About a decade ago, manufacturers started to sell what’s now widely known as an HDTV. These advanced televisions boasted resolutions of 1280×720 or even 1920×1080, with picture clarity far beyond what was previously possible. These high-resolution sets also made major progress in color accuracy and contrast. We’ve come a long way in the last ten years.
But now HD is old news, so the industry has decided to push another new technology; Ultra HD, also known as 4K HD. This new format, which offers a resolution of 3840×2160 (yes, the term “4K HD” is technically an exaggeration), has so far been reserved to super-high-end TVs, but some companies are starting to offer the technology for less than $2,000. So is the improved resolution a noticeable improvement, or just a marketing trick?
Ultra HD Isn’t Obvious, But Can Be Noticeably Better
A 1080p display contains a staggering 2,073,600 pixels, but 4K makes that look positively medieval with its staggering pixel count of 8,294,400. Yep, that’s right; these new 4K sets contain almost four times as many pixels as the best “HD” television.
One might think that would result in an obviously better picture, but in practice, that’s not always the case. That’s because the human eye has a finite resolution. Details that are too fine can’t be appreciated. The general consensus is that a person with 20/20 vision, viewing a 60-inch display, won’t see any benefit from 4K until they’re within 6 to 7 feet, and won’t notice the full effect until they’re within 5 feet.
Sit further away, and the benefits are lost; you’re unlikely to notice any difference between the two resolutions even if a 1080p television sits side-by-side with a 4K one. I’ve witnessed this personally, both at trade shows and in stores. HD was an obvious upgrade over what we now called “standard definition” content, but the jump to 4K isn’t as obvious.
That doesn’t mean there’s no difference, however. Large displays benefit greatly from 4K because the improved resolution can display a sharp image at a viewing distance of 10 feet even on displays over 120 inches. Unsurprisingly, all the 4K sets on the market today are quite large.
How Big A TV Will You Buy, Really?
Unfortunately, the fact 4K mostly benefits large televisions is its own problem. Most people can’t afford these large sets and, even if they could, don’t have room for them. A television over 70 inches is usually going to end up in a dedicated home theater, and the best-selling sets on Amazon are constantly 50 inches or less.
With sets this small, a viewer has to sit only a few feet away to see the benefits of 4K – and most people are never going to do that. The experience simply doesn’t jive with the average living room layout. At the least, most folks want a coffee table between their TV and couch, which necessitates a viewing distance of five or six feet.
As a result of this, Ultra HD makes the most sense for ultra-premium buyers. Not because the technology itself will always be expensive, but because the size of television needed to see a benefit at a normal viewing distance is beyond the size most people are willing to buy.
Content Is A Big Problem
Studios don’t have any issue filming in 4K, but delivering that content to consumer is another matter. Quadrupling the pixel count nearly quadruples file size, and a high-quality Blu-Ray disc can already take up 20 GB or more. The only content player on the market is Sony’s 4K Ultra HD Media Player, and it offers just a handful of movies, all of which are $7.99 to rent or $29.99 to buy. Oh, and one other thing – the player only works with Sony 4K televisions.
The lack of content mirrors the problems consumers faced early in the HD era. When the first HDTVs hit the market,there was no physical format for HD movies and very few people had the bandwidth or hardware necessary to stream it. This problem was not fully solved until several years later, leaving early adopters with little to watch. We’ll likely see history repeat itself with 4K.
What About 4K (And 4K-ish) Monitors?
The push towards Ultra HD displays is not restricted to televisions. Monitors are also starting to head in this direction, with ASUS now offering a 31.5-inch 4K monitor and Samsung planning laptops with 3,200×1,000 panels. Other monitor manufacturers like Dell and HP are sure to jump in on this trend soon.
In theory, monitors could benefit more from Ultra HD than televisions. They’re used at a much closer distance, which means the difference in resolution is more readily noticed. And they’re often used to show very fine details (like small font). A massive jump in resolution could make for buttery-smooth text rendering and wonderfully detailed photos.
But there’s a problem. Scaling. A computer’s operating system renders graphics based on height and width in pixels. Increasing resolution without increasing display size makes everything look smaller, which in turn can make certain programs and documents very hard to use. Unfortunately, there’s no obvious solution to this issue. Windows has scaling options, but they generally apply only to the Windows interface and Windows 8 apps, not desktop software. PC web browsers are universally bad at scaling. And old software sometimes fail to scale at all.
The viability of these new Ultra HD monitors is in the hands of companies like Microsoft, Google and Apple. Scaling must improve for them to catch on, and only these companies are in a position to make that happen.
Avoid 4K For Now
4K is already available at affordable prices. Seiki sells 4K displays as small as 39 inches for as little as $699, and others will likely follow their lead. But with little content available, and a lack of readily apparently benefit in small displays at the distance most people view television, Ultra HD doesn’t make a lot of sense to the average person. There’s plenty of awesome 1080p televisions on the market, so the best move is wait a few years and jump on board when the technology is more widely adopted and content is readily available.
Image Credit: John Karakatsanis/flickr