Lifehacker 101: Ultra HD TVs

4K TV, or ‘Ultra HD’ is the new buzzword being spouted by television manufacturers as they smartly side-step the Hindenburg-sized catastrophe that was 3D TV. If you listen to the hype, the next-generation of televisions are an industry-changing revolution that will make your 1080p displays look like an oil-stained nickelodeon canvas from 1915. (They said the same thing about 3D but this time they really mean it. Honest.)

What is Ultra HD/4K TV?

“4K” is a generic marketing term that refers to the number of horizontal pixels on an ultra high resolution display. (That’s approximately 4000 horizontal pixels, non-abbreviation fans.) The phrase has been semi-retired in favour of “Ultra HD”, although some manufacturers — most notably Sony — are sticking to the original moniker. The official resolution is actually 3840×2160, which is the equivalent of four 1080p HD TVs.

In other words, the technology is capable of delivering a crystal clear and vibrantly colourful viewing experience that trumps anything else on the market. The technology is being championed by every major television manufacturer including Sony, LG, Panasonic and Samsung (although only the first two are currently available in Australia). The new resolution is available on both LED and Plasma panels.

In addition to 4K TVs, there are also a handful of 4K projectors on the market. Panasonic is even working on a massive 20-inch 4K tablet running on Windows 8.

Can you actually tell the difference?

I had my first hands-on experience with Ultra HD TVs at the Consumer Electronic Show in 2012. I found the results to be astonishing. The difference in image quality is easily comparable to the leap from CRT to Plasma back at the turn of the century. That said, the panels were set up in optimum lighting and were showing 4K videos carefully selected by the vendors (much as they are in retail stores around the country). In other words, the difference in your living room will probably be less pronounced.

The ‘wow’ factor really comes down to the eye of the beholder. If you weren’t too fussed by the difference between VHS and DVD, then 4K is going to leave you similarly nonplussed. It’s also worth noting that the resolution gains are less noticeable when viewing from a distance. If you prefer to sit well away from your TV screen, the difference is unlikely to amaze you.

What content is available?

This is the major pickle facing prospective buyers. At present, there is literally no 4K content available for Ultra HD TVs; or even a disc format. The situation is comparable to the emergence of 3D panels — early adopters were forced to wait months for a decent 3D Blu-ray release and 3D broadcasting in Australia remains scant at best.

Sony has announced a 4K video streaming service which will be compatible with the PlayStation 4 — but there has been no word on whether this will be available in Australia at the time of launch. It will be very interesting to see how the technology handles video streaming in this country, given the huge size of the data involved.

Meanwhile, the Blu-ray Association is looking into the technical feasibility of adding a 4K UltraHD tier to the BD format, but has yet to make any formal announcements.

How much do they cost?

Pricing for Ultra HD TVs is currently eye-wateringly high. The cheapest options are well over $10,000, with premium models costing significantly more.

You can currently buy LG’s 84-ich 84LM9600 for around $15,000, while Sony’s Bravia XBR-84X900 commands an RRP of $24,999. This actually compares favourably to the first generation of Plasma TVs, where prices sometimes topped $100k.

You can expect prices to remain steep for some time to come. As with any emerging technology, sanity will prevail after the early adopters have been fleeced — by which time the next big technology should be making its appearance. Speaking of which…

What about 8K TV?

4K TVs have barely even hit the market, but this hasn’t stopped vendors from scrambling to supersede it (we blame maverick engineering teams). The result is 8K resolution, which made its debut in Japan last year. 8K UHDTV — or ‘Super Hi-Vision’ to give it its Nipponese name — boasts a faintly ridiculous resolution of 7680×4320 pixels. This is sixteen times more pixels than a HD TV. Several manufacturers have already unveiled 8K models, so the technology has moved well beyond the concept stage.

Confusingly, both 4K and 8K TVs fall under the same ‘Ultra High Definition Television (UHDTV)’ umbrella, as decreed by the International Telecommunications Union. We suspect this may lead to a future format war similar to Blu-ray vs. HD DVD (or Beta vs. VHS for the oldies out there.)

What’s your take on Ultra HD TV technology? Are we looking at the future, or is it just another desperate attempt by TV vendors to stay afloat in a stagnant industry? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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