You know what sucks about current high definition TV technology? 1080p. It’s just so… blurry and low-resolution. I mean, you barely get a 1920 x 1080 grid of pixels to watch an entire movie on. Doubling that resolution wouldn’t fix the issue either. No, I think we need to demand four times the details of today’s HD. We need a new standard that’s the equivalent of a 2 x 2 grid of 1080p screens.

Okay, so we’re being sarcastic. But the fact is, major manufacturers are beginning to tout a new generation of ultra high resolution displays. Samsung, LG and Sony have all announced massive (80-inch plus) TVs which will cost the price of a hatchback… but display four times as many pixels as your current TV.

Indeed, 4K TV – or ultra definition television – marks a return to the beginning of the flat screen cycle, when the screens were big, insanely expensive, and there was hardly any programming available for their native resolutions.

So what’s it all about, why would we want it? And most importantly, what are we going to watch in this amazing new world of beyond-ultra detail?

An 84 inch 4K television set is equal in size and resolution to four conventional 42 inch Full HD televisions stacked two-up and two-across.

What is 4K?

Unlike 1080p – which simply refers to 1080 vertical lines of resolution – the definition of ‘4K’ as a resolution is a little less clear-cut. There are actually several different resolutions called 4K, used in cinema, and these are slightly different to the 4K that you’ll find on a consumer TV.

In all cases though, 4K refers to the approximate number of horizontal pixels. That’s right – while 1080p refers to vertical pixels, 4K refers to horizontal. And in this case, we mean 4000 horizontal pixels. Thus, 4K!

Common resolution standards, presented as the number of pixels along the vertical axis by the number or pixels on the horizontal axis. ('DV' references the US NTSC standard definition resolution; the Australian PAL standard is 576 x 720).

On a TV, the actual resolution is 3840 x 2160. That’s double 1920 horizontal, and double 1080 vertical. Or, the equivalent of four 1080p screens stacked in a 2 x 2 grid. Yes, it’s slightly fewer pixels than a 4K cinema projector, but on an LED backlit LCD TV in your living room, it will look every bit as intense.

Interestingly, a 4K TV image is, in still-camera speak, an 8.3 megapixel image.

What’s it’s like?

The easiest way to experience 4K right now is to find a nearby cinema with a digital 4K projector. This isn’t as hard as you might think, because cinemas with 4K projectors like to boast about it, and they’ll show special remastered prints of old movies or specially selected new releases.

The next Bond movie "Skyfall" was shot in digital and could be shown in 4K at select theatres.

At the movies, watching on 4K is immediately noticeable. The image is much brighter, the contrast is better, and of course the crisp detail really stands out. If you were to sit through a showing in a complex’s state-of-the-art 4K cinema – especially where the film is shot natively with a 4K camera – and then immediately go and see an old-school 35mm flick shone through a standard old-school projector…. Well, the second film would seem very dim, blurry and flat by comparison.

On a TV, you’re talking a very bright, very detailed image on a display size of 84 inches (213 cm). We’ve seen it… it’s almost as immersive as watching a 3D movie. Nearly overpowering in its detail and intensity, in fact.

How does it work at home?

For a home installation, you’ll experience 4K on one of the TVs we’ve mentioned, or via a home projector. Both use the TV-standard version of 4K which is 3840 x 2160 pixels.

Just like your current full-HD TV, 4K will accept HDMI connections. HDMI 1.4 supports 4K, and many of the current models of AV receiver will pass it through from a 4K video source. You do need HDMI cables that are fully version 1.4 complaint though, and this can be tricky because it won’t be written on the actual cable. You’ll need to check the packaging.

The LG's 4K ultra definition TV pictured here (and showing Sony's PS3 Cross Media Bar) will go on sale in November for $15,999.

Under that fancy new 4K TV, you’ll have some kind of player.

It could be a dedicated 4K player with internet storage and a USB socket for a thumbdrive or external hard drive. Or it could be a Blu-ray player with 4K compatibility and upscaling. It’s hard to say for sure, because consumer level 4K players don’t exist yet.

Barco's 4K projector

Will it use discs ?

With current technology, an external hard drive or media server is the most likely transport for 4K content. That’s because 4K needs masses and masses of data. How much? Well, industry insiders suggest – using current compression rates – a full-length 4K feature would need something over 200 25GB Blu-ray discs.

Of course distributors will be able to use compression algorithms to reduce this size down to something almost manageable, but the challenge is very real.

There’s a 4K film you can buy right now called ‘Timescapes’ shown below (it’s mostly slow-motion and timelapse landscape cinematography of the American south west –  check it out at www.timescapes.org) which is being hyped in pretty much every HD format you can think of.

The H.264 compressed version of Timescapes weighs in at 21GB and $US99, while the less compressed version ships on a 120GB hard drive for $US300.

