Ready or not…Here comes 4K!
TV makers are at a bit of an impasse: for the first time ever, demand for LCD TVs is down year-over-year. After years of increasing sales and declining prices, the market is finally beginning to become saturated, and the incremental improvements and new features that the television companies have added since LCD TVs became mainstream—things like OLED lighting and 3D TVs—have either been well out of consumers’ price ranges or too niche to attract a wide audience.
The TV industry is looking for that must-have feature that will get people with existing LCD TVs to upgrade their sets, and one of those features is the 4K resolution standard. While 4K TV sets are slowly making their way to the market, both the discussion panels and vendors at Consumer Electronics Week seem a bit unsure about the standard’s prospects in the home
A primer on 4K (and why you probably don’t need it)
4K originated in movie theaters, and the number, as you might be able to guess, refers to the 4096 horizontal pixels in a 2.39:1 movie screen that supports the standard. Other resolutions exist for other aspect ratios, but the number of horizontal pixels always rounds up to about four thousand. Most 4K TV screens, however, conform to the Quad Full High Definition (QFHD) standard, which doubles the horizontal and vertical pixels of a 1080p screen to make a 3840×2160 display—think of it as a sort of “Retina Display” standard for TVs.
As we noted in our Retina MacBook Pro review, pixel doubling can make for sharp, gorgeous displays, but the “Retina” look doesn’t just come from pixel density, but also from how far you typically sit from a given device—the iPhone, iPad, and Retina MacBook Pro all have a different number of pixels per inch, but the screens are going to look more or less the same to your eyes because people typically sit further away from their laptops than their tablets, and further away from their tablets than their phones. Most people sit even farther away from their television set, which means that depending on the size of your screen and its distance from your couch, the pixel density required before your eyes stop being able to tell the difference can be much lower.
Enlarge / Showing the screen size and distance from the screen necessary to see the benefits of high-resolution TVs with the naked eye. Note that 4K displays don’t even begin to be beneficial in sizes smaller than 50 inches.
Carlton Bale has published an excellent chart and explanation that sums up 4K TV’s problems in a nutshell: at some distances and screen sizes, even the difference between 720p and 1080p to the human eye can be negligible, and this is even more true of 4K. To get any benefit out of a 4K TV, you either need to have a very large screen (the benefits begin to become apparent—barely—at around 50 or 60 inches), be sitting very close, or both, and small differences like this might appeal to true home theater enthusiasts or videophiles, but it’s going to be a hard sell for the average consumer.
4K at CE Week
Both content distributors and exhibitors themselves are hedging their bets on 4K TVs, at least if my experiences at CE Week are any indication.
The first problem is going to be 4K content, namely the fact that there really isn’t much of it. Nick Slater, VP of Video Product Management for DISH Network, summed up some of the best points from the content industry’s end during the Next Gen TV panel: “We’re certainly looking at the market. The relevance of 4K really only applies to large-size televisions right now, so we’re trying to scope how that fits in with the traditional DISH base,” he said. “Things like 4K are very popular to talk about at events like this in New York City and San Francisco, but you get to Iowa where our customer lives, it’s not gonna be for a while.”
Slater went on to emphasize that broadcasting 4K content requires considerably more bandwidth than HD content, and that to upgrade DISH’s infrastructure to support 4K would require either the launch of new satellites, or for the provider to cut back on current HD channels.
“Those are all things we’re willing to do,” he said, “but there needs to be a return on the investment for us.”
Others on the stage also hedged about the availability of native 4K content. John Taylor, VP of Public Affairs and Communications for LG Electronics USA, talked about “very powerful upconverters” for displaying 1080p content on a 4K screen, while VP of Marketing for Westinghouse Digital Rey Roque mentioned potential alternate uses for all of the pixels in a 4K screen, including “technologies to split the screen, and watch four [streams] of Nick [Slater]’s 1080p material.” Both statements reflect a desire to sell 4K sets despite a lack of broad availability of native content, which (aside from bizarre edge cases like those mentioned by Roque) mostly defeats the purpose of the technology for the user.
Even the sole TV exhibitor with 4K hardware on the floor—Westinghouse—seemed a bit reluctant to show off or discuss the prototype 4K set (the 55-inch D55QX1) that it had brought to the show. For starters, and perhaps because of the lack of 4K content we just talked about, the set was displaying a browser window showing a static image from Google Maps, while the (much larger) 1080p set right next to it was playing a bright, full-color video of The Muppets. When I went to play with the 4K TV’s keyboard and mouse, I got just far enough to confirm its resolution (3840×2160) before a representative asked me to stop what I was doing, informed me that the unit was a prototype, gave me a printed press release with no new information about the device or its prospective launch date, and sent me on my way. Their hints were subtle, but I somehow got the feeling that they weren’t interested in subjecting the television to close scrutiny.
The feeling I get from this year’s CE Week is that 4K is coming, but that even the content providers and TV manufacturers with an interest in pushing the standard are perhaps unexcited about it, or at the very least aren’t entirely convinced of the feature’s prospects for most consumers. It’s telling that the majority of the Next Gen TV panel avoided talking about picture quality enhancements as major sales drivers: much more time was spent on Internet TV and ways to make the wealth of content available from providers like DISH Network more accessible to consumers, indicating that—at least for now—content and ease of use still beat out tech specs in most peoples’ living rooms.
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