4K TV a solution looking for a problem

Companies such as Sony and LG are currently launching campaigns to market very expensive 4K TV sets. However, the excitement around 4K fails to answer a fundamental question, do we really need this technology?

Companies such as Sony and LG are currently launching campaigns to market very expensive 4K TV sets. However, the excitement around 4K fails to answer a fundamental question, do we really need this technology?

After the dismal failure of 3D TV electronics manufacturers need a new reason for Australians to be convinced that they need to replace their perfectly good current 1080p high definition (HD) TV with a 4K TV set instead. In essence 4K means the TV picture has twice the horizontal and vertical pixels of the 1080p HD standard, so four times as many pixels in total.

In the first issue of WIRED magazine 20 years ago Nicholas Negroponte asked an important question that is still valid today:

“When you look at television, ask yourself: What's wrong with it? Picture resolution? Of course not. What's wrong is the programming … What is needed is innovation in programming, new kinds of delivery, and personalisation of content.”

Given the choice of sitting in front of a new 4K TV clutching a handful of 4K titles or watching the vast library available on Netflix on a SD or 1080p HD, I will opt for content over higher resolution.

A handful of films being shown at Australian cinemas this year are 4K, with more in the pipeline and some existing films are being remastered as 4K. There are only about 200 cinema projectors in Australia which can show films in 4K, the majority of projectors are 2K so regardless of whether a film is made, post produced in 4K it won’t be shown that way to most cinema goers. Replacing perfectly good 2K projectors with 4K ones is very expensive so it is unlikely that cinema chains will do so quickly.

There will be no clear standard for selling 4K content at retailers for at least a year because the highest resolution existing disc standard for Blu-ray cannot store a full 4K film and there's no way to make discs storing true 4K video backwards-compatible with current 1080p BD players in living rooms across the country.

Moving the focus to Australian free to air and cable TV, much of what they broadcast is compressed standard definition (SD) or barely HD 720P, so we don’t expect to see them broadcasting any 4K TV for years, if at all.

Recently, Sony arranged a screening of the film ‘After Earth’ for Australian technology media in order to showcase 4K technology. The film was shot with a Sony F65 4K camera, post produced largely in 4K and delivered to cinemas in 4K.

The major plot point of the movie is that the film’s two key characters (played by Will Smith and his son Jaden Smith) have crash landed on a planet where "everything has evolved to kill humans."

Of course this makes no sense given that with no humans on the planet for years, how could all the animals evolve to kill them, in their absence?

The faulty premise is just the tip of the iceberg for a movie that has been universally panned and guess what, it doesn’t matter how high resolution a film’s video quality is, a bad film is still a bad film.

So, 4K TV needs a new pitch. The Ultra HD can turn heads but it comes at a hefty price. Sony’s 84-incher comes with a $25,000 price tag, LG’s high-end 4K model will set you back a whopping $18,000 and Samsung’s 4K flagship weighs in at $40,000. I am not sure how many consumers have that kind of money lying around, and quite frankly there are better ways of spending it.

Having said that, prices are coming down. Sony’s latest 55-inch and 65-inch models are priced at $US4,999 and $US6,999 respectively, Sharp’s selling its 70-inch set for $8,000 and earlier this year little-known player Seiki’s latest 4K set is set to retail for just $US700.

The lower price means you get less screen real estate to fully enjoy what 4K TVs have to offer but then again there’s not that much content to begin with. On top of that, the prospect of seeing your favourite movies, TV shows and games in 4K glory is still a while away, because converting this stuff to the new format takes time.

No content means no fun, so 4K TVs seem more like a solution looking for a problem rather than serving any immediate need. The price probably won’t be an issue in a couple of years because we can already see signs of new players coming into the market with more affordable units. However, until the content pipeline starts to look healthy there’s no point wasting your money.