As the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show rapidly approaches, Samsung, LG, Sony and others are ready to release their latest and greatest televisions with support for 4K, which was officially deemed "Ultra High-Definition,” or “Ultra HD," by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) in October 2012.
With four times the resolution of standard 1080p, 4K displays have consistently been among the main attractions at CES the past few years, but the next-generation display standard has suffered from a lack of content providers—until now.
YouTube on Thursday said it plans to showcase 4K videos for the first time at the 2014 CES in Las Vegas, which runs from January 7-10. YouTube's 4K videos will be streamed with Google's new VP9 royalty-free video codex, which, according to YouTube global director of partnerships Francisco Varela, will improve video streaming and be available in hardware from more than 19 different manufacturers.
Netflix, which gave its users a taste of Ultra HD when it added seven 4K videos to its catalogue in late October, also has some 4K-related announcements for this year's CES, as the Los Gatos, California company has already stated its intentions to offer 4K streaming in the first half of 2014.
With YouTube and Netflix ramping up their respective 4K inventories, will 2014 be the year Ultra HD breaks into the mainstream?
What’s Stopping 4K?
The 4K format is indeed ahead of its time — and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
For reference, a 4K Ultra HD display is defined as one that has a resolution of 3840 pixels × 2160 lines. If you thought your 1080p HDTV was slick, a 4K display technically has twice the pixels and truly creates a breathtaking viewing experience. If you are curious, you can go to Best Buy and check out the display models to see what all the fuss is about.
Televisions with 4K support are not common, and they’re not cheap, either. Seiki Digital might offer with its 50-inch 4K LED TV for $769, but the majority of UHDTVs from the big-name retailers like Samsung and LG start at about $3,000. A few particular high-end models, including Samsung’s new 85-inch Smart 4K TV, range up to a whopping $40,000. The 110-inch model of that same Samsung 4K TV costs a panic-inducing $152,000.
The other downside to 4K is that ultra displays require ultra juice—that means fast hard drives, and even faster connectivity. Normal HDMI cables might result in a choppy picture, so for the smoothest possible picture, consumers will want to purchase an HDMI 2.0 cable, which runs 4K at a fluid 60 frames per second. Unfortunately, the new standard was only announced four months ago and will take some time to become commonplace.
And, of course, there’s the content. Netflix and YouTube are attempting to address the lack of native 4K content in 2014, but content creators will find that 4K video cameras are far from cheap. Furthermore, there are no movies or TV programs filmed in native 4K, and the current fix for upscaling non-native content—filling in the pixels to address the lapse in quality—creates a distracting, grainy result.
When Will 4K Become The Norm?
The 4K TV won’t likely outsell the HDTV this year, but Ultra HD may become the standard by the end of the decade if two things can happen: Content providers, especially television channels, create more content in native 4K, and Ultra HDTVs would also need to be sold in variety of sizes and price points. New technology must be affordable to the masses if it is to become mainstream. As of now, 4K televisions are expensive and impractical luxuries.
The price of the average flat-panel television reached $1,224 in 2012, which was largely driven by the variety of screen sizes and advanced features, according to IHS iSuppli. But even though the average TV price was over $1,000 in 2012, respondents across all age demographics in a 2012 survey from Alphawise and Morgan Stanley Research said they only paid $800 to $900 on average for their current televisions.
The world outside CES may not be ready for Ultra HD, but here’s some hope for those hoping 4K makes a splash this year: The GoPro Hero3 Black Edition is one of the few relatively affordable 4K-ready video cameras at just $399, and Polaroid (yes, that Polaroid) on January 1 announced its plans to sell a 50-inch 4K TV for just $999.
Top image: "Fuzzy Flowers" by Dan Rowinski for ReadWrite