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The State of Ultrahigh-Definition Television: Will This Be the Year It Makes Sense to Upgrade?

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor

Photos: Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech

It’s getting harder to mock the electronics industry’s sales pitch for ultrahigh-definition (UHD) TV as just another exercise in TV shaming.

At this year’s CES, two of the biggest obstacles to making the leap to UHD (also known as 4K for its almost 4,000 pixels of horizontal resolution) now look smaller than they did when the format debuted at 2012’s CES.

But at the same time, potential upgraders also got another reason to wait until next year — or maybe even longer. Progress in the gadget business is like that sometimes.

HDR, by multiple monikers

The major flaw with UHD has always been the awkward reality that on many “smaller” screens — meaning below 50 inches — you just won’t see those extra pixels from your couch. And while the industry would gladly sell all of us 60- or 70-inch screens, displays of those dimensions won’t fit in many living rooms or budgets.

Last year, the industry began uniting around an addition to the UHD specification that you actually can see on smaller sets: HDR, short for high dynamic range. This expands the range of colors that a screen can display, getting much closer to the limits of human vision.

(Don’t confuse HDR with OLED, the screen technology championed by LG that also touts brighter colors; both LCD and OLED can handle HDR content.)

HDR is an obvious upgrade even from typical couch distance. And now that companies like Samsung are moving to add it to their entire product line, instead of reserving it for higher-end models, it should start getting more affordable.

Finding a set with HDR can still mean puzzling over spec sheets, though. As analyst Richard Doherty of Envisioneering observed, “All UHDs are not created equal, and some consumers found out the hard way the last holiday season.”

A new Ultra HD Premium label, which goes on sets that pass independent testing for picture-quality metrics, may help dispel that confusion. But first manufacturers need to resist the temptation to adopt their own brand names or to concoct an even higher-end tier — Ultra Ultra HD, perhaps — as part of some future upsell attempt.

Blu-ray support, finally

Finding something to watch in 4K resolution remains a problem, even with a growing catalog of ultrahigh-def fare from Netflix, Amazon, and other online video services. 4K streaming generally demands a good 25 Mbps of consistent bandwidth — twice the 12.6 Mbps U.S. average. (The latter stat comes from the latest State of the Internet report from content-distribution company Akamai.)

Cable and satellite providers, meanwhile, still don’t seem too keen on setting aside bandwidth in their own systems for 4K content.

But years after you might have expected this to happen, Blu-ray discs are finally gaining UHD support, HDR included. Samsung not only introduced its first UHD Blu-ray player at CES but named a price — $399.99 — and started taking pre-orders.

You will, of course, have to buy your favorite movies all over again. If that doesn’t sound appealing, Dish Network revealed another way to enjoy UHD’s higher resolution without waiting on rereleases from Hollywood or faster connections from your Internet provider: Its new Hopper 3 DVR can display four HD channels at once in four quadrants of a UHD TV.

You can think of it as re-creating the sports-bar experience — or maybe it’s just a cry for help.

Yet another reason to wait: Over-the-air

Broadcast TV — another way to watch video that doesn’t have to wait on your ISP and has the added advantage of being free — is also due for a UHD upgrade. A revision of the ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) standard behind broadcast TV will both allow for an over-the-air 4K signal and should deliver more reliable HD reception.

Two local stations are testing UHD broadcasts with this ATSC 3.0 standard during CES, following successful tests of the technology last year that saw over-the-air reception working inside the basement of a Cleveland office building 10 miles away from a station’s transmitters.

“It’s a much more robust technology,” said Doherty, who observed last year’s tests. And it’s moving rapidly toward becoming a defined standard manufacturers can build into TVs.

“The standards could be completed late spring or early summer and even voted on by the end of the summer or early fall,” said Peter Fannon, Panasonic’s vice president for corporate and government affairs. That’s much faster progress than we saw with the original digital-TV standard.

And it means we may see sets with ATSC 3.0 tuners onboard by next year’s CES — which in turn would give you a solid reason to hold off on any UHD upgrade for yet another year.

That new standard will also require new tuners in TV sets, none of which are shipping yet, and it will make every existing digital-TV receiver obsolete. Fannon suggested that you’d be able to keep watching over-the-air TV by plugging a small adapter into a TV’s USB or HDMI port.

It’s also quite possible that TV manufacturers will need a good year of shipping UHD TVs with ATSC 3.0 tuners to get them down to a reasonable price. You may want to check back with me at CES 2017.

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