The Ultra HD TVs of CES
As we break down the Ultra HD televisions introduced at CES 2013, we'll start with the two companies that actually brought them to market in the US last year: Sony and LG. The 84-inch models are both shipping now if you've got enough cash to afford them, with MSRPs of $19,999 for LG's model and $25k for the Sony. Sony's is particularly notable for the moment, since it's the only one to come with any 4K content courtesy of a pre-loaded hard drive that accompanies the unit as a free lease. New on the show floor from each however, are smaller versions destined for production later this year. Again, both will be offering 65- and 55-inch options, with LG touting its Smart TV ecosystem, while Sony focused on the return of Triluminos RGB pixel technology to its lineup when its versions ship in the spring. Sony also spiced up the offerings by showing off a prototype 56-inch 4K OLED display, however when or if that will ever be released -- and at what cost -- is unknown.
Toshiba is also already shipping a 4K TV, albeit only in Asia and Europe, but at CES 2013 it announced the second-generation model will be available here this year. Coming home in 84-, 65- and 58-inch versions, VP Scott Ramirez told us Toshiba has an advantage thanks to its experience with the sets and a high-powered CEVO 4K Quad+Dual Core processor to handle upscaling duties. The Toshiba L9300 4K UltraHD TV Series is scheduled to ship in the summer, with integrated 3D and its new "Cloud TV" app system.
Samsung came through with its own lineup of 4K sets as well, showing off an 85-incher (just large enough to be the largest) in a very unique (we're staying positive on it) "Timeless gallery" stand, and promised to launch even bigger versions (95- and 110-inch) later in the year. Vizio is always a player to keep an eye on, known for bringing features to lower price points than its competitors are willing (or able) to. And, this year it's already promising "mainstream" Ultra High-Definition. At its private suite, we saw 70-, 65- and 55-inch models planned for the XVT line later this year rocking a slick, understated design. While we're fairly sure the company will make good on its claims, previous delays on groundbreaking XVT models suggest we should write that 2013 release date pledge down in pencil, not pen. Size-obsessed Sharp also promised to make noise in the 4K space, revealing that a 4K model will join its AQUOS line of LCDs in the second half of this year.
Lesser-known manufacturers like Westinghouse, TCL and Hisense also had high-res models to flash, although we'll wait until they actually ship (in the US) to get too excited there. Panasonic showed an OLED 4K prototype that was similar to Sony's, but didn't mention any extra pixel plans for 2013. If you're noticing a distinct lack of pricing information here, then you've got a keen eye. despite a slew of announcements and launch windows that put some of these new Ultra HD TVs just months away, no one was willing to discuss exact cost right now -- and probably with good reason.
If you followed the progress of HDTVs from the beginning, this is all going to be very familiar.
If you followed the progress of HDTVs from the beginning, this is all going to sound very familiar. Ultra HD is the classic chicken and the egg causality dilemma all over again. Sony addressed this with its initial offering by including a server preloaded with 10 Hollywood movies. It then followed that up by announcing at CES that it would be launching a downloadable movie service this year. This works for now, but obviously more widely available solutions will be essential to the success of Ultra HD. Blu-ray is an obvious solution, but the Blu-ray Disc Association did not announce a 4K update to the standard. Mastering a 1080p disc in 4K will help, but it doesn't solve the problem. This new mastering process should benefit everyone, though, the first of many technologies designed for Ultra HD, but useful to everyone.
For now, this means the majority of content on a Ultra HD will be upscaled 1080p. Scaling a single pixel into four is a matter of interpolating what the color of pixels in the middle should be. This is easier than ever thanks to the amount of sheer processing power in modern chips and years of experience to draw on. It is not true 4K, obviously, but just about every major TV manufacturer's booth had an upconversion demo that was so dramatic that it's impossible not to wonder if the demo was intentionally deceptive. The bottom line, though, is that we believe an Ultra HD TV will always look better than a Full HD TV, all other things being equal (content, device quality, etc.). It is certainly good enough to hold buyers over until native content arrives -- in fact, we even have a sneaking fear that many won't notice the lack of true 4K content, enabling broadcasters to be less motivated to produce genuine Ultra HD content.
We witnessed how long it can take for higher resolution content to make it to market in the early days of HD. Unlike High Definition, 4K content has been produced for years before the first TV shipped. If you've been to a digital cinema, you've probably already experienced 4K. A quick search of IMDb will reveal how many of today's movies are shot natively in the format, thanks to the plethora of affordable -- as far as professional video equipment goes -- 4K cameras. Even older films that are scanned with a telecine, for preservation and release on Blu-ray, are often scanned to 4K masters these days. So while it took almost eight years from the release of the first HDTV for an HD disc to arrive, we'd be surprised if it took even half that for native 4K content to be available on disc -- something that will probably depend more on the price of the Ultra HD TVs, than the technological feasibility of creating a 4K Blu-ray disc.
