What is 4K Television?


What is 4K Television?

In simple terms, 4K is a term used to signify resolution, or clarity of an image. 4K stands for 4,000, which roughly denotes the number of pixels horizontally.
Just to add to the confusion, there are two broad classes of 4K:

  • For Cinema: 4096 horizontal pixels
  • For television: 3840 horizontal pixels

Why on earth would we need two standards? It’s a long story, but suffice to say that movies were scanned to 2K (2048 pixels) before 4K, so the number they chose was twice that, which is 4096.
Television, on the other hand, has no 2K, and probably never will. Instead, it has 1920×1080, what we call High-definition, or HDTV. Twice 1920 is 3840.
To avoid further confusion, we’ll stick to these terms:

  • 4K Cinema: To mean 4K cinema 4096
  • Ultra HD: To mean 4K television 3840
  • 4K: to mean both, they’re not too far off you know – 99% of the world won’t be able to tell the difference. The rest are hawks.

The idea is to bring the best possible clarity to your home. See the image above? 4K is marketed to the masses as having so much resolution that it feels like you’re looking out the window into another world.

Where can I buy a 4K television?

Hold on for a second! There are three fundamental ways in which you can watch 4k:

  • 4K Flat Panel
  • 4K Projector
  • Upscaling

Let’s look at upscaling. Upscaling is what happens when standard definition or high definition content is blown up to make it look like 4K. This is similar to how a photo can be blown up and be printed on a billboard. Is this cool?
Let’s say you take an HD photograph (HD is 2MP only, mind you) of a street and you want to read the number plate of a car far in the distance. You try to zoom in, but it’s not clear enough. A 4K image (roughly 8 MP, 4 times the resolution) would have been perfect. Some nut tries to upscale the HD image to 4K size – will that make it any better? Of course not. Who’s he trying to con?
The algorithm that does the upscaling (called resampling or interpolation) isn’t that dumb, it has a few neat tricks to increase sharpness and contrast so you ‘feel’ a difference. But it still won’t show you the numbers on the plate if it’s too fuzzy to make out in the original image.

One device that upscales to 4K right now is the Sony BDPS790 3D Blu-ray Player . There’s nothing wrong with devices like these, as long as you don’t have to pay 4K prices for what is essentially a ‘regular’ HD device. Some people are happy with that tiny bit of fuzzy clarity that upscaling brings to their lives.

4K Projectors

A projector is a neat way to watch television. One of the great advantages it has over flat panels is that the size of the display can be changed somewhat. 4K projectors work similarly to their bigger brethren used in cinema halls, the major difference being they don’t have the power to throw the image as far and as wide. If you are one of those people with a living room the size of a basketball court, this one’s for you.
One 4K projector currently available is the Sony VPL-VW1000ES 4K Home Theater Projector, for only $24,998.

4K Panels

This is so 2013. Here’s a quick list of some Ultra HD televisions:

  • JVC PS-840UD – 84 inch – $20,000
  • LG 84LM9600 – 84 inch – $20,000
  • Sony XBR-84X900A – 65 inch – $25,000
  • Sharp PN-K321 – 32 inch – $5,500

What should you look for in a 4K panel? Simple, just look for whatever it is you’re looking for in an HD panel, with resolution being the only difference. Consumer panels use HDMI to get their video, while professional grade panels will have DisplayPort or 3G-SDI.
If you’re looking to monitor 4K professionally, read What’s the best way to monitor video: DVI, HDMI, SDI or Displayport?
A 4K professional grading monitor will also need a color gamut suitable to Rec. 709 (for television) or P3/XYZ (for cinema). A professional-grade plasma like this one from Panasonic runs up to $500,000. You could buy a Rolls Royce Ghost, and a mansion to park it in, for that price. Or, you could buy the television and watch a Rolls Royce on screen for $500,000. We’ve all got priorities, right?

What extra devices do I need to watch 4K television?

