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4K TVs Are Coming for You, Even if You Don’t Want Them

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Yahoo Tech

Curved 4K TV by Chang Hong. (Rafe Needleman/Yahoo Tech)

LAS VEGAS — Since 2012, the electronics industry has been telling CES attendees that 4K “Ultra HD” television is coming. This year, they might actually be right, but in a way that ultimately yields little meaningful difference to many viewers.

At this year’s gadget gathering, 4K sets now often constitute the entire lineup of TVs flaunted at many electronics manufacturers’ exhibits. (The “4K” name nods to the sets’ almost 4,000 pixels of horizontal resolution that yield four times the total resolution of “1080p” high-definition TVs.) 

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Prices have tumbled — half of Vizio’s lineup of 4K sets can be had for under $1,000. You can tell that top-tier firms are getting nervous about an onslaught of discount-priced 4K sets from the emphasis they’re placing on such step-up picture-quality initiatives as Samsung’s “SUHD.”

And people are buying 4K. DisplaySearch reported that worldwide shipments of 4K sets jumped by 500 percent in the third quarter of 2014, bringing the total for the first three-fourths of the year to 6.4 million. And the Consumer Electronics Association, the Arlington, Virginia, trade group that runs CES, now predicts that 4 million 4K sets will ship in the U.S. this year.

And yet 4K still faces many of the same hangups it did a year ago.

(Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

Still not much to watch 
To begin, your selection of 4K shows and movies hasn’t advanced that much since 2012. Netflix and Amazon, among other online sources, now offer 4K streaming. But that demands massive amounts of bandwidth. Netflix says you’ll need 25 million bits per second, or five times what its HD feed requires.

Subscription-TV services have held off. Of the five biggest TV providers in the U.S., only Comcast and DirecTV provide any 4K content — and both do so only via online streaming that, so far, works only with some 2014 Samsung TVs.

DirecTV launched a new satellite in December that will allow 4K broadcasts to its subscribers’ satellite dishes, while at CES Dish Network unveiled a new add-on box that will play 4K movies transmitted at a slower rate from its existing satellites. 

4K is supposed to come to Blu-ray discs by the end of this year, something Panasonic played up by showing off a 4K Blu-ray player. But the fact that this model is a mock-up, not a working prototype, makes me question that schedule.

Broadcast-TV technology could be updated to support 4K — but it took more than a decade to swap out analog broadcasts for digital. (Note to broadcasters: If you even think about revisiting the prolonged agony of the digital transition, you’d better deliver something with better range and reliability than today’s over-the-air signals.)

What 4K TVs can do, however, is make existing HD fare look sharper through the digital magic of upscaling. Expect to hear the U word all year long from manufacturers and retailers.

Your room may not be big enough for 4K
Will you see that added resolution from your couch? You will on the CES show floor, where the crowds force you to within a few feet of sets that span from 50 to more than 100 inches across. From that perspective, 4K TVs almost always look spectacular.

Things change when you’re gazing at a 4K screen smaller than 55 inches (Samsung’s start at 48 inches and Sharp’s at 43 inches) from across the living room. In many cases, your existing set already shows all the resolution you can discern with 20/20 vision.

How close will you need to sit to see all those extra pixels? A Panasonic rep said the company recommends a viewing distance of 3.5 feet for a 50-inch 4K set, the smallest it will sell this year. That’s cozy even by Manhattan-apartment standards.

The average screen size has crept up — the NPD Group says 50 to 64 inches now represents the mainstream of the market — but the math of visual acuity suggests that to get sufficient benefit from 4K, you’re best off buying at the upper end of that scale.

If prices keep shrinking, however, 4K may become something of a free feature on most sets bigger than, say, 40 inches. You’ll buy the TV for reasons besides that resolution and then appreciate it only when showing off photos to people clustered around the screen or when you stand up close. 4K will not feel like a revolution, as flat-screen TVs did.

(Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

Don’t worry, 8K is coming next
Many of the companies most bullish about 4K are also showing off 8K sets. Samsung, for instance, has a 110-inch 8K set in its exhibit that also does no-glasses-required 3D (the effect is terrible). Sharp is displaying an 8K set for the fourth year in a row, and this time its highlight reel includes a couple of slides suggesting that 4K is kind of terrible compared with 8K.

The substance of those comparisons — viewing fine-print text or closely spaced lines — is ludicrous, since we don’t actually watch TV that way. And yet something tells me that CES 2016 will feature even more 8K hype, not least since the Japanese broadcaster NHK likes 8K so much that it plans to start test satellite broadcasts that year

At least nobody is talking about 16K TVs. Yet.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.