New technology is like a pretty girl across the room at a party. From far away, she seems too good to be true; and, when you finally end up talking to her, that's often the case. So many times throughout history, a new piece of "revolutionary" technology has come along, usually making huge claims, only to die a whimpering death not long after. I've got a stack of SACDs right here that will back up this claim. I'm looking at you, Frampton Comes Alive!
These days, the new "pretty girl at the party" is 4K/Ultra HD, and it's poised to make a big splash. With support from all the major television manufacturers (who are looking for a way to get people to refresh their current TV sets), the press has been awash with 4K/Ultra HD news in the past few months. But should you rush out and get a new 4K television? Let's look at the evidence in the form of advantages and disadvantages.
Well, let's get the obvious one out of the way: Ultra HD/4K has more pixels - significantly more than 1080p and enough to make 480p look like a Rubik's Cube. The standard resolution for 4K is 4,096 x 2,160, while the current crop of Ultra HD TVs has a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160. For an example of the
difference in pixel count between your current television and an Ultra HD TV, check out the image to the right.
Another potential benefit of 4K/Ultra HD is color space. For more info on this topic, check out this great article by our own Adrienne Maxwell. Basically the new Rec 2020 standard that Ultra HD/4K is capable of will offer richer, more vibrant colors (and more of them) over the current Rec 709 HD standard. The graph to the right shows how much of a difference there is between the two standards.
Right now, Ultra HD TVs sit at the top of each company's lineup and are loaded with all the best technologies, which can include things like local dimming to offer the best contrast ratio in an LED-based LCD. I watched a great 4K demo shot from inside a cove next to the ocean and, although the cove was dark and the sky outside very bright, fine details were visible in both the brightest and darkest spots. The sky wasn't "blown out," and the dark cove wasn't a murky mess. The picture to the right offers a similar setting so you can get an idea of what I mean.
Another aspect of Ultra HD/4K that manufacturers are touting is the ability to upscale your current HD content to full 4K. Of course, upscaling is not going to give you the same the results as watching something that is natively 4K. I know people who are perfectly happy with the results of upscaling, and others who absolutely hate it. Personally, I think that if the pixels aren't there, they aren't there...it's that simple. Upscaling algorithms have improved, but techniques like bilinear and bicubic filtering can't compete with true 4K and will result in a blurrier, less sharp image, as seen in the
picture to the right. Whether or not upscaling offers a worthwhile improvement is up to you to decide.
If you're a gamer, it might interest you to know that some companies, like Philips, have introduced 4K computer monitors specifically for gaming purposes. Being that one generally sits much closer to a computer monitor, the benefits of 4K's increased resolution would be especially noticeable in this setting. As gamers tend to be big on early adoption, I think this is one area where 4K could gain a foothold faster and easier, with some caveats that I'll discuss in the next section.
Another good reason to buy into 4K is to simply to ready your system for the future. If you are in the market for a new TV right now, you may not be convinced that you need 4K just yet. However, with the increased longevity of today's flat panels, you may still be using this TV when (if) 4K becomes the next standard for streaming, disc, and broadcast content. You'll be ahead of the curve, plus you can show it off to all your friends and feel cool.
Click on over to Page 2 for the Advantages, When to Buy, and the Conclusion . . .
No new technology is perfect, unfortunately, and there are some problems with 4K/Ultra HD at the moment that, while not insurmountable, will probably give you pause.
The biggest issue right now, by far, is content. There isn't much. Sony has just released its latest Ultra HD Media player, but the device is only compatible with Sony Ultra HD TVs and its content includes a relative handful (about 200) of Sony films and TV shows. Consider that you'll be lucky to be interested in a quarter of those titles, and that gives you about 50 movies/shows to watch. Compare that to the approximately 23,000 Blu-ray 2D movies you have to choose from. The pie chart on the right should put this in perspective. Samsung also sells a $300 UHD Video Pack that plugs into the USB port of its UHD TVs, but it only contains five movies and three documentaries.
Another option is the long-gestating Red-ray player, which went on sale recently for $1,250. Too bad there's absolutely no information on what content is available for it on their entire site . . . absolutely none. If this is the new standard, it has a ways to go.
That brings us to another problem with 4K: there is no standard for a physical storage medium. So far, the Red-ray player and Sony's media players rely on downloading 4K movies and storing them on a local hard drive (and at 45 to 60 GB per movie, it's going to take a while to download - about 15 hours). As of yet, a disc standard has not been finalized; so, as much as you might want to watch the latest 4K release, it's not as simple as strolling down to Best Buy. You have to queue it up and wait - and wait - for it to download. While Sony's media player holds 1TB of data, that goes fast when you need 50 gigs plus per movie, so forget about keeping nine seasons of The Office and The Complete James Bond Collection lying around in case you feel like watching them; there just isn't enough space.
But all hope is not lost. The other alternative to getting 4K content is to stream it. Netflix is taking the charge here, by bringing its acclaimed House of Cards to subscribers in 4K and promising to shoot future original content in 4K. That's great . . . except a lot of people probably won't be able to watch it. The minimum required download speed necessary to stream 4K content from Netflix is 16 Mbps, while 20 Mbps is recommended. That is a HUGE number, especially when you consider that the average Internet download speed in America is 8 Mbps. That means speeds will have to double before most people can even stream it at the minimum recommended speed.
