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Your 1080p TV is old already: Everything you need to know about Ultra HD 4K

If you were to have brought up Ultra HD 4K in conversation at a cocktail party a year ago (because, you know, why wouldn’t you?) you’d have probably gotten a lot of puzzled looks. But the past year has seen so much hype around this new television technology that people are starting to catch on. In fact, CES 2014 was practically centered around Ultra HD 4K, and so was media coverage. Still, while being familiar with a technology is a big step forward, understanding it is entirely different – and a little confusing if you aren’t a hard-core videophile. With that in mind, we’ve broken the topic down so that you’ll be able to hang when Ultra HD 4K conversation makes its way to the water cooler.

Updated 8-13-2014 by Caleb Denison: Updated 2014 Ultra HD availability, details on HDCP 2.2, availability of streaming Ultra HD content.

There’s “4K” and “Ultra HD”, so are they different?

At the consumer level, no. The two terms are practically interchangeable. But talk to a professional in the video production or cinema industry, and they’ll chew your ear off about how what we lowly consumers call 4K, isn’t actually 4K at all. And, technically, they’re right.

know about 4K Ultra HD Full HD 1080p vs 4K Ultra HD

In the professional world, 4K is a digital cinema standard that calls for a 4096 x 2160 pixel resolution. That first number is a horizontal measurement, the latter vertical, and they work out because they fit a 1.9:1 aspect ratio. Looking at those numbers, it makes sense to use the term 4K, because the horizontal measurement is in the four thousand neighborhood and is double the prior 2K (2048 x  1080) standard.

Still with us? Good, because now we’re going to come back to consumer television land, where the vast majority of us live. Here, we watch televisions with a 16:9, or 1.78:1, aspect ratio. That’s not as wide as the pros use, so the pixel resolution we get ends up being 3840 x 2160. This is double both the horizontal and vertical measurements of the 1920 x 1080 standard (1080p, AKA Full HD) that most of us use today. Do that math and that’s four times the pixel resolution. That’s why you’ll hear TV makers talking about how Ultra HD 4K is four times the resolution of 1080p.

In 2013, a Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) group decided that, to end confusion and make marketing easier, Ultra HD should be the official name for the new resolution standard. Unfortunately, people have been calling it 4K for long enough that making the transition to Ultra HD hasn’t been so smooth. Some manufacturers, like Sony, insist on calling it 4K anyway, which doesn’t help matters.

Do I need Ultra HD?

One might as well ask: Do I need a Porterhouse steak? No, of course not! You can do just fine with a New York strip, can’t you?  Likewise, your 1080p HDTV will still work years from now because 1080p broadcast standards aren’t going to go away the way analog broadcasts did back in 2009. Still, you might be tempted to upgrade once you sit in front of a 4K Ultra HD set.

What is the benefit of Ultra HD?

Perhaps the most immediately noticeable advantage is the higher resolution.  Ultra HD crams 8 million pixels into the same space that a 1080p TV fits just 2 million pixels. And it’s a noticeable upgrade, especially when watching native 4K content because the pixels are four times smaller and each one is getting a specific slice of the bigger picture. That, in part, is  why Ultra HD makes more sense in larger screen sizes – the extra pixels have a bigger impact on a huge display.

Having more pixels on the screen doesn’t just mean a better picture on larger TVs, though. It also makes it more difficult to see individual pixels when you sit really close to the TV. So, snuggle up. It’s okay. And while you’re there, you can take note of the fact that Ultra HD also offers a wider color gamut and greater bit depth, too.

Some experts debate the effectiveness of this higher resolution in screen sizes under 55-inches, and from typical viewing distances. We tend to agree that an Ultra HD screen has less of a payoff in smaller screen sizes for most people, but we’ve sat a 1080p TV down next to an Ultra HD TV for comparison, with the former playing a 1080p Blu-ray, and the latter playing an Ultra HD version of the same movie, and we’re here to tell you: the difference is visible at typical viewing distances.

What Ultra HD TVs are available now?

You can now purchase a 2014 Ultra HD television from manufacturers like Sony, LG, Samsung, and Panasonic, in sizes ranging from 55 to 85-inches. Now that we’ve moved into another model year, manufacturers are beginning to implement recently established standards, so you can expect the top models to be compliant with the new HDMI 2.0 cable standard, and some will even play nice with HDCP 2.2, the latest copy protection system. Even better, most of these sets offer the Ultra HD 4K version of the Netflix app, which lets you stream Ultra HD content  if you have a subscription.

know about 4K Ultra HD Samsung 85" Class UHD S9 Series Smart TV

Samsung’s 85-inch Class UHD S9 Series Smart TV

Can HDMI handle 4K video?

