U.S. Markets closed

Computer users, not couch potatoes, will lead the way on 4K high-definition TV

Computer users, not couch potatoes, will lead the way on 4K high-definition TV
Computer users, not couch potatoes, will lead the way on 4K high-definition TV

The television industry swamped last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) with dozens of new super high-definition sets, but got in return a collective yawn from journalists, analysts and the buying public.

So is the new standard, known generally as "4K," dead on arrival, headed for the same fate as 3D TV? Not at all. It’s just going to start out as a hit with computer users, not couch potatoes.

Adding pixels to computer screens makes pictures looks sharper and text crisper, reducing eyestrain. And the added real estate that comes from higher-definition screens enhances productivity.

That's why Brian Hauer bought two dozen new TV sets for his Web and mobile software development firm, TechEmpower in El Segundo, California. No, he didn’t buy the Seiki 39” ultra-high definition televisions so his programmers could watch their favorite movies and sports. Instead, he’s connecting the $500 screens to his programmers’ computers.

More room for work

The Seiki TVs cost less than fancy 30” monitors made for computers and have double the number of pixels. And replacing pairs of 19” screens gives the programmers more room to work with on screen while taking up less desk space.

“Seiki is missing a golden opportunity to dominate the desktop display market by removing the television tuner, speakers and remote,” Hauer says on his blog.

Technically, the TV sets Hauer bought are just short of 4K resolution, which is 4,096 pixels across by 2,160 pixels tall. The Seiki sets, designated as Ultra HD, have a screen ratio of 3840 x 2160, though they are often lumped into the 4K category. Today’s common high-definition TV sets have a resolution of 1920 x 1080.

At CES, giant 4K sets from Sony (SNE), Samsung (005930.KS) and others crowded the aisles. But other companies are making 4K monitors sans tuners especially for computer users. Apple (AAPL) suggests buyers of its new high-end desktop system, the black cylinder known as the 2013 Mac Pro, buy a 32” Sharp 4K monitor for $3,595. It's just a matter of time before Apple starts selling its own 4K monitor, and Dell and Lenovo are among making cheaper 4K computer monitors, too.

It’s fitting that Apple would be a pioneer with 4K computer monitors, since it introduced the phrase “retina screen” back in 2010, with the increased pixel count of its iPhone 4. Other phone makers quickly started putting high-definition screens on their phones as well. Apple then added “retina” to its iPad and MacBook Pro laptop lines. Other computer makers followed suit.

The 'ah-ha' moment

The big “ah-ha” moment could arrive later this year when Apple is expected to update its popular consumer-oriented iMac line. Selling “retina” iMacs will ignite a legion of copycats, no doubt.

Then, the proliferation of 4K computer monitors will help the entertainment industry get over its usual chicken and egg problem with new formats. Because without counting computer screens, there aren’t going to be many 4K ready viewers out there in TV land. The industry sold only about 2 million 4K and U-HD sets last year, according to market tracker NPD. And even with prices falling, only about 13 million will be sold this year out of a total market of 229 million, NPD says.

So far, entertainment companies haven't seen much to get excited about with 4K. Unlike computers users adding 4K monitors for immediate benefits, TV watchers have to scrounge to find anything to watch in 4K. Netflix (NFLX) has promised to start streaming a few shows in 4K this year, but the vast majority of programming won’t make that step up for at least a few years. Sony was even giving away free copies of 10 movies with its 4K media player to entice buyers last year. The player stores 4K movies on a hard drive since there’s no disc standard for the format yet.

To be sure, 4K will likely catch on among television viewers eventually, if for no other reason than the prices on 4K sets are dropping so rapidly that soon there won’t be much of a premium to buy one. And if people start watching 4K content on their computer monitors, where much Netflix viewing already occurs, Hollywood will get the message sooner and start producing more 4K content.

Netflix was nearly the only company that got a positive response to its 4K efforts at CES. But 4K streaming content requires massive bandwidth, even with data compression -- more than many customers receive from their Internet service provider. And Netflix’s 4K push comes just as some leading ISPs, such as AT&T (T) and Comcast (CMCSA), have made moves to curb data hogs. AT&T’s recent “Sponsored Data” initiative to charge Internet content providers fees could be a premeditated strike aimed at Netflix’s 4K shows.

But computer users don’t need more bandwidth to enjoy the benefits of 4K on their desktops. They’ll be the real 4K pioneers.