Ultra HD

HDTV was a huge step up in television resolution after no significant changes since the introduction of color, going from 480i to 1080p (720p and 1080i used to be made, but only smaller TV’s still have 720p). But a few years ago, 4K TV’s started arriving, at first only to show a glimpse of the future, but now they are actually not that much more expensive than 1080p TV’s. Walmart will sell a 55-inch 4K TV for $298 on Black Friday. Yes, it will probably only be one per store, and it will probably be broken, but there you go. I am still using my 13 year old 51-inch 1080i rear projection TV which doesn’t even have HDMI jacks on it (let alone wifi or apps), making it increasingly difficult to deal with, though so far I am making it work without many sacrifices (mainly because my Dish receiver and HDTV receiver both have component video output and my Blu-ray DVD player’s HDMI output can be converted to the TV’s DVI input with just a cable).

“4K” was the original term, but really 4K is a slightly different standard created for movie theaters, so “Ultra HD” is the correct term for TV’s with resolution of 3840×2160 pixels, or twice the resolution in each direction as 1080p. True 4K has 4096 pixels horizontally, which is where the 4K came from, but still 2160 pixels vertically). Theaters don’t use film projectors anymore, but instead download 4K versions of the movie (or they are delivered on hard drives) and then projected on the screen like you do with a Powerpoint presentation.

If you look at one of these TV’s in a store, the picture is really amazing. You can stand right in front of it and barely see any pixels at all. It’s what television should be and never has been. Next to a 1080p television, 1080p looks terrible. And while Walmart may be able to sell a 4K TV for $300, the prices can go way, way up. You can easily spend close to $2,000 on a more reputable one, especially if it is a little bigger since prices really start increasing quickly over 48 or 55 inches. One higher end piece of technology is HDR (high dynamic range), which increases the information about the color of each pixel, increasing the amount of information, but also increasing the quality of the picture. TV’s are able to give darker blacks by decreasing the backlighting in parts of the screen thanks to an array of LED backlighting.

The problem with Ultra HD is there isn’t much content yet. To transmit a UHD signal takes a lot more bandwidth, at least 25 Mbps and potentially a lot more since the signal can refresh 30, 60, or 120 times per second, plus HDR adds even more to that. Since Blu-ray disks are only 1080p, they had to improve the disks and develop new Blu-ray players that could read all that extra information (they also have 3D Blu-rays which are backwards compatible and can be read by 2D Blu-ray players, ignoring the 3D info). These Ultra HD Blu-rays aren’t made for every movie, though most big action movies seem to release on the new format (except Disney and their properties like Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Pixar). In fact, these disks only started coming out on March 1 of this year. So there are maybe 100 Ultra HD Blu-ray titles and I don’t really want any of them. A UHD Blu-ray player would be $200-300 on top of the price of the TV. The nice thing about the standard being fairly new is they incorporated HDR info, but that means all of the non-HDR Ultra HD TV’s will miss out. Plus to get the best use of the audio, you probably need a new audio receiver and maybe speakers too. I bought a surround system with 7 speakers and a subwoofer (7.1) but now they have 7.1.2 where the left and right speakers in the front have additional speakers in them that bounce sound off the ceiling, making it seem like it is coming from over your head. Worse, because of the high quality of the video and audio, there are protections on the output, so some 4K audio might not even play on an older audio system which doesn’t incorporate any kind of copy protection. If you pay a premium and if you have the internet bandwidth, you can stream 4K content from Netflix, when it is available, which I think it should be on most newer movies since they are generally projected digitally at the theaters using 4K resolution (and 8K is coming!). The satellite providers don’t have 4K channels (they would have to launch more satellites and my poor dish is already pointing at 3 different satellites) and even the land-based cable companies probably don’t have much, if any. Comcast’s cable boxes don’t support 4K, but they have apps that might let you stream the content to your TV, including some of this past Summer’s Olympics.

I told Eric I was thinking about upgrading to 4K. He was aghast. He pointed out that there was almost no content available in 4K and he said at the typical viewing distance, people can’t even see the increased resolution. Everything I read says this is true. At the typical viewing distance of 8-10 feet, the eye cannot detect 1080p’s pixels and therefore dividing each pixel into 4 smaller pixels adds nothing. I measured the distance from my sofa to my TV: 12 feet. If the TV is incredibly large or if you sit very close, you might see the difference. Movie theaters project 4K content, so unless the TV fills up as much of your vision as a movie screen does, you don’t need 4K. It is funny, but when I have my laptop open while I am watching TV, the two screens appear almost the same size. 4K TV’s look amazing in the store because you are looking at them from a few feet away, just to see the resolution. Part of the answer is moving closer to the TV. That is one reason that some of the screens are curved: to curve around you a little, making the screen seem even bigger and filling more of your field of vision.

So where does that leave me? I feel better that I am not missing the boat yet. UHD is still in its infancy and they are working out some kinks. 3D Blu-ray and 3D TV’s seem to have been something of a fad, and who knows if 4K is going to be adopted quickly (given the small price difference, I think a lot of people buying new TV’s will get 4K, but it could take a while). It might be better for me to wait another year and see how things are going then. Still, I will probably keep my eye on things.

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