IN THE FUTURE...
YOUR TV WILL BE CLEVERER THAN YOU ARE
WORDS: BEN KIRBY
With Ultra High-Definition technology only just inching its way into the mainstream, the most unfortunate aspect of ‘4K' is that it's also currently an accurate description of the price. Televisions like Samsung's 65'' Curved 4K Ultra HD screen currently retailing at a wallet-busting £3,999. Prices will, of course, come down and while UHD may sound like an off-brand of long-life milk, it heralds the future of home entertainment. Well, for now...
Okay, so what exactly is 4K?
Ultra High-Definition. Well, no, that's not strictly true. 4K refers to a horizontal digital resolution of 4,000 pixels, making it nearly double the width of today's familiar Full HD content, offering four times the detail. In fact, 4K was originally developed and named in reference to cinematic digital projection, but TV makers have subsequently adopted the name, even though their products generally have a resolution of 3840x2160 – so somewhat less than 4,000. If we're being pernickity, they should really call the new TVs 2160p, but that's probably not going to happen. 4K and Ultra High-Definition have become interchangable in the TV manufacturers' lexicon, so you'd better get used to it.
I wasn't paying attention. When did all this start?
In 2002, with the Digital Cinema Initiatives. This aimed to set a worldwide standard, resulting in 4K in 2005. In 2007, we got the re-edited and remastered version of Blade Runner in 4K, but most cinemas weren't equipped to actually display it to its full effect. Until Avatar.
The Last Airbender?
No, the big blue cat people. James Cameron and his record-busting space opera ensured that a huge number of 4K projectors were distributed. They were also equipped to deliver 3D, but let's politely ignore that.
But what about my living room?
Obviously unless you have a particularly large living room, the difference between Full HD and Ultra HD isn't going to be as noticeable as 4K is on the big screen. That said, with a larger TV screen, the difference is certainly there and it should be obvious with any TV over 55''. In the next few years, more and more 4K TVs will be sold at gradually lower prices, so they look set to take over the home.
Should I throw out my Blu-rays?
Certainly not! These things will display your Full HD discs without any problem. Moreover, "4K" Blu-ray players are starting to arrive. Those quote marks are intentional – there is currently no such thing as a 4K Blu-ray disc, and there's a chance there may never be. Instead, these players upgrade your standard Blu-rays for a 4K TV, in much the same way that certain Blu-ray and DVD players upscale DVDs for HD. It's not perfect, but it works. However, for a true 4K experience, you'll need a very new TV that accommodates HDMI 2.0 – that will enable you to watch UHD content at 60 frames per second.
What about Netflix?
Glad you asked. In April 2014, the streaming service started offering content in 4K, initially just for the new season of House Of Cards. If you have a 4K TV and Netflix subscription, you'll be able to see Kevin Spacey make sarcastic asides to the camera in Ultra High-Definition. Trouble is, you need a very good internet connection to stream in this kind of quality, with each ‘Cards episode taking 18.8GB at current compression rates. The chief executive of Netflix advised that you'll need around 15.6 Mbps in order to stream their stuff in 4K, so bad luck if you live in rural Yorkshire.
I bought a 3D TV and have regretted it ever since. Stop trying to con me!
Okay, admittedly 3D TV didn't take off in the way that James Cameron might have hoped. Although 3D channels like ESPN and the BBC were announced with much fanfare, they were a bit of a flop. Despite offering the Olympics, Doctor Who and even the Queen's Christmas Message in 3D, the BBC cancelled the service last year due to a "lack of public appetite". But that doesn't mean 4K is doomed to the same fate; in fact, when ESPN cancelled its 3D service, it specifically emphasised 4K as being the future.
My internet connection's rubbish. What can I actually watch in 4K?
Err, not a great deal at the moment. But never fear! In July 2014, the European regulator for Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) approved a UHD TV broadcast specification, meaning that 4K TV channels are on their way. Unfortunately, today's 4K TVs aren't equipped to receive these channels – you'll need to buy a set-top box or just wait until compatible TVs are available, hopefully sometime next year. Still, with no real 4K Blu-rays, no 4K TV broadcasts and an average UK broadband speed of 7.6 Mbps (less than half what Netflix requires for streaming 4K), there's not a great deal of 4K content out there. That's the main reason that manufacturer Sharp has split the difference with its Quattron Pro TVs, which Sharp argues are more affordable and can display content at near-4K levels: "It's the best of both worlds."
So should I buy a 4K TV and be done with it?
Yes, although you might want to wait for the content to catch up. Once it does, 4K TVs will spread like a beautiful, high-definition virus. That is, until 8K takes off.
Don't worry, it's a long way off. Panasonic have promised to broadcast the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in 8K, which is 16 times the definition of rubbish old Full HD, while we also saw 8K TVs at the 2013 CES, so they're certainly on their way. In reality, though, there's a limit to what the human eye can actually appreciate, while you would need at least an 84'' screen to see the difference. For the next decade, at least, 4K is the future.