What You Need to Know about Ultra HD: Hint, it’s 4K

Come a little closer; it won't bite.


After this year’s CEDIA and CEATEC (in Japan) expos, it’s pretty clear that 4K TVs are destined to play a big role in the TV market. There actually are two models of 4K TVs you can buy this year, and one 4K home theater projector has been on the market since last year.

The Consumer Electronics Association got together this week to talk about 4K and among other things, came up with a standard definition of what it means. Along the line, they also agreed on a new name: Ultra HD or Ultra High Definition.

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What is Ultra HD? It means more resolution than standard HD. Like Ultra Tide is better than regular Tide, we should believe that Ultra HD is better than regular HD. Technically, an Ultra HD TV needs to display a resolution of at least eight million active pixels, with at least 3,840 horizontally and at least 2,160 vertically in a 16:9 aspect ratio.

The new spec also stipulates that Ultra HD TVs must include at least one digital input capable of accepting a full 3,840 X 2,160 resolution video signal. An Ultra HD logo is also on the way. And that’s about it, or is it?

What else should you know about Ultra HD? Is there any plan for Ultra HD content?

Well, yes and no. Yes, of course there’s a plan. There’s always a plan, but so far we don’t know what format and delivery method Ultra HD content will take. It could be a new disc or a new download . Both have problems, which I’ve described before, but really anything is possible (except broadcast–we still don’t get that in 1080p).

So without content, should you care? Yes, you should care because Ultra HD can do a couple wonderful things that boring old 1080p can’t. First, it can make passive polarized 3D look awesome almost without trying. People love (OK, “love” might be a little strong) the light and cheap glasses that work with passive 3D TVs. However, the passive 3D system cuts resolution in half when viewed in 3D mode. With a TV sporting double the resolution you’d be able to overcome that problem.

Ultra HD upscaling can also do great things for your video. Your current TV probably upscales now to 1080p. Cable TV would look horrible (OK, more horrible) on a big 1080p TV without good upscaling. 4K upscaling will make color gradations smoother and eliminate visible jagged lines (kind of like Botox for TV).

I’ve heard lots of people say they can’t see the extra resolution. Really? I recall people saying that about 1080p. I even heard that about HD vs 480i in the way-back-before-digital days. While I agree that the greatest benefit will be on really big TVs, I expect we’ll see Ultra HD roll out on panels as small as 60 or 65 inches in the not-too-distant future. When put side by side to a 1080p set, I think we’ll see the difference.

That difference will be more or less apparent depending on how close you sit to the TV. From 12 or 15 feet away (not unusual in many living rooms), the extra resolution may not be a significant factor. But from 8 feet away—it will. Just last week we shared some research showing that TVs are getting larger. They’re not doing that on their own from binge eating. TVs are growing because people want bigger TVs. But as TVs get bigger and take up a larger portion of your viewing field, you start to notice pixels. Make those pixels small and they become harder to see.

Last week I was talking to a home theater installer who told me he’s increasingly being asked to build home theaters with very large screens into ridiculously small spaces. A few years ago projection screens in the 90-100 inch (diagonally) range were fairly standard. Now 120 is the norm with many people looking for much, much larger. Our own Home of the Year awards often turn up screens over 160 inches. With screens getting bigger and rooms getting smaller, Ultra HD projectors can have a profound impact on the video representation.

Projector manufacturers are moving a little slower. So far Texas Instruments hasn’t offered a 4K DLP chip for consumer-level projectors, and LCD makers are still trying to catch up too. So far Sony is the only company to offer an Ultra HD projector, but I expect JVC (which uses a very similar display technology) to be there soon.

So go ahead, be skeptical if you want, but give these new products a chance when they arrive. I bet video enthusiasts will rave once they get past the yellow barrier tape at the press conferences.


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