The TV industry wants you to think about throwing out that fancy flat-screen HDTV you just got. This year at the Consumer Electronics Show, the big thing in screens was “4K UHD,” an emerging standard for video screens with four times the pixel count of mere HD.
Inexpensive 4K UHD televisions were everywhere at CES. More importantly, they were backed up by a decent collection of ultra high-definition video services to feed them content.
Yet the mass-market prospects for TV with four times the resolution of HD — 3,840 by 2,160 pixels — appear as blurry as ever.
The basic problem with UHD hasn’t changed since 2012, when the technology had its first big moment at CES. And it’s not the engineering of the TVs themselves. Packing all those pixels into a flat-panel screen isn’t that much harder than the challenges Apple faced in fitting Retina displays into the iPhone and the iPad. This problem is on the way to getting solved. As a result, you’ll soon be able to buy 50-inch UHD sets for as little as $999 from Polaroid and Vizio.
But where Apple had only to persuade developers to soup up graphics in their apps, UHD TVs won’t sell without ultra-high-def video to watch, as well as new services to pipe that content into viewers’ homes.
CES 2014 provided good answers to the first half of that equation. Sony’s Video Unlimited 4K download service was joined by the DreamWorks/Technicolor joint venture M-Go 4K streaming offering. There were also promises that Amazon Instant Video, Netflix and YouTube would be streaming 4K movies and TV shows.
It’s a good lineup of services, but the content selection at these sites remains thin. At CES, Sony touted that its inventory had grown from 70 to 140 titles, and M-GO’s 4K option will include about 100 titles (some only “optimized” from SD versions). The only UHD title Netflix has mentioned so far is “House of Cards.”
But how to get it?
The real challenge is getting that content from the studio to screens in homes. The video can come in over Internet connections today, but UHD seriously binges on bandwidth.
Technology comes to the rescue to an extent: There’s the new and impressive HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) compression to reduce the bandwidth needs. But even with it, Sony’s downloads, for example, will run from 20 to 50 gigabytes each. Watching one a week could eat up most of AT&T’s, Charter’s and Cox’s 250 GB monthly bandwidth allotments.
And to stream UHD directly into a set, you’ll need a connection that’s not just forgiving but fast. At CES, Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings made a best-case pitch, telling me it would “look great” over a consistent 15 million bits per second connection (which adds up to about 20 GB for a 2½-hour flick).
As it happens, that’s the advertised speed of my Verizon FiOS service, as verified through repeated checks at the Speedtest.net site. And that’s not always speedy enough to keep Netflix from stuttering.
(I suspect that’s because Verizon hasn’t plugged into Netflix’s Open Connect delivery network. Pop quiz: Do you know if your Internet provider has?)
Netflix communications director Joris Evers provided more exact figures than Hastings could in our quick exchange. The service’s “top end” HD streams run at 5.8 Mbps, while its UHD video hits 15.6 Mbps — which suggests that 25 Mbps is a more realistic minimum. But even a 6 Mbps connection is out of reach for most Americans.
You can forget about over-the-air UHD reception for now. The government is unlikely to make every new digital set obsolete by switching to a new broadcast technology to handle UHD’s data needs.
What about cable and satellite? The major TV services all say they have the capacity — for example, Comcast plans to begin renting UHD-compatible boxes this fall — but none have committed to wide rollouts of UHD yet.
As for Blu-ray discs, the work to develop a UHD version of this standard has only just started.
Spot the difference
Regardless of the delivery method, most early UHD buyers won’t be able to tune into UHD video at full quality, thanks to first-generation sets shipping without the proper compression standard or input connection. Oops!
Assuming these various content, delivery and standards constraints are solved (which they will be eventually), there’s then the human problem. Below a certain screen size, you can’t discern the extra pixels from your couch.
The industry wants to fix that by recommending that you get big screens and that you cozy right up to them.
Most of the manufacturers I talked to at CES suggested that a 50-inch display was the realistic minimum for UHD, but Sharp marketing manager Chris McMinn said 60 inches was more like it.
An initially compelling Sony demo featured two 65-inch screens, one HD and the other UHD. From about six feet away, the difference was clear — but not when I stepped back to what felt like a more comfortable eight feet or so.
Some TV manufacturers will argue that even six feet is too far away for a screen that size: At an industry conference in New York last summer, multiple speakers suggested that 1.5 times screen height — barely four feet for a 65-inch screen — was UHD’s optimal viewing distance.
So you might need a bigger wall to mount a UHD screen on, but at least you won’t have to bust out the opposite wall to move the couch back.
Maybe all of us, not just a videophile niche, will get used to watching TV from the same distances we sit from monitors today. If so, please tell me we can draw the line at the inevitable sales push for 8K video.
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