4K Ultra-High Definition will define the future of television.
Nothing makes a television manufacturer happier than the ability to slap a bigger number on their shiny new product, and with 4K (or Ultra HD, or was that UHD?) they've hit the jackpot.
At its most basic, 4K describes the resolution of your TV set (or the amount of pixels used to make up an image), but it is also increasingly being used to describe a combination of a whole host of new features which together are ushering in a new era in image quality.
4K was everywhere at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and whilst the new resolution has its detractors, it certainly doesn't have its downsides in the same way 3D TVs did. At the moment the only drawback to the technology is the cost of the sets, and these will only get cheaper as the standard is more widely adopted.
At the end of the day it might not be the raw resolution of 4K that tempts you into your next TV purchase, but the inclusion of other cool technologies like High-Dynamic Range, Quantum Dot and OLED panels. Before we get into the specifics of each technology, here's a video outlining 4K in a nutshell.
What is 4K?
Pure and simple, 4K means a clearer picture. It's more pixels (8,294,400 to be exact) on the screen at once that creates images that are crisper and capable of showing more details than standard HD.
What is the resolution of 4K?
4K resolution, at least the way most TVs define it, is 3840 x 2160 or 2160p. To put that in perspective, a full HD 1080p image is only a 1920x1080 resolution. 4K screens have about 8 million pixels, which is around four times what your current 1080p set can display.
Think of your TV like a grid, with rows and columns. A full HD 1080p image is 1080 rows high and 1920 columns wide. A 4K image approximately doubles both those numbers, yielding approximately 4 times as many pixels total. To put it another way, you could fit every pixel from your 1080p set onto one quarter of a 4K screen.
Why is it called 4K?
Because the images are around 4,000 pixels wide. And before you ask, yes, the industry named 1080 resolution after image height, but named 4K after image width. For extra added fun, you also might hear this resolution referred to as 2160p. Welcome to the future. It's confusing here.
Do all those extra pixels matter?
They matter very much. More pixels means more information. More information means sharper pictures. Sharper pictures are more engaging. More engaging content is more fun. And fun... well fun is the thing, isn't it?
So I'll see a huge difference?
That's where it gets sticky. We're talking about a similar jump in resolution as the one from SD (480 lines high) to HD (1080 lines high). And 4K screens are noticeably sharper than 1080p screens. But there are a few reasons you might not feel the same thrill you did when you upgraded your old CRT to a flatscreen.
When most people went from a 480 to a 1080p set, there was a good chance they were making a big jump in TV size as well. In terms of wow factor, display size is more powerful than any resolution jump could ever hope to be. Last time around most people got big jumps to both screen size and resolution. But this time screen sizes are staying about the same, with the most popular models falling in the 40 inch to 70 inch range.
Most importantly, though, you'll only be able to see the resolution difference on a 4K set if you're 1) watching 4K content through it and 2) you're sitting close enough.
Sitting close enough?
Yup. Remember when Apple made a big fuss about "retina" displays a few iPhones back? "Retina" refers to screens that have sufficient resolution that at a normal viewing distance your eye can't make out individual pixels. Get far enough away from a 1080p set and, hey presto, It's a retina display! More importantly, at that same distance, your eyeballs won't be able to squeeze any more detail out of a 4K image than a 1080 one. If you're at "retina distance" from your 1080p set now and don't plan on moving your couch closer, upgrading to 4K may not make a big difference to your experience. This chart shows how close you need to sit at any given screen size to see the difference.
So I should sit closer?
Oh my yes. The ability to get up close to the screen without the image breaking down is one of the most intoxicating things about 4K. Sitting closer allows the same sized screen to fill more of your visual field, which yields greater immersion. The up-close factor is one of the reasons 4K computer monitors have become one of the technology's fastest growing sectors. 4K monitors remain pin-sharp even when you're just a foot or two from the screen, as you are when you're sitting at your desk.