I’ve already mentioned the blu-ray player that upscales to 4K. But you want true 4K, the real thing, eh? There are two big names currently on the market: Sony and Red. The Sony 4K Player currently comes with their 4K TV:

On the other hand, the real exciting prospect is the standalone 4K player that Red has introduced, called the Redray:
Other than the relatively ‘cheap’ price tag of $1,450, why is Redray special? Take a look:

  • It can go up to 4096 × 2160 pixels, 2D or 3D, at a maximum of 60fps, in both Cinema (DCI) and Ultra HD
  • It can display Y’CbCr 12-bit 4:2:2 or RGB 8-bit 4:4:4 in Rec. 709
  • It has tri-level genlock
  • It has a network based playback system, running on ethernet
  • It has 7.1 channel 24-bit audio sampled at 48 KHz
  • It has an internal storage capacity of 1TB

Is there a negative? Yes, as in all things Red. You’ll need to convert your HD or 4K content to REDRAY compatible .RED files using proprietary software like REDCINE-X PRO and the RRENCODE plugin. Oh, it’s not really a consumer device, is it? But for the multi-millionaire perfectionist, where’s the fun if you can’t transcode your own 4K content, eh? Please invite me to your transcode party.
If you want to watch 4K content from your computer, you could try something like the Blackmagic DeckLink 4K Extreme.
Finally, if you want a 4K AV Receiver solution, check out the Sony STR-DA5800ES 9.2 Channel 4K AV Receiver:

I’ve got it at home! What do I watch on it?

There are no disks or television networks that supply 4K content (at least where humans live), so you’re stuck with what the manufacturer gives you (like a few lousy movies) or your own content (your own warts and wrinkles).
Will we see mainstream 4K content anytime soon? Not likely. The biggest bottleneck is bandwidth. The world doesn’t have the broadcast infrastructure. 75% of the world still runs on standard definition, so we’re a long way off. Check these points out:

  • A DVD has a maximum data rate of 9.8 Mbps, typically 9 Mbps. DVDs are standard definition.
  • A Blu-ray has a maximum data rate of 40 Mbps, and blu-rays are high-definition 1080p. This is roughly 4 times the data rate for DVDs, which is proportionate to the 4x increase in resolution.
  • If the same logic (quality) is applicable to 4K television, it would need a data rate of 160 Mbps (20 MB/s). The Redray tops out at about 2.5 MB/s. That’s a quality drop of 87%!
  • Youtube shows 1080p content at a data rate of 8 Mbps, or 1 MB/s. At 4K, the Youtube ‘standard’ demands at least 4 MB/s.

Of course, the manufacturers will try to convince you through every press release and advertisement that this low data rate is good enough. If you’re paying $30,000 for a 4K setup, will you be happy with less-than-internet-quality video?

Where do I sit to get the best view?

No, you can’t press your face against your TV, even if they claim it feels like you’re watching content through a window.
As I’ve explained in Resolution of the Human Eye and External Monitoring, every monitor has a minimum and maximum distance where you can make use of its resolution. Here’s an excerpt from that article:

If you’re watching 4K on a 42″ monitor, the ideal distance is at about 2.5 feet (that close?). If you sit back to about 6 feet, you’ve wasted your money. You could have the same feel with a 1080p monitor.

Oh oh. That’s why 4K monitors are bigger than their HDTV counterparts. If they’re small they are useless.
At 65 inches, an average viewer will need to be about 5 feet away, while one with excellent vision can get the same result at 13 feet.
At 85 inches, it’s 7 feet for us, and 17 feet for fighter pilots or hawks.
What if your couch is 10 feet away? At that distance a 65″ monitor at HDTV is what you’ll be getting, so why not get a 65″ HDTV for 1/10th the price? Check it out next time you’re at an electronics store and compare them both with your own eyes, at the distance you’ll be watching from at home.
What 4K does do is let you get closer. With a 65″ 1080p HDTV, you have to sit back to about 10 feet. Any closer and you’ll start to see the pixels. 4K let’s you get closer, to about 5 feet. At 85″, you can sit at 7 feet, but no closer. This will approximate the viewing experience one gets with 4K DCI cinema, at least where imagery is concerned.


The Verdict?

4K is definitely an exciting technology, but one that brings the resolution of the eye into focus. The numbers I’ve given are theoretical numbers when all things are perfect. In the real world, the resolution of a video decreases somewhat like this:

  • 33% in camera due to debayering
  • 33% of what’s left in sampling, chroma sampling, first compression and losses due to ‘math’
  • 33% of what’s left due to recompression for the web or television broadcast

Your 4K television, ideally 3840 x 2160, is 1920×1080 anyway. Yikes. If you still want to spend something like $25,000 on 4K for your home, please support wolfcrow and buy from the Amazon 4K Store.