The 4K format of Timescapes that’s most sensible for a home viewer (4096 x 2304) comes in at 21GB and is sent to you on a USB stick. It costs US$99.95, but uses H.264 compression so it’s not, you know, pristine.

So you could go mad and get the low-compression 4K Cineform version which takes up a whopping 120GB and is sent on an actual hard drive. It costs US$300 though.

While these sizes aren’t disc-friendly and might seem like a real roadblock to the uptake of 4K, it’s worth remembering that a 1TB hard drive can cost as little as $60.

While it was shot in at least 4K, Prometheus has no way of playing back natively in 4K yet.

How about streaming?

At the moment, there are no streaming service offering 4K resolutions.

YouTube briefly offered it, then removed it. And who can blame them? The bandwidth required is in the order of 160 megabits a second, or nearly double what the National Broadband Network will initially provide.

Again though, this might not be as bad as it looks. Most home network routers now support a wired connection speed of 1000 megabits a second, and higher-end routers can support a wireless connection speed of 600 megabits a second.

So 4K streaming within the home – off, say, a home media server – should be possible already, especially for the kind of AV enthusiast prepared to spend $20K on a TV.

Still, with a compressed full length 4K movie representing around 20GB of data, any movie buff would be wise to keep a close eye on their monthly download quota.

Is it just about resolution?

4K brings another advantage that goes beyond an 8MP moving image: passive 3D. On a 1080p display, passive 3D (that uses polarised light and much more lightweight glasses, or even glasses-free technology) essentially halves the 1920 horizontal resolution, flashing only 540 lines to each eye alternately. This obviously has a huge impact on image quality.

But on a 4K TV, a passive 3D image can still have the same horizontal resolution as traditional Full HD. What’s more, this tech can be used to display two completely different images at once: imagine multiplayer gaming where both players watch the same display, but neither can see the other’s actions.

Sony is ditching active 3D technology in its 84 inch 4K TV, replacing it with passive 3D.

4K will also support the upscaling of existing 1080p material, and the advanced image processing circuitry of a 4K TV will improve the quality of all images. And with 8MP of display space, you’ll be able to view your digital photos with much less scaling than you would on a normal TV – and that means incredible levels of detail.

Can I get a 4K plasma?

It’s very likely that 4K will sound the death knell for that dependable technology called plasma. Plasma relies on little reservoirs of gas, one for each sub-pixel, and with the sheer number of pixels on a 4K display, it’s just not possible to make reservoirs small enough.

The first generation of 4K TVs will be LED-backlit LCD displays.

What will it cost me?

There’s no easy way to break this: a 4K setup will cost somewhere in excess of $16,000 depending on which TV you choose. LG has priced it’s model at $15,999 and cited mid-November 2013 for availability, while Sony is venturing ‘end of the year’ for its model, and given no pricing (thoughts are it will be more than $20,000). The 4K TVs are top-end smart-enabled models, with all the attendant bells and whistles that go far beyond ultra-high resolution.

The biggest problem with jumping in to 4K right now is the lack of content. Sure, increasing numbers of mainstream movies are being either shot on 4K cameras or post-processed from 35mm film (essentially, scanned) to 4K resolution, but you won’t pick them up at your local DVD shop.

If you’ve a cynical nature, you might also note that many older classics are being remastered in 4K, and so you could be forgiven for thinking that this is just another way to restart the cycle of having us buy all the same stuff again. DVD, Blu-ray, 3D, 4K… how many version of ‘Taxi Driver’ do we really need?

Upscaling can only achieve so much, so while Blu-ray video looks the business on a 4K screen, standard definition DVD content doesn't stand up so well.

 

OK, seriously. When can I get it?

We can expect 4K to experience a similar development pathway to the original flatscreens. First, we need the ultra-rich to fund the next round of product development by buying the first generation of 4K displays for bragging rights.

Next, the screens will come down in size, and that will make them more affordable. By this stage, there should be more 4K content and more effective compression algorithms which will allow it to be transported to us over the internet or via an affordable medium – perhaps super-cheap flash memory.

Over the next few years, more and more high end TVs will become 4K compatible, and since a 4K display will of course support 1080p, and will improve the image quality of your 1080p content, there’ll be a good reason to buy one.

You don't have to sit as far back as you'd think with an 84 inch 4K TV.

4K is definitely the ultimate, though. Right?

Um… well, about that. Don’t think running out and buying a 4K TV will bring you all the way up to date.

There’s another standard out there, called 8K. It offers 16 times the resolution of full HD and the kinds of detail levels you only see at IMAX.

Plus, it has an attendent surround sound standard called 22.2. Yep – 22 speakers and two subwoofers. It’s just in theatres for now, but who knows!

Overkill? Nothing is too superlative in the quest for audiovisual awesomeness!