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Summary:

Resolution isn’t the only reason to adopt a 4K Ultra High Definition TV. Costs are coming down and the TVs offer plenty of other technological tweaks.

LGs 4K TV. Try to get that past your bandwidth cap.
photo: LG

Ultra HD was a star with great promise at last year’s CES. The big question for this coming CES 2014 is, “When will Ultra HD make good on that promise?”

We know that Ultra HD could the next big thing for TV. At the same time, there is concern that too much hype could lead to disappointment.

Will consumers be able to see a difference? Will they care? Will there be a “wow factor”? What about content and distribution? Will it be too expensive for studios and service providers? What needs to happen before an end-to-end ecosystem can display the improved capabilities of 4K displays?

The first phase of 4K TVs

Ready or not, consumer 4K TV displays are here and their price is dropping fast. A year ago one could buy a small car for less than the cost of a 4K TV. The smart consumer bought the car. Today, that same consumer could drive to the local big box store and pick up a fancy new Ultra HD at a fraction of last year’s price. Soon enough, it might make sense to swap out the old HD flat panel for a 4K display even if one plans to watch HD content only.

But is there a quality difference between HD and 4K TVs that is really meaningful to consumers? If we talk only about 4-times the resolution, the difference is not as noticeable as the move from standard-definition to high-definition. But resolution is not the whole story.

Sony XBR-X850A w. FMP-X1 and VU4K

The arrival of 4K TVs in stores and in some peoples’ homes should be thought of as the first phase of more substantial evolution of television. 4K resolution is a subset of Ultra High Definition (UHD) television, which includes higher frame rates, enhanced & more precise color, and better use of the luminance range of modern flat-panel TV displays. Each of those UHD enhancements can create a rich visual reality for consumers that goes beyond even cinematic experiences. Thus, the 4K/UHD should not be thought of as a “one-and-done” phenomenon. Instead, UHD should be thought of as a roadmap for making television better and better for years to come.

Granted, saying that a consumer electronics product like 4K Ultra HD will get better and better over time is not that controversial. But Ultra High Definition is an ecosystem. Which means we may not need to wait for native 4K content to be widely available before Ultra HD begins to win over consumers.

A better high definition: one track at a time

Good 4K Ultra HD displays come equipped with very sophisticated image processing and upscaling algorithms that can make good HD content look almost as good as true 4K content. In a way, a 4K Ultra HD TV is just a better HD with the potential to support new UHD enhancements as they emerge from the international standards committees.

Looking into the crystal ball, we might see studios and service providers begin the evolution towards better television by way of distinct tracks as early as 2014. And it should be noted that the new international standard for video compression – High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) – will likely be an inseparable partner in the evolution of both HD and UHD services.

The first track might be a cinematic track that would support “optimized-for-4K” HD encoding and provide a pathway to true 4K content at 24 and 30 frames per second. In this context, “optimized for 4K” HD encoding would imply near pristine HD content that looks good when upsampled on a 4K display, but leverages HEVC to fit in the same bandwidth as HD content compressed with today’s MPEG4/H.264.

A second track might be more attractive to sports programmers. It might emphasize frame rate over resolution to deliver 1080p HD at 60 frames per second, and later at 120 frames per second, while providing a pathway to true 4K at 60 frames per second.

Finally, a third track could be attractive to all service providers as it uses the enhanced efficiency of HEVC to deliver traditional HD services while freeing up bandwidth for UHD and data services.

There is certain to be a lot more hype around 4K and Ultra HD TV in the coming weeks as CES 2014 grabs headlines. But over-hyping is not the same as over-valuing. The true story should not be about 4K in isolation. Rather it should be about 4K as the advanced guard of UHD that can add value today while opening the door for content and service providers to offer better and better consumer experiences over time without breaking the bandwidth bank.

Sean McCarthy is a Fellow of the Technical Staff at ARRIS.

