UHD TV makers: J'Accuse!

Credit: Stewart Wolpin/DVICE

Let's assume I'm a fatally cynical tech reporter (probably a safe thing to assume). And if I were, I would think the makers of today's UHD 4K TVs are knowingly and with malice aforethought perpetrating a fraud on the TV-buying public.

Why? Because all of the UHD TVs being sold right now are incompatible with future 4K streaming, broadcast and packaged media content delivery standards. Furthermore, UHD TV makers know their 4K sets are 4K incompatible, and have barely bothered telling prospective buyers. To me, this like selling someone a house and not telling them the foundation is on the verge of collapse.

A quick refresher: UHD stands for Ultra High Definition, TVs with four times the resolution (3840 x 2160 pixels) of today's 1920 x 1080 HDTVs. At the last CES, nearly every TV maker displayed or demonstrated UHD 4K models, some with screens as large as 110 inches. The initial UHDs being sold now are equipped with either 84 or 85 inch screens, and are priced between $17,000 and $40,000.

Make no mistake — it's not me making this UHD incompatibility claim. The admission was made by an executive from one of the aforementioned UHD TV makers.

Earlier this month, I attended a global press event for the annual IFA show, the enormous European consumer electronics and appliance exhibition held each September in Berlin (full disclosure: IFA paid my way to the event in Sardinia). In Samsung's session, the company's European TV/AV sales and marketing senior director, Michael Zoeller, flatly stated that all current UHD TVs on the market were incompatible with future 4K streaming, broadcast and packaged media (i.e. Blu-ray) content delivery standards.

Zoeller did not mean to confess, however. His intention was to promote Samsung's Evolution Kit, a $300 box the size of a deck of cards that snaps onto the rear of specific models of Samsung HDTVs (and its S9 85 inch UHD TV), designed to keep the company's TV sets up-to-date with evolving standards.

But this Evolution Kit Samsung is about to sell is not only not a solution to UHD's future 4K compatibility, it may even represent a more egregious breach of consumer trust.

So what's the problem with today's UHD TVs?

Compression

UHD's future 4K compatibility issues are two fold: compression and connectivity.

Today, HD video is compressed using a codec called AVC (Advanced Video Coding), aka H.264. But 4K is four times the resolution of today's 1080p HD video, which means AVC isn't efficient enough to compress 4K video into a package small enough to fit down today's wireless and broadcast pipes or on current Blu-ray discs.

This past January, the compression standards powers-that-be adopted the HEVC (High Efficiency Video Compression), or H.265 codec. HEVC is twice as efficient as AVC, which means if a two hour HD movie compressed via AVC results in a 1 GB file, that same movie compressed using HEVC would be around 500 MB. That same movie in 4K/HEVC would give you a 1.5 GB file.

Without HEVC decoding, no streamed 4K content — say, from Netflix, for instance, which has already announced its original series, "House of Cards," would be one of the company's initial 4K streams in a year or two — can be received or displayed on a current UHD.

But today's UHD TVs lack HEVC decoders. No device — no tablet, no phone, and no PC — is likely to include an HEVC decoder until later this year at the earliest, TVs (including UHDs) almost certainly not until next year.

Connectivity and Content

Even with HEVC encoding/decoding, today's HDMI standard (version 1.4a) also is inadequate for 4K. At the last CES, while TV makers were exhibiting their 4K UHDs, the HDMI Forum announced it would have a final spec for the unnamed "next version of the HDMI [s]pecification" sometime in the next few months.As with HEVC, even if HDMI 2.0 were announced in the next few weeks, it's unlikely any device — media steamers, video game consoles, Blu-ray players and especially TVs — will be equipped with HDMI 2.0 jacks until next year.

Compression and connectivity aren't UHD's only problems. TV broadcasters are unlikely to engage in yet another expensive infrastructure upgrade so soon after the analog-to-digital switch in the mid-2000s, so don't expect The Big Bang Theory or Game of Thrones in 4K anytime soon. And, of course, all content devices will have to upgraded with not only HEVC decoders and HDMI 2.0 jacks, but more powerful processors to transmit 4K's higher bit rate and new copy protection schemes. According to Zoeller, it could be a decade before the entire UHD ecosystem is in place.

Evolution Revolution?

After my initial trade report on Zoeller's comments, I got this statement from Samsung:

Samsung would like to clarify that consumers who purchase a Samsung UHD TV will enjoy the picture quality benefits of UHD now and even after the standards are finalized. The changes required to support the new standards will be implemented through our Evolution Kit, which will be available to owners of our UHD TVs. Samsung is committed to providing the best TV viewing experience to our customers and the Evolution Kit is our simple solution for them to get the latest technologies and features.

This statement is true in letter, but not necessarily in spirit.

The "picture quality benefits" of current UHDs come primarily through upscaling of 1080p content, which looks damned good. And this upscaled 1080p content will continue to look damned good "even after the standards are finalized," so Samsung's statement is accurate in that respect.

But no one buying a UHD TV today is buying it to simply improve 1080p content. They want to get a jump on being able to view 4K content, of which there is none right now.

Which brings us to the sticky issue of the Samsung Evolution Kit.The Evolution Kit due to go on sale next month is primarily designed to provide PC-like upgrades to Samsung's Smart Hub connected TV operating system and apps. It's a brilliant idea I hope other TV makers adopt as smart TVs get ever smarter. However, the Evolution Kit Samsung is about to start selling will not include HEVC or HDMI 2.0. I've asked Samsung if these two required 4K standards would be included on future Evolution Kits (acquiring another $300 Evolution Kit if and when) and have yet to receive anything other than the above statement.

J'Accuse

Even without Zoeller's frank 4K incompatibility admission, it's hard to believe TV manufacturers didn't know their expensive 4K TVs would be unable to display any future commercially available 4K content.

But we have Zoeller's startling incompatibility admission. And in tiny print, LG warns potential buyers of this 4K deficiency:

No "ultra high definition" or "4K" video content is currently available. No broadcast or other standard currently exists for "4K" or "ultra high definition" television and the 84LM9800 may not be compatible with such standards if and when developed.

Sony's XBR-84X900 UHD promotional pages contain no 4K content compatibility caveat I can find.

Perhaps when UHDs with HEVC and HDMI 2.0 compatibility are available, UHD makers will provide some sort of trade-in programs for those who bought pre-standard UHDs.

Perhaps.

In my mind, however, it's too late for such accommodation.

If TV makers know current UHDs will never be able to display commercially available 4K content, and do not loudly and clearly inform buyers of this 4K disability, they are teetering on the edge of consumer fraud. After all, how can you call your TV "4K" if it can't play back anything in 4K?

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