to glittering blue water, to crisp green leaves appears vivid and rich. You'll be able to appreciate this color-rich picture from a variety of places, too, as testing revealed that the UB8500 has a higher-than-average viewing angle, likely thanks to LG's use of IPS (in-plane switching) LCD panels.
Last but not least, fans of action movies and sports will relish this TV's ability to handle fast-paced motion. The panel's 120Hz refresh rate processes images hundreds of times per second, meaning all but the most ferocious flurries remain blur-free.
Lastly, if you're a gamer concerned about input lag resulting from upscaling your games, fear not. The Game mode pre-set does a great job keeping input lag to a minimum, even when upscaling from older consoles: We played a Nintendo Wii for a few days, and found very little input lag.
If your goal is to purchase and enjoy an affordable 4K display, the 49-inch UB8500 is a great option, if only because it avoids unnecessary embellishment. It isn't curved, for example, and it doesn't burden itself with fancy frills like a top-mounted camera. The UB8500 is an edge-lit LED TV, so the panel is as light and thin as any modern display.
All this to say that the UB8500 is refreshingly minimalist compared to much of the 2014 4K TV crop—a fact that's reflected in the price. The slim panel is complemented by a hollow, curved-metal stand with wide-set feet. Other than the LG insignia that unfortunately protrudes from the lower bezel, the TV is entirely free from decoration.
Utility elements like video connections and control buttons hide along the back of the panel. The rear casing is made of standard, nondescript plastic of the charcoal variety. Here, you'll find a healthy selection of video/audio ports, including a somewhat techy variety of HDMI inputs. Side-facing ports include one USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0 inputs, as well as the four HDMI ports: one for HDCP 2.2 (a native 4K standard), one for ARC (audio return channel functionality), one for access to 10-bit color depth, and one for MHL (Micro High-Definition Link).
More traditional connectors cluster together in a nearby recessed area. Roll call for this little port party includes shared component/composite inputs, digital (optical) audio out, LAN (ethernet) in, an RS-232 control port, and a coaxial jack for cable/antenna connections. Lastly, LG also includes splitter cables for the component/composite inputs, two pairs of 3D glasses, and this year's Magic Remote, the company's signature motion-based controller.
Early this year, LG unveiled a new-and-improved smart TV interface, one that the company salvaged from HP's defunct webOS mobile platform. The move triggered some serious hype. I've spent plenty of time with webOS at this point, but my enthusiasm for its great content layout and snappy functionality hasn't waned.
The webOS platform stands apart from most other smart offerings because it works more like your smartphone OS: You can run multiple programs simultaneously, which is more miraculous than it sounds. The ability to multitask makes hopping from Netflix, to live TV, to Hulu feel almost like a simple channel change; that's because exiting an app doesn't shut it down, meaning you don't need to reboot that app when you return to it. When you boot up the UB8500 and get connected to the internet, you'll find heaps of popular apps—Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant. The Magic Remote pairs very well with the TV's browser, too, which makes surfing the web a more palatable experience.
On the other hand, operating the TV's menu software can be very frustrating. While the Magic Remote and webOS seem made for each other, the Picture and Audio menus are tougher to operate. Snapping the white balance controls from the left side to the bottom fifth of the screen is great if you're calibrating the TV, but adjusting basics like Backlight or Tint while constantly switching between disparate positions onscreen is likely to elicit frustrated groans from most users.
If you are one of those D.I.Y. calibrators or picture purists, you'll be glad to know that the UB8500 still offers users the full suite of calibration controls we've come to expect from LG. A full CMS (Color Management System), 2- and 10-point white balance, color gamut options, and a gamma pre-set selector make it possible to fine-tune this TV. Unfortunately, as I said above, the TV struggles to meet home-theater standards—something that even calibration can't solve, in this case.
The LG 49UB8500 (MSRP $1,699) might be a solid choice for viewers who want in on the 4K craze, but only if they tend to watch in brighter settings. The TV certainly impresses with its sleek design, snappy smart platform, terrific viewing angle, and fluid motion, but it's disappointing that this otherwise great 4K TV struggles with basic picture-quality elements like black level and preservation of subtle shadow details.
At the end of the day, part of what makes this LG a less-than-perfect pick is the competition. For a few hundred dollars more, you could secure Sony's same-sized X850B, a 4K TV that's smart and 3D, but boasts better overall performance than this LG. While LG's webOS platform puts that model's smart features to shame, we highly doubt most people will choose smart functionality over picture quality—making the 49UB8500 a tough sell, even with its current sale prices of $1,499.
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