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  1. It would be nice if the United States wasn’t still using the 21-year old MPEG-2 standard for OTA broadcasts…

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    1. Won’t all these enhancements require tv support meaning your TV is obsolete? Or does the latest HDMI already on the tv support them so you just need a new DVD or cable box?

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      1. 4K at 60 frames per second (fps)will require a connection that supports a total bandwidth of 18 Gbps of traffic. Current HDMI 1.4 only supports a total TDMS of 10.2 Gbps, which isn’t enough to support anything beyond 4K at 30 fps.

        There will only be HW changes, in the TV, BR players, and receivers. You will see HDMI 2.0 or Display Port 1.3, which supports 32.4 Gbps releasing on the new Home theaters devices and computer monitors.

        Bottom line, you need the higher bandwidth so you can get the higher frames per second, on both 2D and 3D. Although the connection will look the same, the quality of your HDMI cable will need to support the higher bandwidths.

        For example, the cables that your local cable, Satellite, or Internet Service provider hands out, only supports 1080P at 24/30 fps. You can buy 3 ft cable on amazon for $10 USD that supports the theoretical 10.2 Gbps, CEC, HEC, etc..

        Next, if you watch sports in 3D, then you definitely will need these higher bandwidth ports and cables to support the higher fps, to prevent motion blur. 3D fps always lag behind 2D.

        This technology is changing quickly, and I would say that right now isn’t the best time to purchase a 4K UHD TV.

        The prices are lowering, but will not come into a stabilized normal price range until Xmas next year. If CES 2014 announce a huge push around the THIRD TRACK, mentioned in the above article, then we should expect a 4K UHD TV, 60″ OLED panel, with HDMI 2.0, to be priced at $4-5K, in 2014.

        If Samsung, LG, and Sony focus on the FIRST TRACK, to gather the larger market share of buyers, then 2015 will be the year to upgrade, unless you have money to burn.

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  2. Gregory Stoner Sunday, December 29, 2013

    Biggest Change for consumers will be finally cleaning up color space with REC.2020 supported in HVEC Main 10 profile. Now I hope we see this transition to PC and also quickly change over in Still and consumer video cameras.

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  3. What I’m sure about the 4K displays is that our pockets are not ready. Yes, it will showcase the latest technology at home but only to the few.

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    1. 4K TVs start at less than $500. Less than the cost of an iPhone.

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  4. Great article, thank you!

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  5. Wastage of precious Bandwidth

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  6. Since 3DTV is a bust I guess they need a new “thing”…

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  7. Sports fans may benefit from high-frame-rate. Art film buffs might come to appreciate high-color-depth (12 bit) We really need the newer, faster interconnect standards to get rolled out to make it all happen.

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  8. It just isn’t going to happen…yet.
    With most consumers finally converted over to HDTVs, no one is rushing
    to upgrade. There just isn’t a driver for it. I think everyone thought the new game consoles would support 4k and that would drive adoption. But they didn’t and so it won’t. Forget cable providers, they still can’t handle sending native 1080p down the pipe. 4K isn’t happening for consumers, retailers or manufacturers anytime soon. 5 years away maybe, and that’s still a maybe. I also think the hard sell of “it’s not just about resolution” won’t demonstrate to consumers a reason to buy.

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  9. Stuart Brown Friday, March 7, 2014

    Loving my $500 UHD 4k 39″ TV, I just can’t see the disadvantage, I’ve been using my PC for testing, but I am trying to source an Android TV in 4k from China, HDMI 1.4, Ethernet, android 4.4 kit kat. 4 USB ports, Mali 450 octo core 600 MHz, 2 GB DDR 3, quad core 2 GHz A9, if we can get 4k movies down to 16 GB, then the current 128 GB USB 3 flash sticks will be able to store 8 movies. I thought I’d go completely insane mad and spend 0.2% of the value of my home, on the only window in the house, I spend 4 hours a day watching. Given that it costs me 1% of my electricity bill, well go wild crazy, blow the bank at Monti Carlo !!!!

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