The great UHD 4K TV scam

The Great UHD 4K Scam
Credit: Stewart Wolpin/DVICE

Sometime before NFL training camps open later this summer, the first Ultra High Definition (UHD) TVs — so-called 4K HDTVs with 3840-by-2160 pixel displays, four times the resolution of today's 1080p HDTVs — are likely to arrive at a Best Buy near you, probably costing in the Himalayan range of $15,000 to $25,000.

What you're asking yourself, of course, is why? Why do we need a super-duper high def set? How much more high-def can a TV picture get? How much more detail will we see?

You're not going to like the cynical answer.

UHD Specifics

A month ago, I wrote about the top 10 tech advancements from the most recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which you can read here. In that limited-space post, only a cursory exploration was viable. Over the next few weeks, I'll expand on each of these top 10 technologies and how you'll be impacted by them.

This week: the new Ultra High Definition (UHD) 4K high-definition TVs.

First, some UHD 4K specifics.

UHDs also are called 4K because their displays are comprised of around 8 million pixels (8,294,400 to be exact), four times as many as today's 1920-by-1080 sets (2,073,600 pixels). Technically, I guess, they should be called 4X HDTVs. But I digress.

At CES, LG, Sony, Toshiba and Vizio exhibited UHD models in three sizes: LG and Sony with 55, 65 and 84-inch models; Toshiba with 58, 65 and 84-inch versions; and Vizio with 55, 65 and 70-inch units. Samsung and Chinese maker Hisense say they'll sell just 85-inch and 84-inch UHD models, respectively, although both displayed 110-inch UHDs in their CES booths.

All of these UHDs will be "smart" — Internet connected — and 3D, but no one offered exact prices or release dates.

So why do you need an UHD?

You don't.

You Paid How Much?

Last weekend I got a call from my brother-in-law, Tim, an Air Force lieutenant colonel. He wanted to buy a new 42-inch HDTV and found a Samsung plasma at his Post Exchange for less than $400. He wanted to know from me, the geek in the family, if that was a good deal.

A 42-inch Samsung plasma for less than $400? Uh, yeah, that would be a good deal.

And that's why you'll soon start seeing UHD TVs for sale.

You see, even though some gear costs $1,000 or more, the profit margins are razor thin. Manufacturers of mainstream consumer electronics — TVs, Blu-ray players, point-and-shoot digital cameras, etc — rely on high-volume sales to make money.

Among the reasons behind the creation of new higher-quality formats — HDTV, compact system cameras (the new cameras with small point-and-shoot-sized bodies with interchangeable lenses), Blu-ray — are often simply to have products to sell with higher profit margins.

Inevitably, new products become old products with more manufacturers making them, forcing everyone to lower prices and sucking all the profit from them.

Hence we have UHDs: high-priced TVs with lots and lots of profit margin built-in.

UHD 3D Benefits

My my, a bit cynical, aren't we? Isn't UHD a natural higher-quality evolution of TV technology?

Okay, I'll give you this much: the 84-inch UHDs look spectacular when displaying native 4K material; it's almost like being there, if your eyes were equipped with a zoom lens and editing equipment. It's nearly impossible to see a UHD's tiny pixels without a jeweler's loupe.

And UHDs will be a boon to 3D. UHDs are "passive" 3D — you'd use 3D glasses like the sunglass types you get in a movie theater, not the annoying powered "active" 3D glasses you need with most 3D HDTVs.

Current "passive" 3D looks awful because passive 3D cuts an HDTV's resolution in half — and you can tell. But even cutting UHD resolution in half, passive 3D still produces twice the resolution of today's 1080p HDTVs on a UHD, and 3D looks as good if not better than on today's 1080p "active" 3D sets.

The problem is regular old 2D.

Pixel Profit

One reason why the Samsung plasma my brother-in-law bought is so inexpensive (aside from its military discount) is that it's a 720p set. You lose nothing with a 720p set less than 50 inches. For one thing, there are still plenty of networks broadcasting "HD" in 720p — Fox and ABC, including ESPN, are the most prominent. No one broadcasts in 1080p — only Blu-ray discs display this highest of current HD resolution.

But because of pixel size, only the most eagle-eyed experts can detect the differences between a 720p and a 1080i TV at a normal viewing distance (six to eight feet away) until you get to at least a 50-inch set.

This same pixel detection difference exists for UHD.

More than 99.9 percent of the population will find it impossible to tell the difference between a 55-inch 1080p LED set and a 55-inch UHD 3820-by-2160 model, for instance. They may even have trouble at 65 inches.

But a 55-inch or 65-inch 4K UHD set is likely to cost four times that of a 55-inch or 65-inch 1080p HDTV. That's a lot more profit margin.

Since none of the TV testing labs has gotten their hands on a production UHD TV (as far as I know), it's hard to say at what size the HDTV-UHD difference becomes visible at normal viewing distances. It's likely you won't be able to appreciate the pristine image quality of a 4K set until you get to the largest sizes, 70-inches at a minimum.

8 Million Pixels And Nothing On

Even if you could tell the difference, there is no native 4K content, and won't be for a while. Current Blu-ray discs lack the capacity to hold a 4K movie using today's compression standards. Sony has said it would create a 4K video service, but hasn't released any other details — it may be reserved only for Sony UHD customers. Otherwise, the only content 4K early adopters will be able to watch is upconverted 1080p content.

So, to summarize: there's no 4K stuff to watch on a 4K TV that won't present a picture noticeably sharper than today's 1080p sets unless you buy the largest, most expensive one.

How's that for natural TV technology evolution?

But, as P.T. Barnum famously intoned, there's a sucker born every minute. The Consumer Electronics Association predicts 23,000 4K UHD will be sold this year, with 1.5 million by 2016. My guess, the first purchasers will be the ego-driven, well-heeled "Look what I have!" crowd, and UHD makers will be drool and cackle with Montgomery Burns-like glee. You paid $25,000 for a TV? Excellent!

For the rest of us reasonable budget-conscious types, we can wait a few years until 8K sets make their appearance, when new 84-inch UHDs become old 84-inch UHDs and are available for $400 from an Air Force PX.

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