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What is 4K TV Ultra HD? 10 reasons why you should care

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As evidenced by our recent reviews, top-of-the-range TVs are already incredibly good. Consequently, every time someone talks to me about ‘4K TV’ I roll my eyes and question whether the world really needs it.

But our resident TV expert, John Archer, isn’t a TV Luddite like me, so I set him the task of convincing me (and you) that 4K TV Ultra HD is more than just a new gimmick for selling more TVs.
Andy Vandervell, deputy editor

What is 4K TV & Ultra HD?

4K TV and Ultra HD are one of the same. Any TV described as 4K or Ultra HD will have a resolution of 3840 x 2160, where the 4K is derived from the number of horizontal pixels. This is slightly confusing as Full HD TVs, also known as 1080p TVs, take the number from the vertical pixels: i.e. 1,080.

But what does this mean? In very basic terms, a higher resolution means more pixels. More pixels means more detail: 4K Ultra HD TVs have 8.3 million pixels while current Full HD TVs have just over two million. The result is 4K TVs have four times as many pixels than Full HD TVs at the same size.

But the better question is why does this matter? For find out, read on for 10 reasons why you should care about 4K Ultra HD TVs.

Reason #1: 4K Ultra HD TVs are getting cheaper very quickly

Let's deal with the obvious objection first: price.

Yes, 4K didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts where pricing was concerned, with both LG and Sony’s debut 84-inch 4K TVs costing north of £20k.

But things are quite different. The 55-inch Samsung UE55F9000 (below) we reviewed recently launched at £4,000, a huge reduction in a short amount of time. Moreover, a matter of weeks later Samsung revealed a price drop of £700 down to £3,299 and £1000 off the 65-inch version to £4,999.
Samsung UE55F9000

It's not affordable for everyone, of course, but it's a rapid reduction in a short amount of time and means 4K sets are now a similar price to the normal Full HD TVs in our best TV round-up.

This trend is bound to continue and Philips is already predicting hefty 4K price erosion ahead of the launch of its own 4K TVs at IFA at the end of August. One new set, the Seiki SE50UY04, is on sale for a frankly ridiculous - and suspicious - $1,500.

2014 will see many, more affordable 4K TVs to the point where upgrading begins to make sense.

Read our Sony 4K TV review

Reason #2: 4K Ultra HD is not just a fad

The story of 4K Ultra HD resolution starts – as do so many other great stories – at the movies. And it starts much longer ago then you might expect.

Way back in 2002, the big film studios got together to form the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI). Its focus was to get cinemas to convert from their old analogue film systems with their costly and easily damaged reels to digital ones that played more easily distributed and endlessly pristine digital image files.

Part of the DCI’s work involved creating a set of standards that cinemas should meet in converting to digital, dangling the carrot of financial help (or the lack of it) to entice cinemas to join up. Within these standards was the stipulation that the projectors installed must deliver a 2K or 4k (4,096 x 2,160) resolution.

Sony, the only member of the DCI with feet in both the hardware and filmmaking camps, immediately focussed on producing 4K Ultra HD projectors, with the first 4K Ultra HD projector being installed in a cinema in 2006.

So effective has the DCI initiative been since then that, at the time of writing, there are more than 20,000 4K projectors globally, with 40% of all US commercial screens now using 4K Ultra HD digital projectors.

This is an impressive growth rate for 4K Ultra HD by any measure, and it’s actually increasing all the time. So as well as having a history of more than 10 years, 4K Ultra HD as a format is very much here to stay in the cinema world.

Reason #3: 4K film and TV is already common and it's growing

With the number of 4K-capable cinemas already high and growing fast, more and more new films are either being converted into 4K Ultra HD digital masters from 35mm celluloid, or filmed directly in the 4K digital format using a new generation of 4K-capable digital cameras, including the $120,000 Sony F65 pictured.

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Sony's F65 4K camera costs $120k and it's easy to see why

So, when people say there are no 4K Ultra HD sources, that couldn’t be further from the truth. There are loads of them. What’s missing is a mean means of distributing those 4K Ultra HD sources – something we’ll come back to later.

