4K UHD TV for the Holidays? Questions First, Shop Later

By Bob Wallace November 20, 2014

With the year-end shopping season ready to fly, what do you need to know about 4K resolution ultra HD TV technology, programming, packaging and pricing in order to properly evaluate the higher definition sets for possible purchase?

As stated before, it’s more about programming pricing and packaging than it is about the technology or the availability of UHD big screens. 4K sets from Samsung, Vizio, Panasonic and others are seemingly everywhere and at fast-falling prices, as the units are pitched as the next generation of TV innovation.

For those concerned about the availability of programming shot in 4K format, you can relax some as two providers: DirecTV and M-Go have announced 4K programming services. They join big backers such as Netflix which now offers a 4K tier to its streaming service that costs a few dollars more per month,  Sony (which also produces equipment throughout the 4K ecosystem) and Amazon, which has already begun offering original series episodes in the format.

To recap, 4K offers roughly four times the resolution of 1080p HD sets. The Consumer Electronics Show last January was something of a coming out party for 4K TV sets. 4K/Ultra HD is being promoted as the next step in the evolution of TV, in the wake of the downfall of 3D.

What you need to know:

-Programming. All those expecting a quick-strike, rapid deluge of 4K programming are at best unrealistic. Moving toward this next-gen of content resolution is an expensive proposition for everyone – that’s exactly why the NFL and other pro sports haven’t widely embraced it.

In fact, the NFL only uses it to help referees on challenged calls along the sidelines. Was the receiver in or out of bounds with possession of the ball?

Ironically, it’s movies and original series that are driving 4K now, not the usual live sports leaders.

-Resolution. Four times the resolution doesn’t mean a shock and awe difference to the eye across the board. The picture is more vibrant at 4K than at 1080p, but the difference isn’t that noticeable until you get past the 50-inch set point. That’s why there aren’t many midsize UHD sets.

If you are comparing 780p HD sets to UHD, the difference in resolution will obviously be more pronounced.

-New 4K “services.” Here’s the real important aspect of 4K – pricing and packaging of the higher-definition content. Forget the four-letter word we love – free. The tier from Netflix that includes several 4K movies and some TV shows costs a few dollars more per month.

Other services are transactional in nature, meaning that viewers pay more than HD to rent titles and more than HD to own them. As you might expect if you follow the programming aspect of 4K, the volume is limited, at least for now.

Providers and content owners need to recover the higher cost of shooting programming in 4K whether it’s the cost of cameras, conversion gear, projectors for cinemas and fan caves, and so on. If it were an inexpensive proposition, we would be there already.

So, at this relatively early date in the 4K movement, we have subscription-oriented and transaction-based models that begin to address pricing and packaging. Amazon is worth of watching as they have cut deals with movie studios for access to this long-form content. Stay tuned.

-TV sets. The tough decision here is: if prices keep falling (yearend- holidays or not), do you consider buying now or hold off until later? This depends in part on what you have for a set now and whether or not you are already considering an upgrade, 4K notwithstanding.

UHD sets are on prominent display at retailers such as Best Buy and Walmart and at no-frills chains such as BJs Wholesale Clubs. With the yearend holidays upon us, they are featured item in Black Friday flyers and at lower than previous descending prices.

Also, as stated above, size matters with 4K sets. If you don’t want/can’t use a TV set of 50 inches or more, 4K likely isn’t for you.

-Gotcha! A “gotcha” that consumers need to be aware of at this point is that a few of these 4K “services” only work with 4K sets from a few, or one (Sony or Samsung), manufacturer. This can be done using a 4K media player thy make or a pack that can be added to the TV. Be sure to check.

Not a strong selling point (sarcasm) for the masses and wider adoption. Read the set specs and/or check with professional reviewers, the ranks of which have expanded beyond Consumer Reports.

-Internet bandwidth. 4K content from streamers like Netflix and other web origins can require more bandwidth than the OTT services you may already use. And those with low-speed Internet likely won’t have what it takes to receive 4K programming over the web.

Netflix recommends 20Mbps of capacity for best performance, claiming 16M is required and the rest used if needed for service variability.

The good news is that many traditional ISPs, and newer entrants such as Google, are off to the races when it comes to providing higher-bandwidth pipes to the home with much talk (talk/noise) now among Google, AT&T and others centering around gradual rollout of 1G services. In the meantime, cablecos and telcos continue to one-up each other on the high-speed access front. Clearly, this bodes well for streamed 4K content.

-Watching non 4K on UHD. Yes you can. Most 4K TVs and Blue Ray players take content in 1080p and lower resolution format and upconvert it to 4K for viewing on UHD sets. 4K content can be downcoverted to 1080p for viewing without a UHD set and with the lower resolution.

The Bottom Line

The emergence of 4K UHD TV is a gradual process with many moving pieces all connected to the bottom line. Tuning out marketing hype and noise helps potential buyers get a clearer picture of what the important issues are of a new, higher resolution content format.

Understanding the stages that make up the evolution (as well as what needs to happen and when) makes for an informed consumer and an educated decision on whether to buy into a consumer electronics “movement.”  It’s still early on for 4K UHD TV, but questions are being answered and issues addressed.

Once consumers get the answers they need, on the topics of greatest interest, shopping will become less about research and more about due diligence in the procurement process.

As always, and especially with technology, media and entertainment: stay tuned!




Edited by Stefania Viscusi

Founder, Fast Forward Thinking LLC

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