4K: What You’re Not Missing

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A friend of mine is looking to dive into the HD movie realm and has asked whether going with 4K is a good way to “future-proof” his collection. It’s a good question, and one that’s being asked by many high-def connoisseurs at the moment. If 4K is here to stay, then won’t any Blu-ray movies bought today soon be obsolete once the inevitable 4K version is released? And are the benefits of “Ultra HD”, if any, worth the hassle of upgrading our systems and devices?

Future-proofing is frustratingly difficult to achieve in practice, as we really never know what’s coming down the pipeline and whether it will stick around once it arrives. 3D, after all, made a big splash but proved to be little more than a fad, and the industry quickly moved away from it due to lackluster demand. The market needed to provide a reason for consumers to upgrade all those 1080p sets, however. Hence the arrival of 4K—the latest in the consumer entertainment space.

If you want the tl;dr version, 4K is mostly hype, for reasons that are well known among tech junkies. That said, if you don’t already have an HD set or are in the market for a new TV, they may be your best option at this point. Let’s explore what 4K is and has to offer.

4K as a resolution has actually been around for more than a decade in the form of digital projection in theaters. As part of the industry’s cost-cutting changeover to digital playback, it was adopted as a cinema standard by Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) in 2005. It has since slowly seeped into the consumer space, with Blu-ray modifying their spec in 2015 to accommodate the format, and YouTube, Netflix, Vimeo and other streaming platforms following suit. 4K’s Blu-ray application, known as Ultra HD (or UHD), is very new, with the first titles being released in Q1 of this year.

More Pixel, Less Payoff

No doubt you’ve heard the marketing line that 4K offers “four times the detail of 1080p.” In terms of pure pixel count, this is true, but it’s far from the whole story. When considering 4K, we have to keep in mind the limitations of human visual acuity. The leap in fidelity from standard-definition (480p) to HD (720/1080p) is rather more massive than the jump from 1080p to 4K. Despite the huge uptick in pixels, our sensory threshold compromises our ability to truly capitalize on the pixel gain, barring abnormally close distances or absurdly large screens. As Wiki puts it, “At normal direct-view panel size and viewing distances, the extra pixels of 4K are redundant at the ability of normal human vision.”

Put another way, almost anyone can instantly tell the difference between SD and HD regardless of screen size, but when it comes to 1080p vs. 4K, screen size and viewing distance matter a heck of a lot more. You can see in the image below how close you’d have to sit based on the screen size you have, or you can use the handy calculator here. What goes unsaid in the marketing pitch is that for most small screen experiences, seating distance is greater than the distance required to fully realize 4K’s added detail, which explains why it has traditionally been reserved for the big screen. In other words, 4K’s benefits reveal themselves in viewing environments foreign to 99% of owners.

 

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Most sit too far away to appreciate HD, much less UHD.

 

You’ll find that most 4K sets are pretty large (55″+), in order to take advantage of the resolution. But as the charts bear out, your typical living room or basement is hardly set up to take advantage of 1080p, much less 4K. If you’re sitting farther away than the 7 ft recommended distance for that screen size, you’re not resolving all of the picture detail in a 1080p image. For 4K, you’d need to sit no more than 3 feet from a 55″ screen. Yeah. It’s why Blu-ray.com reviewers use a 75″ model or greater for conducting their tests. Their assessment rooms are set up specifically to measure picture performance in ways that would prove impractical for most home setups. What you really need is a projector and dedicated screen for 4K to truly shine.

Content Availability

Whenever a new spec is announced, a chicken and egg dilemma ensues. The 3D and Full HD formats were incorporated into HDTVs and set-top boxes a good year or two before relevant content was dense enough to justify the purchase. That burden now falls to 4K. The fact remains that most of what you can watch on your screen is sub-4K. Your dusty DVD collection is all in standard-def. Most of the programming on Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO, Showtime, Comcast, DirecTV, etc. tops out at 1080p. And other than the small amount of UHD discs now available, all Blu-ray movies are 1080p.

If you want true 4K content, you’ll need to be proactive. The best medium right now for getting your 4K fix is probably YouTube, which has allowed 4K uploads since 2010, and more recently Vimeo. Both platforms now offer a serviceable supply of independently created 4K content, though you may find the high bandwidth and processing power required to stream these videos smoothly negates the high-res benefits.

This brings us directly to the next caveat of 4K: scaling. What the lack of content ultimately means is that if you get a 4K TV, the vast majority of what you view on it will be upscaled—converted from a lower resolution. It’s a general rule that content displayed in its native resolution is inherently preferred to scaled content. Ideally, all source material would match the resolution of your fixed pixel display, allowing you to bypass the lossy process altogether. But given current concerns around availability, this will be the exception and not the rule for 4K displays.

Obviously, the quality of the scaling will be key here. More expensive 4K devices will generally be fitted with higher quality chipsets and yield better results. A quality scaler may perform adequately for 1080p content, but not so well for lower-res content. To be fair, this is always the case when resizing non-native sources, but artifacting could be amplified in the case of 4K due to the high amount of interpolation involved. You should expect more picture distortions from upsampling a 720p image to 4K than that same image to 1080p, for example.

It is also worth pointing out that a lot of what gets marketed as “4K” is actually up-rezzed 4K. Naturally, native 4K is going to outclass scaled 4K. The demos in the big-box stores are playing natively recorded 4K produced specifically to show off the format. You’re looking at a best-case scenario. At home, you may find that other ostensibly 4K content doesn’t hold up as well.