It’s not just films that are getting the 4K-treatment, either. More and more TV shows are now shot in 4K. This might seem strange given the current, though soon to change, dearth of 4K-resolution TVs and projectors, but as well as making it possible for 4K-produced TV shows to deliver slightly better picture quality than 2K productions even on 2K TVs, shooting in 4K now future proofs TV shows for the next generation of TV technology. Shooting and post-producing in 4K lets TV show makers to ask for more money during syndication negotiations.

At the time of writing 14 TV series (including America’s No. 1 quiz show, Jeopardy!) shoot in 4K. This number is only going to grow, not least because Sony Pictures now insists that any new TV series shot on its Culver City lot uses the 4K format.

Reason #4: 4K can recreate the look of 35mm film digitally

Tucked away in Hangar 7 of Sony Pictures’ 44.5-acre Culver City plot is Colorworks: an in-house post-production company set up five years ago that specialises in creating 4K masters of new films and 4K Ultra HD remasters of back-catalogue films.
 
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Sony Picture's Culver City lot in LA is home to Colorworks, a post-production company that specialises in 4K masters and remasters

During my meeting with the film-obsessed employees there, it became abundantly clear that it’s only once you get up to the 4K Ultra HD pixel level that you can scan 35mm film into digital form without losing significant amounts of the texture, detail, graduation subtlety and colour refinement contained in the ‘analogue’ celluloid image. Even the natural grain of the film’s stock is retained in a 4K transfer.

This shows how 4K Ultra HD allows Colorworks – and other post-production studios – to master digital files for digital cinemas from movies shot on film without any loss in quality.

Just as importantly, 4K’s affinity with film means that films shot digitally using 4K cameras can be lasered onto film reels for use in older cinemas.

Reason #5: 4K Ultra HD is far closer to 'the cinema at home' than 2K

From point two, it follows that the only way to see at home a film that looks pretty much exactly as the people who made it wanted it to look when they made it for a cinema, is to own a 4K display able to render 4K digital film files in their native resolution.

This cinematic authenticity aspect of 4K Ultra HDshould instantly make the format nigh-on irresistible to serious film fans.

Reason #6: 4K Ultra HD delivers detail 2K and Full HD cannot reach

It’s worth detailing what specifically it is about 4K Ultra HD that makes it able to reproduce so well the cinema experience at home compared with normal HD.

Obviously the main point is detail, as having 4096 (or 3840) x 2160 pixels to work with lets displays reproduce not just all the most subtle details recorded to ‘analogue’ celluloid, but even the very ‘texture’ of the celluloid itself.

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4K resolution is in a completely different league to 1080p (Full HD) or 2K

Having so many pixels of detail also greatly boosts the potential draw distance of pictures, giving them a much more profound sense of depth than you get with 2K. So much so that many viewers feel like 4K Ultra HD images are 3D, even when they’re not.

Being able to break images down into so many more pixels also helps with colour reproduction, as colours have almost infinite subtlety when it comes to blends and tonal shifts.

Reason #7: 4K is the perfect resolution for full immersion

Some 4K detractors obsess about the idea that if you sit too far from a 4K TV then you won’t be able to appreciate its extra resolution. It is indeed true that pretty much everyone we spoke to on our Sony Pictures studio visit and during Sony’s 4K hardware launch afterwards stated that the ideal 4K Ultra HD viewing distance is 1.5x the height of your TV screen versus the 3x TV height figure usually talked about for current 2K HD displays.

However, far from being a problem, 4K Ultra HD’s ideal viewing distance seems like a good thing to me. Why? Because sitting at a distance of 1.5 x your screen height means that the screen completely fills your field of vision, making  you far more immersed in what you’re watching. In other words, it’s yet another way that 4K Ultra HD helps you achieve at home the sort of experience you usually have to go and seek out at the cinema.

Obviously, the viewing distance situation arguably makes 4K screens smaller than 50 or maybe even 55-inch less than ideal for your average living room. But that’s certainly not to say 4K doesn’t have something to offer on a small screen if you’re sat close enough to it – such as when gaming on a PC monitor, perhaps.