Difference between Ultra HD and 4K
Technically, "Ultra High Definition" is actually a derivation of the 4K digital cinema standard. However while your local multiplex shows images in native 4096 x 2160 4K resolution, the new Ultra HD consumer format has a slightly lower resolution of 3840 X 2160.
This is one reason why some brands prefer not to use the 4K label at all, sticking with Ultra HD or UHD instead. However, the numerical shorthand looks likely to stick. As a broad brush label it's so much snappier!
Why should I care about 4K Ultra HD?
There are many reasons why 4K should make you rethink your next TV purchase (actually, there are eleven and you can read about them here), not all of them immediately obvious.
Photographers who routinely view their work on an HD TV are seeing but a fraction of the detail inherent in their pictures when they view them at 2160p.
A 4K display reveals so much more nuance and detail – the difference can be astonishing. While 3D has proved to be a faddish diversion, 4K comes without caveats. Its higher resolution images are simply better.
The higher pixel density of a 4K panel also enable you get much closer without the grid-like structure of the image itself becoming visible –this means you can comfortably watch a much larger screen from the same seating position as your current Full HD panel. Currently all available 4K Ultra HD TVs are in excess of 50-inches.
Ultra HD Premium
If you're sitting there thinking that all these new technologies and acronyms sound confusing then you'd be right. That's why a group of companies decided to form the UHD Alliance with the expressed aim of defining what technologies should be included in the next generation of TV sets.
The UHD Alliance is comprised of 35 companies including television manufacturers such as LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Toshiba, Sony, Sharp, audio companies such as Dolby, and film and television production companies such as Netflix and 20th Century Fox.
The idea then is that if everyone can agree on what features they think UHD should include then Disney (an example member of the alliance) can produce a movie that Netflix will be able to stream through a Samsung TV, and the eventual image will be exactly what the director at Disney intended.
The result of this alliance was the UHD Premium specification announced at CES 2016. The specification comprises a list of features that should be included in products like TVs and Blu-ray players to ensure maximum compatibility with other content and hardware produced.
Currently, in order to adhere to the UHD Premium specification a product must have:
- A resolution of at least 3840x2160
- 10-bit color depth, allowing for 1,024 shades of each of the three primary colors red, green and blue, as opposed to the 256 allowed by the current 8-bit standard.
- Be capable of displaying pixels at a certain brightness and darkness for HDR purposes (technically this light level is from 0.05 to 1,000 'nits' for LEDs and 0.0005 to 540 'nits' for OLED sets for all you number lovers out there). Adhering to these standards means blacks should look truly dark as opposed to just milky black and whites should really pop.
Now that this standard has been defined it should just be a case of checking that your next purchase has the 'Ultra HD Premium' logo and not having to worry about your set being incompatible with the slew of 4K content that's about to emerge over the next few years.
Except of course it's not that simple.
Samsung and Panasonic are embracing the new standard, with both of their flagship lineups wearing their UHD Premium badges with pride. Sony however have decided to go down a more confusing route and have decided to stick with their internal '4K HDR' label despite their sets all actually meeting the required specification. Philips won't be using the alliance's badge, but its sets don't currently meet the specification anyway.
It's only natural that while a technology is still emerging these problems will continue to exist, but we hope that soon we'll be able to recommend looking for a UHD Premium set without reservation. Until the whole industry unambiguously backs the standard however, we'd still recommend you tread carefully to ensure maximum compatibility.
You also said "and up." Can UHD also designate higher resolutions than 4K?
Yes. This is the slightly confusing part. An 8K display would also be UHD.
What is this 8K you speak of?
It's the next resolution standard up from 4K. Basically it doubles the pixel height and width again to yield approximately 32 million pixels. It's a regular pixel party.
That sounds awesome. Should I just get one of those?
Absolutely not. The 8K standard is primarily for the exhibition market (aka movie theaters). To make that many pixels matter, you need to be feeding a truly gigantic screen and sitting right in front of it. Besides, you can't buy an 8K screen today without having it custom built, which would cost approximately seven hojillion dollars. And there's no commercially available 8K content. You'd need to get movies directly from distributors the same way theaters do. You do not need this unless you are Jerry Bruckheimer. (If you are Jerry Bruckheimer, though, give me a call. I know a guy.)
