Is 4K Technology Worthy of all the Buzz?

At the beginning of January, at the Consumer Electronic Show (CES), the audiovisual industry’s main players took colossal means to promote their new 4K screens.

Apart Samsung stealing the show when it Qunveiled an immense 105” curved TV (intended mainly for the Chinese and Middle-Eastern markets), LG, Samsung and Panasonic all presented 4K (Ultra HD) models. These TVs generate a resolution that is four times higher than that of current-generation HDTVs (i.e., 8 million pixels vs. 2 million pixels). By comparison, whereas movies are projected at a resolution of 4096 x 2160 pixels in theatres, the new 4K screens are capable of a display resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels.

However, as can be expected, this new technological advancement raises a host of questions. At what prices will these devices be sold? Will 4K content be available? In what format will content be exchanged? Will this end up being yet another format war?

4K technology made affordable

In the space of only a few months, 4K television has gone mainstream. However, consumers should content themselves with “reasonable” screen sizes because prices become unaffordable above 55 inches in diagonal. For example, Samsung offers a 55” 4K LED television for less than $3,500 but the price climbs to more than $40,000 for an 85” screen.

The real price revolution is unfolding in the low-end market. For example, during the holidays, Sino-American manufacturer Seiki Digital began selling a 65” screen for $2,999. On Amazon, it offers a 40” screen for $490. Chinese manufacturer Vizio has decided to focus on offering 4K technology for less than $1,000 and sells 55” screens for less than $1,000 and 44” screens for $478.

Not much content for the time being

As is the case every time TV technology evolves, content availability and distribution problems arise with 4K technology. OK, buying an affordable Ultra HD screen is one thing, but actually being able to watch something on it is another. In light of the current offer, there is not much available—at least not in Ultra HD.

On the one hand, no TV channel—neither the CBC, CTV, NBC, CBS, AMC nor even Fox—broadcasts in 4K format. As recalls Yves Therrien, journalist at Le Soleil, full HD (1080p) is not even yet the norm in this industry because neither Bell, Videotron, Cogeco, nor Shaw offer better than 720p through their fiber optic or cable networks. For the time being, only satellite broadcasts in 1080p format.

On the other hand, although both new consoles available on the market (Xbox One and PS4) are natively compatible with 4K technology and allow for a display resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels (for example, in the case of movies), games are not expected to be produced in a resolution greater than 1080p (at least that is what both manufacturers have announced for now). For games to be displayed on 4K TVs, the console’s algorithm will be required for scaling purposes.

Streaming seems to be the key

To compensate for the major lack of content, manufacturers are turning toward Internet TV services like Netflix, which has indicated that it wants all of its original content produced in Ultra HD format for now on. As such, the second season of the House of Cards series will be one of the first dramatic series to be broadcast in 4K format.

And here’s the cherry on the sundae: all 4K televisions are “smart” TVs and are therefore equipped with a built-in operating system capable of downloading third-party applications such as Netflix, AmazonHulu Plus and YouTube. These four market players have announced various partnerships to provide Ultra HD streaming services.

With respect to studios, fewer and fewer movies are produced on film and some studios such as Paramount have gone so far as to announce that they will be abandoning this format by the end of the year. More and more movies will henceforth be produced in UHD 4K (or even 8K) resolution. Already, UHD movies are becoming a cinematographic reality, from captation to postproduction and presentation in movie theatres. However, although the entire digital cinematographic production chain is today capable of working in 4K format, it is still not possible to send this format to consumers’ TV sets.

In this regard, streaming would appear to be the only means of sending the Ultra HD format to TV viewers’ sets for the time being. Blu-ray’s storage capacity is too limited and an eventual 4K disk is not even on the radar. Ultra HD will therefore pass through the Internet and this represents a new potential disincentive in terms of popularization seeing as Canadian Internet providers’ current offers with sufficient data download volumes are quite expensive.

The battle of video codecs

Finally, history often has a tendency to repeat itself, so the revolution of ultra high definition will not be spared by a battle of the formats, and more specifically video codecs (languages used to compress signals to ultra high definition). Netflix has announced that its House of Cards series will be encoded in H.265 format (a format privileged by Apple). As for YouTube, it prefers encoding its videos in the VP9 format developed by Google.

To avoid being split between the two American giants, manufacturers like Samsung have announced that their UHD TVs will be equipped with a removable and easily replaceable box should encoding formats change.

Buy now or wait?

Even though the major manufacturers are bending over backwards to promote their new TVs, the general public does not yet seem ready to adopt the technology. In all honesty, it must be said that many a consumer has had difficulty in the past few years differentiating between the “revolutions” of semi HD (720p), full HD (1080p) and 3D. Nevertheless, 4K remains a major advancement in terms of resolution quality and will certainly interest a certain segment of the market. However, Sony’s president believes that it will take between five and seven years before this format really becomes mainstream.

Fabien Loszach
Fabien Loszach holds a doctorate in sociology specialized in social imagery, art and pop culture. He works for the Brad agency as its director of interactive strategy and as a consultant in the media and digital fields. Furthermore, he contributes as a commentator to the digital culture show La sphère broadcast on Ici Radio-Canada Première. Each week, he discusses a current issue from a sociological perspective.
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