To go 4K or not, that is the question.
There’s growing consumer interest, and a fair amount of confusion, about the next generation of digital television known variously as Ultra High Definition or more simply 4K after the number of pixels that make up the screen. And the big question is: should I buy one of these new, more expensive sets? Or should I wait?
It’s an important question. Not only for your wallet, but also for the consumer electronic industry, the cable, satellite, and streaming services that bring pictures into our homes, and for the movie and television producers who create the shows and programs we watch.
So your decision at Wal-Mart or Best Buy has a ripple up effect that impacts industries worth billions of dollars. How about that for consumer power!
If you think I’m kidding, remember 3D television? It was supposed to be the next new thing. Avatar and a slew of exciting 3D titles were packing us into movie theaters a few years ago and the television manufacturers rolled out models that could recreate that 3D effect in our own living rooms. But 3D was NO-D. People – especially women – hated the clunky glasses and 3D failed. So when consumers speak, Vizio, Sony & Samsung, Comcast & ESPN, Hollywood and Bollywood listen.
So these entertainment, technology, and broadband giants are heavily invested in avoiding another 3D experience. When – or if – you buy 4K really is a billion dollar question.
My advice, and my answer after many years as a television producer and technologist is soon, but not quite yet. What you want is smarter, better pixels – not merely the greater pixel sets that are available today.
Rather than purely focusing on the screen, let’s look at the three separate aspects of how television is created, transmitted, and displayed. Because the creation and distribution issues directly impact when or whether you’ll have 4K programming to watch should you buy a new Ultra High Def set anytime soon.
First of all, Hollywood is already shooting many titles using 4K technologies. Episodic television is predominantly captured electronically and in resolutions that are actually greater than 4,000 pixels using a new generation of super 35mm imagers. For feature films, there is increasing acceptance of 4K with an expanding range of cameras and creative features. And directors and cost-conscious producers like the on-set flexibility and the ability to shoot take after take economically that electronic cameras deliver. Admittedly, most television shows are delivered in high-definition, not 4K, but the 4K masters are in the vault ready for re-editing and distribution. You have to feel sorry for Kodak: their sales of film stock have plummeted by more than 90% since 2006. So while film is not dead, an increasing proportion of movies and TV shows are 4K already.
That brings us to the second point: every television program, no matter how it is distributed, is delivered using some form of digital compression. Without compression, the amount of bandwidth necessary to deliver high quality pictures would make high-definition broadcasting impractical and choke the Internet. Whether it is MPEG2 – used by over-the-air and older cable systems – or MPEG4, which satellite systems and over-the-top services like Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes use, digital compression is the technological sleight-of-hand that enables the python to swallow the elephant.
Advances in compression have made it possible to do more with less. For example, your Netflix picture is better, more detailed, and less subject to buffering than a few years ago because of improving techniques. But the additional complexity in a 4K picture demands more bandwidth– a lot more actually – than today’s infrastructure consistently delivers to most American households. If you want ultra-high speed data, move to Japan or Korea where it is routinely available; but not here. So at least two manufacturers, Sony and Samsung, have introduced proprietary 4K movie players to provide content for their displays. The Blu-ray Disc Association is close to finalizing 4k technical requirements for their members, but you’re still a ways away from being able to walk into Costco to purchase either a 4K Blu-ray player or packaged media.
For the rest of us, including those buying sets with an even newer form of compression called h.265, there’s apt to be so much compression to fit into the available data networks that much of the advantages of 4K will be lost in translation. Still Netflix has announced plans to stream movies in 4K at what’s reputed to be 15 Mb/second. That’s four or five times faster than it streams today’s HD movies and if your set stutters or just plain freezes on today’s programs, there’s no way you can handle the demands that 4K streaming creates.
Time, technology, and competition will ultimately solve this bandwidth issue. A new generation of cable modems, able to combine multiple data pathways, is on the way and will trigger a race among cable, Verizon, and Google to provide even more data to the home. But like the growth of high-definition television, 4K adoption is another instance of the proverbial chicken and egg problem. Providers will create the equivalent of data autobahns when there’s a sufficient number of 4K screens in subscribers’ homes. But the triple treat that drove HD adoption – live sports, drama, and Hollywood’s best movies – can’t be consistently delivered (outside those specialized movie players.) Remember my purchasing advice: soon, only not quite yet.
Lastly, let’s look at the displays themselves. When you’re nose-to-nose they are gorgeous, I admit. But most of today’s 4K displays are handicapped by adherence to video standards created a generation (or more) ago and many of the 4K advantages disappear when you’re 9 or 10 feet away from the screen (where many coach potatoes sit.) At that distance, unless you have a truly giant screen you just don’t see the extra resolution that 4k offers.
Next, consider the range of brightness we see in nature: from the intense brightness of the glare shining off a lake to the darkness of the night sky far away from the city. Today’s television cameras actually do a pretty good job capturing that dynamic range between the whitest whites and the blackest blacks, but much of the television distribution infrastructure and a depressing number of 4K sets limit their dynamic range to standards that evolved in the fifties. It’s like making an iPhone have a rotary dial.
There are some who think that it’s time to say goodbye to this legacy of The Honeymooners-era. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and Dolby Laboratories have both thrown their weight into a extended dynamic range television and many who have seen Dolby’s technology, dubbed “Dolby Vision,” have been blown away. In its demonstrations, Dolby also incorporates a wider color range; though by far the greater bang-for-the-buck comes from the increased brightness and greater contrast that their technology unlocks. In addition, the EBU has endorsed a more exacting, more sophisticated standard for 4K video compression. It suggests a 10-bit video decoding requirement that would be a significant improvement over today’s 4K sets that contain more limited 8-bit capabilities. The move from 8 to 10 bit expands the color pallet from 256 choices to 1024 gradations. It’s like going from drawing with just a few hues of color crayons to creating a landscape with the super jumbo Crayola™ set. The EBU’s target for sets that support these improvements, along with others like higher frame-rate capabilities, is 2017/2018.
So what’s a consumer to do? If you’re a cinephile, by all means invest in one of these UHD sets. If you’re a technology enthusiast, become an early 4K video adopter. But understand the paradox of buying today. In the words of Dr. Joseph Flaherty, the CBS senior vice-president who pioneered many of today’s television innovations, today’s television is probably the worst TV you could buy. There will always a better TV you can purchase next week.
To prove the point, at this year’s Consumer Electronic Show the consumer electronic industry announced an array of sets with brighter, more accurate colors, and improved decoding capabilities. But the really important announcement was creation of a multi-vendor consortium to consider these gnarly behind-the-scenes issues. Bravo! Better a bit late than to ignore the confusion and the gaps.
So when you check out the latest sets, ask the sales guy: “does it support dynamic range and 10-bit color?” “What broadband speed will I need to produce the picture I see here?” “Other than the movie player, what network or service has announced a full menu of 4K programming that I can actually receive?”
Your parting message: “I’m not settling for half-baked 4K: I want smarter, better pixels, not merely more of them.”