Today’s HD 1080p TV market ecosystem is mature, with TV prices low and available content plentiful, from broadcast and On-Demand channels alike. So it must be time for the next new thing: 4K TV! You’ve seen and read articles about 4K already – the tone of them varies across a spectrum from over-hyping to caution regarding market adoption. What I’m going to attempt here is to present facts about 4K TV from availability of TVs, availability of content, required network bandwidth, video standards, etc., and you can decide whether you are ready to jump in.
Let’s start with the basics – what is 4K TV? It’s about image resolution. An HD 1080p image is 1080 pixel rows high and 1920 columns wide. 4K doubles these numbers to 2160 rows and 3840 columns. Notice that the 4K name is based loosely on the column number, not the height number as 1080p is – just to see if you are paying attention. Maybe because the total number of 4K pixels is 4X that of 1080p?
With 4X the number of pixels you would expect 4K screens to display a sharper image – and they do, but will you notice it? I remember the transition from 480 to 1080p – there were two factors at play at the time: An increase in the number of pixels and a big increase in TV size. The awesomeness factor came from the combination of both. 4K TVs are coming to market in the same popular 40” to 70” range as 1080p sets. What does this mean? If you are watching a 1080p TV in this size range from a distance of 10 feet or greater, you will not notice individual pixels. So a similar size 4K TV viewed the same distance will not appear to be any sharper. To experience true 4K sharpness of detail you need to watch from a closer distance. This is one of the reasons 4K computer monitors are gaining traction – even if you are quite close to the screen, the image is sharp. I can only speak for my home theater, but it isn’t practical to move all the seating closer to the TV. But wait! - if I bought a much bigger 4K TV than my 1080P set, the 4K image sharpness will be seen, and the larger TV would bring a better immersion experience. Aha!
So, 4K TVs are shipping from most major manufacturers, but is there anything to watch in 4K? Broadcasters are starting to switch some sports events to 4K, and Blu-ray 4K players are appearing in the market, but there aren’t a lot of movie titles available in 4K yet. The elephant in the room in any 4K discussion is bandwidth. Live or on-demand 4K streaming requires a lot of bandwidth – around 25Mbps or more. Compare this requirement to previous 1080p and below formats:
Not many households have the high speed internet connections required by 4K. There is a bigger issue here – already during evening prime time a lot of Internet bandwidth is consumed by Netflix and other OTT services, and this is with SD and HD streaming. Broad 4K adoption implies significant scaling of the Internet and CDNs to handle the traffic load. There are short term solutions such as the video service launched by Sony. This is an unlimited 4K service that requires Sony’s media player and a Sony 4K TV. Movies are downloaded prior to viewing, which may take several hours depending on your Internet connection speed. But at least it’s a way to get 4K content to your TV, and the situation will improve over time.
Besides the content and bandwidth issues, are there other factors in play that may slow adoption? Several. H.265 encoding formats are still evolving, and Amazon and others are developing their own coding formats. TV hardware is not yet ready to handle future coding changes, so there will be some early market confusion and early adoption risk. Monetization is also a challenge – the combination of high delivery bandwidth cost and small 4K installed base means selling enough advertising to cover the costs will be difficult. Regardless, studios are now producing many new movies and TV shows in 4K for a couple of reasons. For delivering video content, having the highest bit rate source file is the best assurance that transcoding into the multiple popular formats and for various screen sizes will result in high quality video for the audience. Because over time the 4K infrastructure and user base will grow, content will be ready for consumption.