4K TV Could be the Next Step In High Definition TV, But Will Viewers See A Difference?
March 8, 2012

4K TV Could be the Next Step In High Definition TV, But Will Viewers See A Difference?

Peter Suciu for RedOrbit.com

Every year at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the annual trade event for all things digital, there is a whole lot of hype about television. This is fitting because CES, which recently celebrated its 45th year in existence, has been the place where a lot of TV technology has been introduced. The VCR was introduced at CES in 1970, Laserdisc only four years later in 1984, and more recently HDTV in 1998.

Since 1998, the news about TV has been coming in regular waves of the next, best and brightest. Plasma TV was introduced in 2001, HDTV PVR (personal video recorder) in 2003, IPTV (Internet Protocol TV) in 2005, OLED TV in 2008 and 3D HDTV in 2009. Along the way TVs have gotten wider yet ever thinner, and for the consumer the prices have been falling.

And another interesting thing has happened with each CES; namely that many of us have been asked to upgrade or replace our media libraries. This of course happened when the Compact Disc — or CD — was introduced in 1981. Vinyl records, despite their warmer sound that audiophiles bestowed so much love on, were out and the CD was in. That allowed the record companies to open the vault and sell old music as new.

The same thing happened when VHS begot DVD, which Blu-ray is still trying to take over. Of course with digital downloads and streaming movies some consumers are sticking to the mantra of not getting fooled again. But the truth is that the movie studios, like the record companies before them (many are divisions of same parent company), need to do this because they´ve counted on the cash cow or reissuing old titles.

This brings us back to CES and what was unveiled this year, namely 4K TV. This is essentially a whole new level beyond mere HDTV, and offers the promise that it will look so much better than what we have now.

Heard that Before

If that sounds familiar, it is for good reason. We´ve been down this road a few times. In the world of consumer electronics we´ve been down this road many times. Each new technology is hyped to be better than what we have today. In the case of 4K this is true, but is it even necessary?

We need first to explain what 4K means, which is simple. It is the next emerging standard for resolution in digital film and computer graphics, and it gets its name from the number of pixels in the horizontal resolution. This is a bit confusing because the current 1080p HD standard is actually 1920x1080, where 4K is 4096x2160 (at least for digital cinema), when presented in the 1.85:1 (16x9) widescreen format. In layman´s terms this basically means that the picture has almost four times the resolution.

But will you or can you even see the difference? That´s not such a cut and dry answer. Yes, no, and maybe are the best answers.

Yes, if you get a much larger set. At CES LG “introduced” — as in demonstrated a prototype that might never come to market — an 84-inch TV, but the catch is that most users wouldn´t really have a room large enough for such sets. But those who like to jam TVs that are simply too big for the room will likely see an improvement — IF the supporting content ever arrives, and at present that seems unlikely.

This brings us to the “no” and “maybe.” The no is that most users won´t notice a difference because if this technology arrives in smaller screen sizes the human eye just can´t notice a difference. This is why many TV experts argue that 50-inch sets are where 1080p even becomes necessary. Smaller than that and 702p is arguably good enough. The “maybe” of the equation is whether content would ever be released for the sets.

At present Blu-ray is actually the highest resolution content available and it is 1080p. Many consumers simply didn´t see the need to upgrade from DVD, which is high resolution as opposed to high definition, to Blu-ray. While it was easy to see the improvement DVD provided over VHS, with Blu-ray it wasn´t so cut and dry. With 4K that is further going to be an issue.

Blu-ray is finally catching on after a long, protracted format war with HD-DVD, but even as prices have fallen, the format is not gaining adoption as fast as DVD. So studios will likely be leery to jump to a 4K technology for pre-package movies.

Even with broadband, most home networks are simply too slow today to stream 4K, and without the content the set can´t really deliver on the promise of even greater resolution.

TV Buying Fatigue

The other factor is that consumers are clearly sick of buying a new TV. So the “promise” of better has to really mean something. It took a while for HDTV to get jump-started, and ironically one motivator was the DVD format. While not actually high definition, DVD was the first push to get consumers to see that “wider” was better. Then HD saw adoption throughout the United States, but the great switchover was delayed numerous times — to ensure that rural customers and especially the elderly wouldn´t be left behind. No one is going to want to go through that again, certainly not until another generation.

There is also the issue that while consumers clearly loved HDTV, got used to widescreen and certainly loved the thin-is-in sets, there has been fatigue over a constant barrage of new sets.

First 42-inch sets were billed as the so-called sweet spot, and this size was the cutoff with LCD being 37-inches and below, and 42-inch sets dominated by the plasma market. As prices fell, and LCD sets got bigger, the TV makers suddenly made 50 the new 42, as in suggesting that 50-inch sets were really the optimum sets for most living rooms. As noted, 50-inches is considered the size where improved resolution is noted, and thus 50-inches and above certainly is ideal for Blu-ray.

TV sales in the first half the 2000-2010 decade saw exponential growth, but then something happened — everyone bought a set, and this in turn began a decline in sales. So much so that Samsung spinning off its TV division. Now the makers tried to combat this by introducing new features including TVs with Internet connectivity, TVs that were also 3D and most notably TVs that were thinner and lighter.

But for the most part these were gimmicks. People aren´t using the Internet on their TV yet (especially as resolution is still an issue on larger screens), and 3D, ironically, has fallen flat. Since most set owners aren´t wall mounting their TVs, the difference between two inches deep and a half inch isn´t much of an issue.

The final irony is that TV viewers are increasingly going another direction — mobile. Tablets, such as the iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab, are actually eating away at living room viewing. With people watching TV on mobile devices and tablets, the big TV is often left in the off position. That is perhaps the biggest hurdle to getting people to notice that what they´re missing in 4K.