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REPORT

4K resolution TVs: Are they already worth buying?

By Andreas Roth
10.05.2012

Translation by Siobhán Hayes

Although FullHD has only recently established itself as the new standard in German homes, TV manufacturers are already introducing a new development to the market. 4K is set to revolutionise the world of television. Unlike HD Ready or FullHD, however, this is not yet a standardised designation, with some manufacturers also talking about QFHD, an abbreviation for Quad Full HD. And this is exactly what the new 4K resolution involves. The Full HD resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels is quadrupled to 3,840 x 2,160 pixels.

This new technology brings with it various benefits, but also new problems. To date, only a small number of models are available on the market which even support the increased resolution. Currently, the only television that can make this claim is the Toshiba Rezga 55ZL2. However, additional 4K resolution televisions from other manufacturers are expected to appear on the market this year. What they all have in common is that they are usually very large and very expensive. At the moment, these models are primarily gimmicks for techies. However, just like HD, the technology could become the new standard in the future. Particularly in 3D usage, the new televisions certainly know how to please. Some manufacturers are presenting models whose high resolution allows them to create auto-stereoscopic 3D images, in which the three-dimensional effect can be viewed from multiple viewing angles without the need to wear special glasses. The massively increased resolution gives manufacturers much more scope to experiment with various technologies.

In 2D usage, on the other hand, the level of detail in recordings is increased further. Moving pictures in full 4K resolution appeal to viewers with image quality that has never before been possible. The pixel distance on average sized televisions becomes so small that the human eye can no longer see it. This results in particularly natural looking images. However, there are some problems with the technology at the moment. Firstly, the current version 1.4a of HDMI, the standard at the moment for the digital transfer of footage, only supports 30 frames per second when a 4K resolution is used. Although this is absolutely sufficient for Hollywood films, home videos and video games are distorted as a result. However, a new version of HDMI is already in development, so this problem will be a thing of the past sooner or later.

A larger problem is presented in the form of the enormous quantities of data necessary for saving a film in 4K resolution. A full film would hardly fit onto a Blu-Ray disc, so in the medium term, a new medium will once again be necessary, although the Blu-Ray disc has only been established for a few years. The alternative in the digital world would be to stream or buy content by downloading. However, this option would only make sense if the user had a very fast Internet connection. Even with DSL 16,000, the data rate would not suffice for a direct stream and a full download would take many hours.

The Toshiba Rezga 55ZL2 4k TV set allows for 3D in Full HD without glasses. (Picture: Toshiba)

Apart from these technical problems, those who own 4K televisions currently face the problem that no content is yet available in the full resolution. All films that are available for purchase are always provided on Full HD only, i.e. 1080p. Video games for consoles, on the other hand, often only run in 720p. Today, the only way to find a wide selection of 4K content is via the PC. Here, any resolution is possible in principle, but you also need very strong hardware to be able to play back material smoothly in a resolution that is four times Full HD. Particularly for modern games, a single graphics card is hardly sufficient; you will need at least two.

However, all of these problems are admittedly teething problems, some of which even HD Ready suffered from. When the technology becomes more widespread, more and more content will become available in the new resolution. The technical problems will also be solved, sooner or later; the only thing is that the consumer will be able to get around buying new devices. Whether television owners are already prepared to upgrade their display devices once again remains to be seen.

Already, this year, content in the 4K resolution will doubtless appear sporadically. However, it may still be some years until the new format can establish itself fully. Nonetheless, this is not stopping technical development; in Japan, work is already being done on the successor to 4K. The 8K resolution should already allow the 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Japan to be broadcast in an unbelievable resolution of 7,680 x 4,320 pixels. This format is also referred to as Ultra HD or UHD for short. However, this is even more of a futuristic dream than 4K televisions.

The precise path the technical development will take cannot really be predicted. The only thing that is certain is that the technology is still becoming more and more advanced even today. Mass-marketable devices may give 4K a boost; there are rumours that the new generation of consoles can support 4K resolutions. This, combined with falling TV prices, could mean that 4K may be found in an increasing number of German homes in a few years. However, at the moment, buying a 4K television can only be recommended for the technically savvy, since it is still hardly possible to enjoy its advantages.

The new devices could also be interesting to 3D fans. Regardless of the actual resolution, 4K resolutions make the technical implementation of auto-stereoscopic 3D considerably easier. Systems like this are already familiar to most people from their Smartphones or the Nintendo 3DS. Here, no glasses are needed for the 3D effect. However, until now, a great disadvantage was that only one person viewing the screen from the correct angle could view 3D content, whilst other viewers could only see double images.

However, this could change in the future with 4K and other technological advances. If so, 3D televisions would be possible that would allow several viewers to enjoy a 3D film without glasses. However, even with glasses, 4K televisions offer the benefits of the increased resolution. Normally, the resolution of the image is halved in 3D mode, and this also applies in 4K. However, in the case of 4K, even after the resolution is halved, there are still a full 1080 lines per image for each eye, which results in considerably better image quality. Still, just like 2D, with 3D content, users will only really be able to benefit from 4K when relevant content becomes available. After all, conventional films in the 1080p resolution must first be converted to the higher resolution by a 4K television, which general goes hand in hand with a loss of image quality.

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