That problem is not insurmountable. Right now Netflix is using the H.265 codec, which requires double the bandwidth of YouTube's VP9 codec. YouTube has been sharing 4K videos for a while now. While VP9 claims to only need half the bandwidth of H.265, I couldn't get it to play smoothly on my cable internet connection, which rated at 16 Mbps on a speed test. (Go ahead and test yours: http://www.speedtest.net.) And when it wasn't stopping to buffer, I noticed compression artifacts that really took away from the picture. Go ahead and try it yourself below and make sure to change the resolution to 4K in the settings tab. Just remember: you'll need twice the bandwidth YouTube requires to watch your Netflix in 4K; so, if YouTube doesn't play smoothly, forget about House of Cards.
The one thing you can't argue with is the increased pixel density of 4K. It's just a much sharper image than 1080p, period. The problem is, you probably won't notice it unless you do most of your television watching standing up, three feet from your TV. This is a point that was argued back when people were torn between 720p and 1080p, and it still holds true. Pixel density and concern over the "screen door effect" go out the window depending on how far you sit from your television. Take a look at the chart on the right. If you want to watch a 100-inch 8K TV from 10 feet away, then you need all the pixels you can get. But for most of us, 1080p is fine from the 10 to 15 feet from our TV to our couch on a sub-60-inch TV.
Remember when I mentioned that Philips was pushing to sell 4K monitors to gamers? Great idea, except most people have no chance of actually using all those pixels. The Xbox One and PS4, the latest consoles on the market, can barely get their games running at 1080p. It's going to be years before 4K gaming consoles are a reality. PCs, on the other hand, can run games at 4K, but you need a beast of a machine to do so. My brand-new $1,000 gaming rig can just barely handle most current games at 1080p. It would cost twice that (at least) to build a rig that could run games in 4K smoothly.
Cost is another issue, but surprisingly 4K TVs have come down in price rather quickly, with budget models even breaking the $400 mark and Vizio planning on releasing a 50-inch model for $999. (Hisense already have a 55-incher for $1,999.) Unfortunately, these cheaper sets don't take advantage of OLED technology; while that may be another topic entirely, it's worth noting that an LED-based 4K set might have more pixels than your 1080p plasma, but it may not have those inky blacks you love so much.
When to Buy?
Eventually that 1080p you have on your wall is going to be replaced by something bigger, better, and shinier (but most likely still black). There's no use fighting it, but when exactly is the time to buy it? As you have probably figured out by now, the rollout of 4K has been anything but smooth. We're not talking a Coke II-style debacle here - just a disappointing start when you consider how many elements are still not in place. Here's what I think needs to happen to make 4K a realistic option:
IMDB lists around 250,000 films. 10 percent of those are on Blu-ray. About 0.08 percent are available in 4K. I'd like to see that number increase dramatically. Since Blu-ray players have been around since 2006, that means we should see about five percent of IMDB's films in 4K at the four-year mark. When that happens, I know I'll always have something to watch. (Another good sign is when stuff that has no need to be released in a higher resolution - like Ernest Goes to Camp - gets a 4K release. That means the studios have faith that the market is big enough.)
Another issue that needs to be addressed is the inability to stream 4K content right now without a T3 line in your house. One of two things needs to happen: either the bandwidth rates need to increase dramatically (and there's no reason they couldn't based on our poor worldwide ranking for download speeds) or compression algorithms need to improve so that our current speeds are sufficient. I have no doubt that the wizards at Netflix and YouTube are working on this very problem right now; it's just a matter of time.
One huge sign that 4K is ready for primetime is when you can watch the nightly news in 4K. In other words, once broadcasters get on board and start pumping out over-the-air 4K content (in addition to cable and satellite), you know it's got a foothold. Adoption will be slow, however, as 4K requires new cameras and equipment, and some networks may be gun shy about switching after seeing so little return on their investment in HD.
The last thing I'd like to see fall into place before I feel buying into 4K is viable is the introduction of a new physical format for 4K content. Call it Red-ray, Purple-ray, or Holo-ray, just make it happen. I'm someone who likes owning a physical piece of media, and I know I'm not the only one. I miss strolling through the aisles at Blockbuster versus scrolling through an onscreen menu. Give me the option to re-buy all my favorite movies, remastered in 4K, and I will. Many others will, too. I've got Top Gun on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, and Laserdisc...I don't mess around. But this is such a huge hurdle, as we haven't heard a peep from any of the major players about a new format yet. It seems like nobody is interested, and that's a shame.
If my TV broke today, I would be faced with the decision to stick with HD or move on up to the world of 4K. Luckily, my TV still works (or it did when I left the house today), so I don't have to decide. But I know some of you out there do. In the end, it really depends on which advantages and disadvantages hit home for you. For me, personally, it's like choosing between a brand new pair of boots or my old, comfy boots. I know the new boots will look and feel better eventually, but it takes time to break them in. I don't want to "break in" 4K. Let someone else do it. I want to enjoy the collection of Blu-rays I've amassed on my still-fantastic-looking TV instead of constantly being on the hunt for new content. I want to be able to grab a Blu-ray at the Redbox and watch it 10 minutes later, not 10 hours later. But most importantly, I want to be able to relax and know that - for now - I'm covered. I've got all the content and options I need on a TV that still has plenty of life left in it. 4K may be the future, but it's not the present...at least not for me.