Broadcasting 4K, on the other hand, is hardly around the bend. HD broadcasts and HDTVs were both introduced to the US in 1998, but it took another three years for HD networks to show up on satellite and cable providers. Unlike broadcasting 3D, doubling the amount of pixels is something that will require almost every device in the content delivery chain to be ripped and replaced -- more on that later. Add in the need for another simulcast channel (that's four now: SD, HD, 3D and 4K) and the economic short term feasibility of broadcast Ultra HD TV seems years away.
Delivery and connections
So you have a Ultra HD TV and your favorite content is available in the format, but how do you connect it all together? The home theater connector of choice has been HDMI for almost 10 years now and you may have missed this, but when HDMI 1.4 was released to support 3D formats, 4K support was added too. This means that nearly all of the "HDMI High Speed" cables you own, and many of the AV receivers released since 1.4 was defined in 2010, already support 4K, up to 24 frames-per-second -- higher frames rates should be added to the spec soon.
When HDMI 1.4 was released to support 3D formats, 4k support was added too.
We have already even seen a few Blu-ray players and AV receivers upscale to 4K. Just because something supports HDMI 1.4, however, doesn't mean it supports 4K. To that end, most will have to replace their source devices. This means new cable boxes, new DVRs, new media streamers or in the case of Sony's current solution, a new media server. Modern high-end computers don't have a problem with 4K, so once again HTPCs will be at the forefront of supplying content to a new resolution in TV displays. In fact, you can already download 4K clips online and watch a few on YouTube. There's a chance that online streaming sites like Netflix and Vudu could be the first to deliver 4K content to the masses, with Netflix even showing a 4K technology demonstration at CES.
Transmitting HD typically uses less broadcast spectrum than analog SD thanks to MPEG2. The exceptional quality of Blu-ray, as well as the plethora of online streaming options, are in part thanks to more efficient codecs like h.264. So it shouldn't surprise you that Ultra HD content has created a push for the next-generation codec: High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC). Expected to be ratified this month and in the works since 2004, HEVC offers better quality at half the bit rate at resolutions up to 8K. Using the same codec, even though 4K is four times the resolution of 1080p, it may only require twice the bit rate -- depending on color depth and other variations.
HEVC offers better quality at half the bit rate at resolutions up to 8K
So with 4K encoded with HEVC, it could end up using the same bandwidth as 1080p encoded with h.264. This means that MPEG2-encoded 1080i broadcast TV might actually use twice the bandwidth of HEVC encoded 4K. Unfortunately, none of the current TV set-top boxes currently support it and only the latest TVs announced at CES this year do -- even some of the 1080p sets. Motorola expects to offer HEVC encoders to TV providers this year and Broadcom demoed its 4K SoC for set-top boxes at CES; samples are currently available to manufactures for testing.
So while the technology will exist in the market in 2013 to deliver broadcast Ultra HD -- which was demoed at CES -- the likelihood of a broadcast standard being agreed to and then making into the homes of the select few who can afford an Ultra HD this year is nil. It is hard to predict how quickly prices on the new TVs will take to be low enough to drive adoption. One thing is for sure: all the networks and TV providers who ripped and replaced to upgrade to HD, won't be in a hurry to do it again. The 2016 Olympics are likely to be a big moment for Ultra HD, as worldwide events like this have typically been a motivating factor for providers to showcase new technologies like HD and 3D in the past.
Just like HD, there are many who doubt the improved picture quality that Ultra HD delivers is dramatic enough to motivate us to run out and replace our TVs. But a funny thing happened on the show floor of CES in Vegas this year; looking at HD now feels like looking at SD. It is one of those things where the improvement doesn't appear dramatic at first, but it's hard to go back -- ask anyone who owns a smartphone, tablet or computer with a high-PPI display. This isn't just about large screen sizes or those who sit uncomfortably close to their TV, either. While it is true that the minimum optimal viewing distance is far less with Ultra HD, the improved resolution is still very noticeable as we stepped back away from the screen. Even if you don't appreciate the difference and are concerned with the lack of native content, Ultra HD displays make passive 3D and multi-view displays possible at full 1080p.
It is going to take some time for all the pieces to come together, but all of the edges of the puzzle are already in place. There will probably never be another step in home entertainment display technology like HD, but Ultra HD sure seems like the next step towards the future where we have truly lifelike video at home.
Richard Lawler contributed to this post.