Reason #8: Native 4K Ultra HD delivery to the home is closer than you think

Actually, some native 4K content is already here. Most exciting, Sony is shipping a hard disc drive system containing 10 full 4K movie transfers and some 4K shorts with its upcoming new X series of 4K TVs, though at the moment this feature looks set to be exclusive to the US. Grr.

Most digital photos these days, meanwhile, are taken in a native resolution of at least 4K. Your photo slide shows should look a hell of a lot better on a 4K screen.

Sony’s also planning a new PS3 App that contains a huge range of 4K photographs, covering everything from nature and wildlife through to classic paintings – the latter even including close-ups of sections of the artworks.

YouTube, meanwhile, already supports the uploading and playback of 4K video files – provided your PC has a 4K-capable graphics card.

When it comes to broadcasts, a number of broadcasters are already experimenting with 4K broadcast streams, and are increasingly starting to shoot shows in 4K. I'm told 4K broadcasting will be well and truly underway in 3-5 years, and I’m leaning much more towards the three-year end of this scale.

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Netflix plans to support 4K soon. Here's the massively popular Breaking Bad being remastered for 4K.

Despite the large data rates demanded by 4K Ultra HD video, meanwhile, online video platform Netflix has already announced that it intends to have 4K streaming via the Internet within two years.

It’s entirely possible, too, that 4K Ultra HD downloads (which aren’t as dependent on broadband speeds) could happen sooner than Netflix streaming. Sony in particular is in a prime position to make 4K Ultra HD sources appear sooner rather than later given its ownership of both 4K Ultra HD content production and 4K Ultra HD mastering facilities, along with various online movie and TV delivery services.

Blu-ray’s potential as a carrier of native 4K footage is hindered by its 50GB storage limits (4K movies usually need at least 100GB, and can go up as far as 200GB in their uncompressed form). However, work is underway as we speak to develop and ratify a compression system capable of squeezing a 4K film onto a Blu-ray, and there could potentially be an announcement on this by the end of the year.

Reason #9: 4K Ultra HD can solve controversies and get closer to nature

So you know all those sporting controversies like ‘did the ball cross the line’, ‘did the defending rugby player stop the opponent from grounding the ball for a try’ and ‘did Suarez really bite another footballer as viciously as we think he did?’
 
Well, 4K Ultra HD can solve them all. The way the ultra high-definition format delivers four times as much resolution as a normal 2K signal/screen lets referees and the media to zoom in much closer to the action, without losing so much clarity that it’s impossible to make a key call.

The ESPN channel already records much of its main footage in 4K Ultra HD for exactly the reasons given above.

This ability to get high levels of clarity even if you just focus on a portion of a 4K Ultra HD image also makes it a great format for shooting nature documentaries, as it means you can film animals from a greater distance while still delivering a high-resolution image.

In fact, by the same logic if current HD broadcasters started filming their shows in 4K Ultra HD, while still broadcasting HD, they would be able to select relatively small portions of any overall 4K-shot image for broadcast, creating a whole new level of creativity and programming choice for content producers.

Reason #10: 4K does wonders for 3D and is essential for ‘glasses-free’

Most people agree that passive 3D on normal HD TVs offers the simplest and most relaxing 3D performance. But serious AV fans also know that passive 3D offers a reduced-resolution 3D performance versus active 3D processing.

Watch passive 3D on a 4K TV, however, and the horizontal resolution compromise of the passive format is completely removed, leaving you with a stunningly detailed picture unaffected by the crosstalk, loss of brightness and potential flickering issues associated with the active 3D format.

Toshiba ZL2
Toshiba is the only company to sell a glasses-free TV and it was a 4K TV

Perhaps even more importantly, as the Toshiba 55ZL2 proved, 4K TV panels are pretty much essential for manufacturers wanting to deliver a convincing glasses-free 3D TV experience, on account of the amount of pixels such TVs need in order to support multiple viewing positions.

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