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4K Video Shows Promise, But Now Is Not the Time to Buy

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I’m not a runner. I don’t own any featherweight running shorts, and you won’t find me geeking out on the latest “map my run” apps. But I do love a good pair of ultralight running shoes. I travel frequently, and my New Balance Minimus running shoes go with me on every trip. They are lightweight and comfortable, they pack flat in a suitcase, and they are even good for a bit of exercise. At $110-plus, most would view them as a very specific piece of gear for a certain sport, but for me, they are a must-have travel item. Are there other, cheaper options that will accomplish the same goals? Sure, but I’m happy with the results even if I am not using them to run marathons. Sometimes the newest and most expensive technology can be helpful even if it isn’t being used to its fullest potential, and sometimes you can spend way too much money on something that causes more headaches than it solves. This brings me to 4K televisions.

As the world of ultra high definition (UHD) becomes more of a reality, I am getting questions about buying a 4K TV or monitor. Is now the right time to buy? Will I experience visual bliss with millions more pixels at my command? Is 4K really that different from HDTV? To answer these questions, we need to start from the beginning.

What Is 4K?

4K is the industry standard for UHD television set by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). The 4K moniker is similar to other recent industry standards in that it is really a marketing term. The actual pixel size for 4K UHD is 3840x2160. While previous HD standards used the lower pixel height as the name -- 1920x1080 is referred to as 1080p -- the current standard has switched to the higher width number (3840x2160 is referred to as 4K). Never mind that 3840 is actually 160 pixels away from being 4000, 4K is a nice, rounded, consumer-friendly number. In simple terms, 4K is four times bigger than a current 1080p HD.

How Can I Watch 4K?

In order to watch content created at 4K resolution, you need to have a TV, computer monitor, or projector that will display 3840x2160 pixels or higher. While CES 2014 showed off a huge crop of displays that will be available later this year, current choices are limited. All the major manufacturers have either launched a line of 4K-compatible displays or plan to launch one by 2Q. While several lesser-known brands such as Seiki and TCL are selling sub-$1,000 TVs and monitors, be sure to read the fine print. Some of the less-expensive models are using the old HDMI 1.4 standard, which only will allow 4K resolution at 30Hz, causing some issues with high-movement content such as action movies and gaming. Most higher-end laptops and PCs purchased within the past 6 months offer output support for 4K over HDMI 2.0 or DisplayPort. Always check the specs to ensure you are getting true UHD quality.

What Can I Watch in 4K?

As with any other new video technology, you will be forced into fighting the chicken-and-egg battle. As more 4K content becomes available, adoption will grow for displays. Since the end of 2013, YouTube and Vimeo are offering 4K options for content through the browser. You can find a playlist of popular UHD clips on YouTube right now. While the content looks amazing, it still feels like a demo reel to sell TVs. For content you actually want to watch, you may have to wait a few months. Netflix has announced some content will be streaming in 4K on compatible UHD TVs coming out this year. Sony’s line of Netflix-compatible UHD TVs will be hitting the stores in June starting at $2,199 for the 49" base model. Amazon and YouTube have also announced partnerships with movie studios to push out 4K content later this year. While Japan is pushing for UHD content via satellites for the World Cup this year, most broadcast content will require a next-generation network to fully support 4K. And while Microsoft has hinted at future compatibility on the gaming side, neither the Xbox One nor Sony’s PS4 are currently providing 4K content.

So, Should I Buy One?

No ... unless you fall into one of two categories:

  • If you are recording, producing, and editing 4K content, you really need to have a good monitor. Both Dell and ASUS have $2,500 31.5" models available today. But within the next 3 months, expect prices to drop with new models coming out.
  • If you are an early adopter and have to have the latest, greatest tech toy with massive screen space, then go for it. Be aware that anything cheaper than $1,000 will probably require some fiddling with settings to get a great-looking picture. If you are on a budget, go for the Seiki 39" UHD TV at $499. If money is no object then go for the Samsung 110" UHD TV listed at $150,000; it’s the biggest and best at the moment.

The rest of us need to have patience. 4K will take a few years to achieve critical mass adoption. By the end of 2014, we should have vastly more options for content in Ultra HD. Prices will continue to drop on displays as new models become available. And while the picture quality is amazing, it will still take time for consumers to drive change. For now it probably makes sense to go splurge on a nice pair of running shoes instead of a new TV.

This article appears in the April 2014 Streaming Media magazine as “Running the 4K Race: Is Now the Time to Buy?”

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