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Oh My Tech!: 4K TV is here! What is it?

Published January 30, 2014 7:40 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

If there was one single word that dominated the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month, it was this: 4K.

Remember those letters because they also will be the prevailing technology for the coming year. More television manufacturers are introducing new 4K televisions later this year, and you'll see almost as many new 4K models on store shelves as regular HDTVs.

Despite that, I'm surprised that there are still many people who don't understand what 4K televisions are or what they mean for entertainment. So here's my free crash course on what 4K — also known as ultra high-definition television — is so you can be more informed when you begin shopping for one.

What is it • The standard in TVs today is HDTV or high-definition televisions. The resolution for HDTV is 1,920 by 1,080 lines, or 1,920 vertical lines of video resolution that run across the screen from left to right and 1,080 horizontal lines that run up and down. But 4K doubles the number of lines each way to 3,840 lines by 2,160 lines, resulting in four times more pixels than regular HDTV. The bottom line is 4K television is four times the resolution of HDTV.

Those are the numbers, but what do they mean, and how does 4K look? Only one word describes it — "WOW!"

Go to a nearby Best Buy electronics store, which has a 4K TV set up on display, and you'll see what I mean. One 4K TV on display shows video of a cityscape at night. But if you look closer, you can actually see people in a park even though the video must have been shot miles away.

Details are crisp, and objects have no jagged edges. If you're watching a movie, the video is as close to looking like a film projection as we have ever gotten at home.

With 4K, the sound is not enhanced or better — only the picture is improved. But the video is so gorgeous and detailed, it's a bigger, more satisfactory jump in quality than 3D ever was.

Not ready for primetime • There are two major obstacles for 4K television, and both have to be addressed this year if this technology is going to take off.

The first is being taken care of — the price of sets. Just last year, the cost of a 60-inch 4K TV still hovered above $5,000. Samsung still sells an 85-inch set for a jaw-dropping $40,000. But this year, new 4K sets were introduced at CES that broke the $1,000 barrier.

Both Polaroid and Vizio introduced 50-inch sets for $999. They go on sale later this year. Sony also said it will aggressively price 4K sets beginning this year. Samsung likely will introduce new 4K sets later this year with better pricing. Ultra HD sets are not at mainstream prices yet, but they will be before the holidays this year.

The other problem is more serious. In order to see video in 4K resolution, you have to shoot and broadcast it in 4K resolution.

First, not many production companies are shooting their TV shows in 4K. Second, there are no broadcast or cable networks that are broadcasting their video in 4K. One of the problems with streaming 4K video over the Internet is that it would require a hefty Internet connection in the home to sustain the feed without buffering. Not many homes have those kinds of Internet speeds.

Finally, there are no disc players that work in 4K yet. The consortium of companies that created the Blu-ray disc technology has not even yet established a standard for 4K to work with Blu-ray.

So there is little video content out there that is both shot and broadcast in 4K that can be displayed on a 4K TV. Will that improve? Yes, it will, albeit slowly.

Netflix announced it will broadcast 4K video streams soon, and its prized original show, "House of Cards," already is shot with 4K cameras. YouTube also is streaming some video in 4K. Again, in order to stream those feeds, however, it will take a fat pipe to your home.

Meanwhile, Samsung revealed it will unveil 4K Blu-ray players by the end of the year. But if other companies are to join in, they will have to establish a standard first.

So 4K is officially here, and it's an amazing new trend in home video. But if it's going to take off, companies and consumers are going to have to get behind it and move fast or it will meet the same fate as 3D TV.

If you have a tech question for Vince, email him at ohmytech@sltrib.com, and he'll try to answer it for his column in The Salt Lake Tribune or on its website. For an archive of past columns, go to http://www.sltrib.com/Topics/ohmytech.