Now that CES 2014 is over, one of the obvious themes of the show was 4K UHD televisions. Being somewhat of an AV nut (as demonstrated by my blog post about choosing a soundbar), I began to think about what 4K means to me and whether I think the technology is at all worth it or is it just some gimmick to get people to replace their HD TVs.
A better picture, but not the way you might expect
The "4K" of 4K UHD represents the number of vertical lines of the TVs resolution: 3840x2160. Now an HD TV has a resolution of 1920×1080, which makes UHD have 4x the pixels (8,294,400 vs. 2,073,600, respectively). Obviously an improvement.
But is it an improvement you can see? The whole point of higher resolution is to allow you to sit closer to your television without seeing the pixels. By sitting closer your TV screen takes up more of your view and thus is supposedly more immersive.
As an example, let's consider my current viewing distance of 10' from the television. If you look at various charts on optimal viewing distances they seem to suggest I should have an HD TV no smaller than 60" to actually appreciate HD (any smaller and I might as well be watching a DVD). That's bigger than the 47" I have now, so I should be sitting closer or have larger (the former isn't going to happen based on TV and sofa against walls and the latter won't because I can't convince my wife to get any bigger at the moment).
At 10' how big should a 4K TV be to get any benefit? According to the charts its about 80". That poses the problem of not only being a very hard sell for my wife to agree to because of how big that is, but that is not going to be cheap considering Vizio's 50" UHD TV will be $999.
In other words you probably won't benefit from the higher resolution unless you are willing to go really big on your television. But that doesn't mean there are not other benefits to UHD TVs that won't improve the picture no matter your sitting distance.
One thing that will help no matter how far you are from the screen is colour. The CIE 1931 colour space represents all the colours the average person can see. The colour space of UHD covers 75.8% of that range. Compare that to digital projectors in the theater covering 53.6% and HD TVs covering 52.1%. This means richer, more diverse colours on UHD.
But more colours don't do you much good if the screen is muddled thanks to the lack of dynamic range and brightness. TVs have a reference peak brightness of 100 nits (don't worry what a nit even is, it's more important to realize the change in the number). Today's TVs range from 400-500 nits and scale the picture brighter to make up for the fact that the 100 nit level is so low (as an example, the sun at noon is 1.6 billion nits and a star in the sky is .001 nits so your eye can see quite a range). Vizio's new Reference UHD TVs go up to 800 nits which already doubles the brightness of your average TV.
But the plan is to not stop there. Dolby Vision was announced at CES where Dolby demoed a 20,000 nit display which wowed both The Verge and Wired. The goal of Dolby Vision is to get everyone to start recording and supporting a larger colour space and greater dynamic range of brightness. TCL, Sharp, and Vizio have already signed on to support it as have the major video streaming services.
And from what I can gather from the reports from CES, this kind of stuff will be why you want a UHD TV; not because of the higher resolution but because of the richer colours and brighter dynamic range of the picure.
The death of 3D (at least at home)
Vizio announced at CES they are dropping 3D support from their TVs this year. It's honestly not a shock since I am the only person I know of who owns a 3D TV and has actually used it. If you didn't have a passive 3D TV (e.g. one that used glasses like those from the theater) then home 3D sucked. And unless you watched a CG film (and probably Gravity once it's out on Blu-Ray 3D) it wasn't worth it. So this is not really a shocker.
I'm willing to bet the trend continues for all UHD TVs and 3D will just never be a thing for UHD TVs.
The death of physical media
I own Breaking Bad on Blu-Ray. Let's say I get a UHD TV for Xmas 2014. How can I watch Breaking Bad in 4K? I probably won't be able to buy it since Blu-Ray probably won't be updated by then, and even if it is I don't want to have to buy it again. But I could watch it on Netflix without issue.
When Blu-Ray premiered less than a decade ago streaming wasn't really an option. Now it is entirely viable for HD and if you have a 15 Mbps connection you can get UHD quality video (when available). And a key point is that it will be transparent to you when this happens. You will simply choose a movie to watch and if it is in 4K then you will magically get it. You don't get that kind of automatic upgrading with physical media.
If the picture quality improvements come to pass I'll upgrade ... when I move
If the Dolby Vision stuff actually happens and the picture quality is as good as the tech media suggests then the upgrade will be worth it. But I doubt the upgrade is worth buying a new TV outright. So I would rather wait until I move and know how far I will be sitting from my TV before I bother to buy a new television.