My friend told me about 4K OLED. What's that?
More acronyms! Isn't this fun? OLED - organic light emitting diodes - have been around for some time, but producing big screens using this technology has proven to be prohibitively expensive, something which has so far prevented OLED television from being a mainstream proposition.
It's a real shame because OLED technology can be stunning, offering vibrant colors, deep blacks and bright whites. But don't give up hope just yet. Several companies (most prominently LG) are laboring away to bring OLED to 4K televisions. We recently took a look at LG's new 4K OLED sets, but while they're gorgeous, pricing remains sky high. Hopefully that will change soon, though. "I believe the price and yield rate will be higher immediately and the price will be down," Mr K I Kwon, president of LG Electronics UK, told TechRadar recently. We hope his predictions hold and we aren't ruling out OLED as a big player in the next generation of televisions.
I've heard Netflix is going to start streaming in something called HDR. What is that?
HDR, UHD, OLED ... there's no shortage of acronyms in home entertainment.
HDR, or high dynamic range, is a concept borrowed from digital imaging which combines three images - one with normal lighting, one with underexposure and one with overexposure - to give more contrast to an image or video. Netflix will be the first content provider to release HDR video in 2015.
You won't necessarily need a UHD screen to get it, but to really see a difference in picture quality you'll want to step up to the higher resolution.
Quantum Dot sounds like theoretical physics
It does indeed. But unlike some problems in theoretical physics, the solution is already here. Quantum Dot displays (QD for short) are simply LED panels with a thin film of nano-crystals in between the backlight and the display. Manufacturers like LG and Sony claim that this increases color depth by around 30% without adding extra pixels or implementing a wacky algorithm to digitally manipulate the display.
We went hands on with a few QD panels at CES 2015, including the LG UF9400 Quantum Dot 4K UHD TV and Samsung SUHD Curved TV, which uses a variation of Quantum Dot. We liked what we saw, mostly, and especially on the Samsung SUHD. The LG had some issues with oversaturation ... but that may be fixed by the time the TV comes to market in Q2 2015.
What about 4K content? Can I get that?
Yeah, about that... There's actually not much 4K content to be had right now.
Because every 4K frame contains four times the information of HD, 4K content is four times more bulky than regular HD content in terms of its raw file size. That makes it a challenge to get it to you. Broadcast TV hasn't made the 4K switch yet (indeed, it's only recently that hard drive sizes have gotten big enough to manage DVRing HD programs comfortably). There is a 4K Blu-ray standard coming, but the Blu-ray disc association is only just finishing it and won't start licensing it to manufacturers until early 2015. Victor Matsuda, chairman of the Blu-ray Disc Association Global Promotions Committee told us we should see 4K players and discs in time for the 2016 holidays.
On the streaming side, bandwidth is a definite issue. The internet's bandwidth is already dominated by Netflix's traffic, prompting ISPs to go after them for extra cash, and that's with most of its streams at SD and HD levels. Upping everything to 4K doesn't sound like a reasonable option just yet. And even if it were possible to stream 4K content to everyone without breaking the internet, streaming 4K content requires a 25Mbps or faster downstream internet connection, which is faster than most people have at the moment.
So what can I watch?
The good news is many new films and some TV shows are now filming in 4K as a future-proofing measure. The bad news is all that content will have to wait until we have established avenues for getting it to people. Your best UHD options right now come from Sony and Netflix, with Amazon to follow suit this fall.
Sony launched its Video Unlimited 4K service in 2013, which offers more than 70 films and TV shows for rental or purchase. It requires Sony's 4K Ultra HD Media Player, the FMP-X1 ($350), which comes with a 2TB hard drive and is only compatible with Sony 4K TVs. 24-hour TV show rentals are $4 and 24-hour film rentals cost $8. Film purchases are $30. It's not exactly instant gratification, though. Once you rent or buy something, it needs to download to your player, which Sony estimates can take 8 to 15 hours, depending on your Internet connection, so you'd better think ahead if you're planning a 4K movie night.