6 replies on “What is 4K Television?”

  1. UHD vs. 4K …

    We want to hire you for a job.

    We can pay you $3840 or $4096 per month – all of a sudden a silence falls as you ponder at length what would be better – offer withdrawn.

    Is it my Computer background or a quest for truth in advertising rearing it’s head.

    Why not just make 4K TVs and chainsaw a slice off the side for those wanting a smaller TV, there’s a market for everything and someone born each minute to join that market.

    When DCI TV (watch 0-day Movies, legally, at home) comes you’ll kick yourself for buying Ugh (UHD) TV. Remember 3D TVs?

    Reference: Quote attributed to various persons: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/There%27s_a_sucker_born_every_minute

  2. garettMcD The answers to your questions are available elsewhere on this site. One of the recent articles also shows how 4K downscaled compares to 1080p. Feel free to browse the site via the menu system.

  3. Thanks for the great article. Just a quick question about 4k cameras… You kind of talked about it in your article but I just want to know for sure, is there any benefit to shooting in 4k if it’s going to be watched on an HD display? You can’t squeeze 3840 into 1920 to make it look clearer can you? So getting a 4k camera at this point would only be if its intended for the big screen, or future proofing for when 4k TVs and distribution methods are more available… ? And from what it sounds like with the lack of enthusiasm for HD BlueRay, is the distribution method of the future for 4k going to be online? -thanks

  4. Interesting post. There are a couple of things that one needs to consider regarding upscaling, etc though, and there is an update with the Red Ray Player. First the Red Ray.
    1. Red Ray now supports H264 and 2K support. 
    2. In fact, you will be able to encode your own content onto the Rey Ray Player using the 20.00 encoding software from Red. The file that you encode does not need to be a professional format.
    The other thing I wanted to mention is the fact that currently, every DVD that you watch on a flat screen or projector today is up sampled. remember DVD’s are still only standard definition which bogles my mind that they are still being produced. This even though almost all content is shot at High Definition or on 35mm film which is in the 4K area of definition.  If you were able to turn off the up sampling on your DVD player and your TV set, you would be shocked at what the picture on your DVD actually looks like. 
    Now we look at Blu-ray. Unfortunately Blu-Ray is a major reason for DVD to be still so prevalent. Sony, with their proprietary format and very expensive licensing requirements for producers to be able to distribute in Blu-Ray have stifled the High Def. disk market and has contributed to the beginning of it’s early decline.
    That said, Taking high quality Blu-Ray and upscaling it on a large 4K screen or projector will create a similar improvement in picture as SD to HD upscaling does now. 
    Remember the $10,000.00 720P 42″ plasmas that started the HD market? Well 4K is starting at comparatively lower costs than that for equivalent sizes and prices will drop much faster in the this go-around than when HD first came out. 
    Many major as well as smaller productions are now ensuring that they are able to finish and distribute in 4K so it’s an exciting time ahead!
    Just my 2cents


    1. Larry Kelly Excellent info, Larry. Nothing ‘wrong’ with upscaling per se. Just that people need to know what they’re getting into. I upscale using the GPU to watch standard def movies on my HTPC (or DVDs for that matter). You take what you can get!
      When I spoke to a few executives at the time I was trying to release my movie on DVD and Blu-ray, the ‘collective wisdom’ I got from them is that people really didn’t care much for Blu-ray – maybe because HDTV is taking a long time to catch on – even today the number of HD channels in this part of the world is negligible. And I don’t even want to get into the quality – sharpened beyond belief.
      People are so happy with upsampled DVDs, that Blu-rays seem an unnecessary investment. Today it’s getting worse – people think 10 Mbps 1080p is good video! Yesterday, I spent the better half of an hour explaining to a client why 10 Mbps is crap.

      1. Sareesh Sudhakaran Larry Kelly I hear you, it’s so bloody frustrating to see people watching crap like netflix on 42″ screens, it looks like crap but they just don’t seem to care or…notice. I just have to get up and go to the other room. I guess the fact that upscaled SDDVD’s can look pretty good to most people on direct view screens is going to continue to slow  UHD’s release.

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