4K – What is it and do you really need it in your home?

If you’ve been in the market for a new TV lately, or if you just like to stay on top of the latest technology, you’ve probably noticed some talk about the new 4K “Ultra High Definition” (UHD) video format. Indeed, many displays hitting the market this year and next are touting this new technology as the ultimate in high definition, or as Sony puts it, “beyond definition”. Well, it wasn’t all that long ago that we heard 1080p being called “true” or “full” high definition, and now we’ve got 4K. So, what is it and why should you care? Let’s take a look.

Let’s go the the movies

As cinema has made the transition from celluloid to digital over the last decade, the changes made for the big screen have directly impacted what we see on our smaller “consumer” screens and home theaters. George Lucas was one of the first film directors to use the 1080p format, during shooting for his newer Star Wars trilogy. What he and others soon discovered was that while 1080p looked great on Blu-Ray (i.e. in the home), the resolution didn’t quite cut it on the big screen. If you sat in the rows towards the front of the movie theater, you would see a softer image with less definition and more pixelization.

With that in mind, the industry set about creating and adopting a new digital standard for cinema, and in 2005 agreed on 4K (4,096 x 2,160 pixels), a resolution high enough to provide a sharp, detailed high definition picture on cinema screens, regardless of which row you’re sitting in.

Identity crisis

Cut to 2013 and all the major electronics players, always eager to market the “next big thing”, have started producing and marketing 4K displays for the home consumer. Well, sort of. You see, in this case, 4K is relative. While television screens generally adhere to a 16:9 aspect ratio, cinema screens do not. Therefore, the transition/conversion from cinema to home is not exactly proportional:

On cinema screens, 4K = 4,096 x 2,160 pixels.

On television screens, 4K = 3,840 x 2,160 pixels.

So, there is a variance in the horizontal number of pixels, while the vertical number remains the same. There has been some debate as to the naming of this new standard as it pertains to TV. Previously the resolution standard has been named for the vertical resolution, i.e. 480p, 720p, 1080p. Some experts have argued in this respect that the television standard would more accurately be called 2160p, but manufacturers latched on to 4K and that is unlikely to change.

imageImage 1.1 | Resolution chart

Honey, I’m home!

So 4K displays are here to stay and they’ll be finding their way into more and more homes in the next few years, but are they worth it? How much better are they than that 1080p display you just installed in your living room or den?

That depends. If your living room is the size of a movie theater, then it might be worth looking into. Otherwise, you’re probably fine with what you’ve got. The truth is that for most consumers, the difference between 1080p and 4K is going to be negligible to the naked eye. As you can see from the diagram above, 4K resolution is four (4) times the resolution of 1080p. Remember, this new standard was created to satisfy the requirements of cinema screens. When you take a resolution that high, and decrease the size of the screen by 60ft or more (the average cinema screen is 70ft long by 30ft high), then you will see considerably less detail. Experts have likened it to watching 1080p content on your mobile phone – sure it looks nice, but even if you put your eyeball as close to the screen as possible, you just won’t be able to see all of the detail in the picture. The pixels are just too small. Unless the screen size is greater than 10ft wide, viewers are unlikely to see a real difference in quality.

So, while viewers noticed a revelatory upgrade in image quality when moving from standard definition to high definition displays years ago, moving from 1080p to 4K is not likely to produce the same result.

We’re gonna need a bigger boat…

Which is not to say that there aren’t benefits to be had from 4K screens outside of the cinema and digital video production realm.  They could prove very useful to design-oriented companies and firms, for whom a large screen with a higher pixel count provides a better, more detailed look at 3-D models or floor plans.  Applications where the user is necessarily going to be very close to the screen will derive a more direct benefit from the resolution of 4K.  Think of an architect examining a 3-D rendering of his next project, or a doctor examining the enlarged MRI of a patient up close and in great detail.

The bottom line

4K Ultra High Resolution sounds cool and at four (4) times the resolution of 1080p, many consumers will assume that bigger and better is the rule and it’s the next best thing. While buying a 4K display certainly won’t be a quality downgrade and indeed could be of benefit to specific work environments, for the vast majority of home consumers and businesses, it’s not going to provide any discernible advantage over 1080p.


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