Many of the Blu-rays released to date on the Ultra HD format were not originally captured in 4K digital, but were merely converted to 4K for the reissue. Even the Mad Max UHD was upscaled from a 2K digital intermediate. And when Netflix, for instance, says they stream House of Cards and Breaking Bad in 4K to compatible TVs, we need to be clear on what this means. House of Cards was in fact recorded in 4K starting in 2014 (Season 2), so would be considered true 4K. Breaking Bad, however, used the 1080i format and would thus be upconverted to 4K before being streamed over the network. For its part, Amazon uses 4K for their full-length original series and pilots.

Streaming

Another issue often omitted from conversations about 4K is that our internet infrastructure is simply ill-equipped to handle the high data loads the format requires. The average connection speed in the US is 8.7 Mbps, currently ranked ninth in the world. Even places with reliable broadband can have trouble playing 1080p content smoothly and consistently, given the constraints around peak bandwidth set by your ISP and the volume of traffic on your network. In these situations, streaming services compensate by dropping the bit rate, which would effectively neuter any 4K presentation and render it indistinguishable from 720p or worse.

Put briefly, if you live in a group house with a basic internet package, you’re probably not getting the highest bit rate tier in the first place, especially during periods of high traffic, so your content provider would never deliver 4K quality anyway.

This problem applies to pay-TV systems as well. Comcast, DirecTV and Dish have been promising “Full HD” for more than a decade and even now this is barely a reality except in the case of on-demand offerings. Due to the many adjustments broadcasters make in order to comply with bandwidth constraints—such as fiddling with compression ratios, filtering, and bit rates—4K through your channel guide won’t be here any time soon.

Ultra HD Blu-ray

Much hype has been attached to Blu-ray’s new Ultra HD format. It’s been billed as the next evolution in home cinema and the best way to experience 4K—without the hassle of data caps and other previously mentioned constraints associated with streaming. Well, we’ve already discussed how the buzz over resolution fails to hold up under typical viewing conditions due to human perceptual factors. The pristine nature of Blu-ray doesn’t change that; the size of the screen you have and how far you sit from it matter a great deal.

On top of that, early reviewers are reporting a lot of bugs, “handshake” failures, and other playback issues with the initial crop of 4K hardware. You can read Blu-ray.com’s mega-review here. Given the high price point of these models, the exhaustive finagling required to get everything talking and operating as it should is unacceptable.

On the software side, quality is a bit all over the map at the moment. Most of the 90 or so UHD films released so far were sourced from a 2K digital intermediate, which provides a less than dependable baseline for comparison. The first wave has suffered from a number of issues absent from their 1080p counterparts, such as more pronounced source noise, judder and other motion artifacts during pans, and aliasing. A number of critics have also complained that green screened material looks more artificial on the UHD versions such that the computer-based imagery stands out from the rest of the picture, compromising the cinematic experience.

Some titles, like The Martian and The Revenant, have scored high marks across the board, while others were actually deemed inferior to the the 1080p presentation, as in the case of Exodus: Gods and Kings, Mad Max, and Mechanic: Resurrection. These are all clear signs the tech is still in its infancy and not ready for primetime just yet. Over time, we should see more consistency across releases and less artifacting and other ungainly distractions as the mastering teams grow more comfortable with the spec.

Market Forces

Given the above considerations, it would seem the obvious advice here would be to save your cash and avoid being sucked in by the 4K marketing hype. But—and consider this a kind of caveat within a caveat—there’s a very important reason why a 4K set may end up being your best option for a new TV purchase.

Consider that the 4K models are now the top of the line for many (all?) manufacturers. And most flagship products tend to include the best features and highest quality hardware. They often have better chipsets which offer higher quality scaling and more advanced image processing features. They tend to be more color-accurate and grayscale-accurate out of the box, and offer a wider array of picture controls for tuning the picture how you want it. And they often come with a greater selection of streaming apps coupled with the latest and greatest features. That’s just generally how it works. So at a certain point in the life cycle, a manufacturer will start giving its 1080p line short shrift and begin focusing its best efforts on their 4K line.

This would effectively mean that even if the 4K resolution offers no benefit by itself, it could still be a better choice over a 1080p set due to all of the other features that accompany that 4K label, especially if HDR with 10-bit color decoders and expanded color gamuts are in the offing. It all depends on how the market evolves, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we had reached this point already.

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Avatar 2 is slated to be shot in 4K.

Bottom Line

Here’s what we can conclude: 4K is overkill for most people. Unless you plan on investing in a front projection system for your home theater, or you’re one of those few people who sit no more than a few feet from their direct-view sets, you’ll gain little to no discernible benefit over your existing HD set in terms of resolution. So if you have a quality 1080p display, hold onto it; your standard Blu-rays will still awe your friends and you won’t have to contend with scaling were you to feed them to a 4K setup.

If you’re in the market for a HDTV and your highest priority is picture quality, my advice would actually be to hunt down a 1080p plasma display on Amazon, eBay, or wherever you can get your hands on one. Plasma panels were discontinued in 2014 for market-driven reasons, but still offer the best overall picture quality of any available display technology, even when compared to the latest LED-based LCDs. In terms of black levels, contrast ratios, color saturation, viewing angles, screen uniformity, and motion resolution, plasma technology remains king (though OLED could change that). Look for one in the Pioneer KuroPanasonic VT60 or ZT60, or Samsung F8500 lines. New and unboxed will be difficult to find at this point, but there are plenty of good deals on used sets if you know where to look.

If you absolutely must have the cutting edge and really want UHD, you’re better off waiting until the tech matures. In a year or two, the hardware should be more reliable, the studios will have had more experience with the format, and the supply deficit should be addressed.


 

Further reading:

Four 4K TV facts you must know
What is 4K UHD? Next-generation resolution explained
1080p Does Matter – Here’s When
4K Calculator – Do You Benefit?
Everything We Know About Ultra HD Blu-ray
10 Reasons Plasma Died