If you want to watch right away, Netflix is testing the 4K streaming waters with select shows (House of Cards, Breaking Bad, The Blacklist) and films (Ghostbusters, The Smurfs 2) if you own a Samsung, Sony or LG 4K TV and have a 25Mbps internet connection. Currently, however, the content selection is limited at best. And contains The Smurfs 2. Netflix has announced that it will require new subscribers to be on the highest tier four-stream Family Plan in order to access 4K content. Existing subscribers will be grandfathered into 4K for two years on their existing lower-tier plans.
In addition, Amazon recently announced that it would begin streaming 4K content to TVs by select manufacturers in October. By the time the holidays roll around, it looks like 4K pioneers will have at least a few options to choose from.
Is it me or are those options are almost comically limited?
It's not you.
Why are we even talking about 4K then?
Because it's awesome. Seriously, the pictures look amazing. You're going to love it.
How does that help if there's nothing to watch?
It's a fair point. There is definitely a chicken and egg problem here. No one wants to spend money putting out 4K content until there's enough significant demand for it, and that means 4K sets showing up in homes. But 4K sets are a tough sell if there's nothing to watch on them except regular HD content. Which means we've been in this weird in-between time, waiting for significant numbers of people to make a relatively illogical decision to buy an extra-expensive TV that will only look marginally better than their old one for the next year or two.
That's really dumb.
Hey, let's be careful with our mean words! Still, you've got a point. The current situation is a little silly. But 4K is legitimately awesome. And we're going to get there. We went through a similar transition a few years back with the move to HD (which came complete with the HD-DVD/Blu-ray format war and massive marketplace confusion) a few years back. Luckily that transition was eased a bit by the simultaneous move to the flatscreen form factor and a significant jump in screen sizes.
What kind of cables will I need for 4K?
The two standard cables you're most likely to use are either a standard HDMI or if you're connecting a PC to a Ultra HD monitor, DisplayPort.
HDMI cables now come in four flavors: high speed with ethernet; high speed without ethernet; standard speed with ethernet and standard speed without ethernet. Standard speed cables are capable of 1080i, but aren't able to handle the bandwidth of 4K. High speed cables can do anything higher than 1080. Now, as long as you're using the same class of cable, there is no distinguishable difference in terms of performance between one manufacturer's set of cables and another's.
The speed of your connection will depend on the types of connectors, which includes HDMI 1.4, HDMI 2.0 and HDMI 2.0a. HDMI 1.4 connectors support a 3820x2160-resolution at 30 frames per second, while HDMI 2.0 is the latest spec and can output video at Ultra HD resolution at 60 frames per second. (But more on that below!) HDMI 2.0a is capable of HDR, which is limited to a very specific range of televisions from each manufacturer.
The other type of cable you can use is DisplayPort. DisplayPort carries 4K image and audio signal from most high-end graphics cards to monitors without any noticeable artifacts or delays.
So should I buy a 4K set now or should I wait?
It depends. If you want the absolute best TV you can get right now and don't mind paying a premium for it, it's a 4K set. If you're buying from one of the top tier manufacturers, you're going to get a good product that's reasonably future-proofed. As we said before, the sets look great. However, don't expect to be watching most of your video content in 4K for another two to three years. And make sure any set you buy has HDMI 2.0 ports (the first wave of 4K TVs used the previous HDMI 1.4 standard).
On the other hand, if you're price sensitive or want to wait until the content side of the equation is a bit more solved, it absolutely makes sense to wait. The UHD Premium specification is still in its infancy, and although we're moderately sure and it remains to be seen if the entire industry will eventually adopt it.
In terms of content you're not missing out on much at the moment. There are incredible values to be found in generously-sized 1080p sets right now. And 4K sets are only going to get cheaper.
Scott Alexander originally contributed this article
Article continues below