Why 4K ultra-high definition display technology is great for the PC

Sharp 4K
$5K for 4K: Sharp's new 'affordable' UHD monitor

The Consumer Electronics Show last month gave us a taste for the forthcoming Ultra HD 4K revolution that looks set to shake up the HDTV market over the next few years. But what about PCs?

For the record, 4K or UHD screen resolutions refer to displays with roughly 4,000 horizontal pixels. That's double the horizontal pixels of a typical 1080p full-HD PC monitor and thus makes for four times the overall pixel count, given a similar aspect ratio. It's a massive jump is visual fidelity.

Funny thing is, you could argue that display resolution has actually been on the wane in the PC industry in recent years, certainly if the context is desktop PCs. The HDTV-driven 1,920 by 1,080 resolution (otherwise known as 1080p) has largely taken over from 1,920 by 1,200 pixel grids.

Going beyond 1080p

Meanwhile, the number of 2,560 by 1,600 panels is on the wane, replaced by 27 inchers with their 2,560 by 1,440 panels. OK, at the bottom end of the market, even basic 22-inch screen are now full 1080p.

But if you take the market as a whole, what you see is a consolidation around 1080p. That, however, might just be about to change.

And just like the resurgence of IPS panel technology in PC monitors, the driving force is portable computing in various flavours. Regular Tech Radar readers will know that 1080p smartphones are becoming gradually more common. 1080p in your pocket, madness.

At the same time, the Nexus 10 tablet offers 2,560 by 1,600 pixels in a 10-inch format and the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro packs a preposterous 2,880 by 1,800 pixels.

What's more, Apple's heavy marketing push with its so-called "Retina" display technology has planted a seed in the minds of consumers. They're more aware of the benefits of increased pixel densities.

Anyway, to put it another way, if you're smartphone is 1080p and your tablet is 2.5K, won't you start expecting more from your PC?

The PC is the perfect 4K platform

It's certainly true to say that 4K resolutions would be more immediately useful with a desktop PC than an HDTV. Straight away you'd have more desktop real estate to work with.

You could run games at higher resolutions too, though you'd need some serious graphics fire power to drive a 4K monitor at native resolutions.

With a 4K TV, well, there's just no content currently. Pretty much everything you're likely to watch will be 1080p.

The good news is that the prospect of affordable 4K PC monitors is beginning to look realistic. A few years ago, a 4K monitor would have cost as much as $50,000 or more. At CES in January, Sharp showed off a 32-inch 4K monitor that's set to sell for nearer $5,000.

The price of pixels

That's still extremely expensive. But another order-of-magnitude drop and we're looking at $500 displays. We're on the way.

Intel has been putting its weight behind the idea too. Last April it predicted 2013 would be the year that high pixel density displays really took off on the PC.

For me personally, it'll mean that I finally have to start think about upgrading the 30-inch 2,560 by 1,600 panels I've been using for the last five years. But I'm willing to take on for the team.


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