There's an old saying that "in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice but, in practice, there is." The reason we bring this up is the fact that in theory even if affordable 4K HDTV sets magically appear on the market tomorrow, you might not even be able to tell the difference between it and your current HDTV set. However, we're here to tell you that based on what we saw with our own eyes at this year's CES, 4K sets will definitely be the future of high definition TV. The only question in our minds is how far into the future are we talking about?
Believe Us or Believe What We Saw The reason they are calling the future generation of high definition TVs, 4K (Quad or Ultra HD) is because the resolution will increase from the current 1920 x 1080 to 3840 x 2160 which is roughly 4k by 2k. Now there are some experts like CNET contributor Geoffrey Morrison who recently made a case that 4K TVs were "stupid." Morrison presented some compelling arguments why, in theory, the average viewer won't be able to see any difference between 2K (current 1080p sets) and 4K sets. That notwithstanding, when I was standing in front of a Toshiba 4K TV at this year's CES the Toshiba rep at the booth told me he loved discovering all the little things in the 4K demos. He pointed to the video of a Tokyo apartment building at night where you could actually make out some activity going on through the windows of the building. I have to say the level of detail was impressive and reminded me of one of the first times I watched HDTV and could make out the fans sitting in the stands at a basketball game. It was the next best thing to being there. With 4K you should be able to see what the fans are holding in their hands.
Hollywood is Going Quad HD
When the distribution and display technologies get sorted out the studios should have plenty of 4k content to show. More and more films are using 4k either in post-production or in the camera itself. We've heard that some recent films that used 4k include Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Moneyball and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. High-end 4K cameras are not cheap; Sony's F65 CineAlta costs around $65,000) and Red's EPIC camera costs around $58,000.
An Affordable 4K Camcorder
If $60,000 for a professional 4K camera is a little over your budget you might want to consider the recently announced JVC GY-HMQ10, which is available now for around $4,995. The JVC 4K camcorder records 3840 x 2160 video at 24, 50, or 60 fps. Although the initial market for this camera will most likely be medical, security or some cinematography, it foretells the affordable 4K video gear to come.
Getting 4K Video to Your TV Set A logical question you might ask is won't 4K content require a lot of bandwidth to deliver it to your 4K TV set? Without using any new coding technology a three-hour 4K movie could represent over 3TB of data. At the current Blu-ray capacity we'd be talking over 200 Blu-ray discs. One solution being proposed in a new encoding technology called HEVC (High-Efficiency Video Coding) which is being promoted by the ITU and the Motion Picture Experts Group (MPEG) as a successor to H.264/MPEG 4 AVC (Advanced Video Coding). With a new codec like this it might be possible to deliver 4K content at current 1080p bit rates of 5-6 Mbps. Optical disc technology also has some room to grow. Current Blu-ray technology is capable of supporting up to eight layers and 200GBs of data. Downloading a 4K movie using current encoding with networking techniques won't work either. A 2-3TB movie would take days rather than hours to download however with new codecs and higher speed networks it may become practical sooner than later. One consolation is that the current HDMI 1.4a spec is designed to handle 4K video so at least you might not have to buy expensive new cables.
Upscaling Will Be the Short Term Solution Merely doubling the current 1920 x 1080 (FullHD) picture to 3840 x 2160 will upscale an HD video to 4K. This means that If 4K displays appear sooner than the 4K content and distribution method but viewers should still see noticeable improvements in picture quality. You can already buy A/V gear like the Onkyo TX-NR515 receiver that will upscale to 4K.
Here Come the 4K TV Sets At CES this year we saw many 4K sets but none of them had a price tag or availability date. We expect that to change over the next year or two. Toshiba is one of the first out of the gate with a 4K TV. The 55X3 should be available soon for around $6,000. Although LG hasn't officially announced the availability of a 4K TV at CES we saw an amazing 85-inch LCD 4K running passive 3D that looked very close to what you might see looking out a window. Passive 3DTVs may get a huge boost with 4K resolution since it eliminates any signs of a "raster" that we've noticed on current passive 3DTVs.
Hints of 4K Starting to Emerge Although Japan's TV network, NHK puts the time frame at 2020 for the first 4K (Ultra HDTV) broadcasts. We've read reports that DirecTV is already developing some 4K transmission capability. Satellite could have an advantage in the early stages of 4K broadcasting over copper-based cable networks. We also read of plans to broadcast some of this summer's London Olympics in 4K to special locations.
Should You Wait for 4K? Should you put off buying that new HDTV set because of 4K? The answer to that is, probably not. Although the production tools are available and 4K content is being produced the distribution formats are a long ways from being settled. In the meantime, it's worth keeping your eye on 4K technology and if you want to be an early adopter, the ability to upscale may be a rational to buy an expensive 4K set. You might also be able to feed a 4K TV content from a PC or game console long before you can get 4K programming on a disc or cable service.