Yes it can, but to take full advantage of some of Ultra HD’s capabilities, it must be the right version. The HDMI standard that most of us use right now is HDMI 1.4, and that cable standard can handle Ultra HD resolution for content up to 30 frames per second. But, in order to better take advantage of Ultra HD’s higher frame rate, color, and bit depth capabilities, HDMI 2.0 is necessary, and eventually, HDMI 2.0 will require HDCP 2.2 (high definition copy protection) compliance as well. Not to worry, though, you don’t need to buy new cables — the ones you have now will work just fine.

Can an Ultra HD TV display standard or HD content? If so, what does it look like?

Yes, but not all TVs are created equal in this regard.

In order for an Ultra HD TV to display SD (standard definition) or HD (high definition) content, that content must first be upscaled. Most Blu-ray players have upscaling chips in them to convert DVD (480p) content into 1080p content so that it looks better on a 1080p TV. Similarly, Ultra HD sets need to convert SD or HD content to Ultra HD resolution before it can be displayed – it’s gotta fill all those extra pixels with something, right? Take note, however, that while most of the big-name manufacturers’ Ultra HD TVs do a solid job with upconversion, the budget brands we’ve seen so far have not. This will likely change in the near future, though, as upscaling chips become more ubiquitous and less expensive.

For now, the fact that native Ultra HD 4K content is scarce makes a TV’s upscaling prowess a crucial consideration. For the immediate future, most of what consumers will watch on an Ultra HD TV will be 1080P HD, 1080i or 720P content. If the TV does a bad job of upscaling, most everything watched on it will look significantly less impressive than actual 4K content.

Speaking of native 4K content, where can I get it?

If you own a Sony 4K TV and get the company’s 4K media player as part of the package, you’ve got access to over 200 4K titles right now. Otherwise, there isn’t much to choose from for the moment. Samsung is shipping a UHD video pack on a USB-connected hard drive with some of its top-tier Ultra HD TVs (though it includes just a handful of titles). However, if you turn to Netflix, there are several Ultra HD titles now available, with more on the way. The good news is, Ultra HD isn’t a fad, and the content is coming, we’ve just got to be patient as it gets deployed.

8K could be an option in as little as three years

As for broadcast 4K: There are already a couple of channels broadcasting in 4K in Europe and South Korea, while the BBC in the U.K. is planning to air some documentaries at that resolution. In the U.S., there will be a six-month trial for 4K Ultra HD broadcasts, except they’ll be limited to the Baltimore area. The 2014 World Cup Final in Brazil was recorded and even broadcast in 4K, though only satellite viewers in Japan have gotten to see it thus far.

While broadcasters figure out their own logistics, content owners and providers are seeking other avenues. For this year, that will include streaming, but we don’t expect to see some sort of Ultra HD Blu-ray player anytime soon, if at all. TV manufacturers at CES 2014 all seemed disinterested in the idea, and much more interested in talking about how streaming was the future.

What about those “Mastered in 4K” Blu-rays Sony has?

These Blu-ray discs have been a source of confusion for consumers. To be clear, these are not 4K Blu-rays, but rather 1080p Blu-ray movies that have been sourced from 4K masters and converted to work with existing Blu-ray players. You’ll be able to play them on your current player, and watch them on a 4K Ultra HD TV, but that doesn’t mean you’re looking at a true 4K image, because you definitely are not. The messaging and marketing behind this can be misleading.

Are there any streaming 4K services in the works?

Yes. In fact, streaming Ultra HD 4K content is such a huge topic now, we’ve created an entire page for it here.

What about 8K? Is 4K about to become obsolete?

At a resolution of 7680 x 4320 (or 4,320p), 8K is four times the resolution of 4K and 16 times that of 1080p. It might seem mind-boggling to fathom, but it’s a technology that already exists, and manufacturers are already playing around with it. In fact, we wouldn’t be surprised to see some prototypes sometime in the not-to-distant future.

This does raise a question over 4K’s long-term viability because it may turn out to be a stepping stone to 8K, much like 720p was quickly overtaken by 1080p after a short time. Japan’s national broadcaster, NHK, has been pushing 8K, suggesting that H.265 compression is a major step in the right direction. The BBC shot a good portion of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London in 8K.

That being said, it doesn’t mean 4K is on the way out already. The challenges broadcasters and content owners have faced with 4K will still be problematic when dealing with 8K. But if the infrastructure for delivery can be sorted out for 4K, 8K could be an option in as little as three years, but it’s too soon to say for sure right now.

Article originally published 1-12-2014