Scott Wilkinson muses on whether or not native 4K content is necessary for 4K TVs and the wisdom of buying one now.
I'm on a lot of e-mail distribution lists; one of my faves is Insight Media's Display Central
, which sends out a daily news item or blog about something in the display industry. Last week, one of those stories caught my eye—"4K TV Does NOT Require Native 4K Media
" by Kenneth Werner. He argues that, because upscalers are so good these days, "experts can't see the difference [between native UHD/4K and the same content upscaled from 1080p] in side-by-side tests from distances of three feet or more. Even at nose-on-the-screen distance, the differences are subtle."
Based on some of the side-by-side demos I've seen, he could be right—at least, when it comes to high-quality upscalers. Ken cites Seiki's UHD/4K TVs as a counterexample—the upscaler in those sets has been universally panned, though they look quite good when fed native UHD/4K content. As a result, Seiki worked with Marseilles Networks to build its Technicolor 4K-Certified upscaling chip into the U-Vision HDMI cable that sells for around $40! Just connect your 1080p source (say, your AVR's HDMI output) to the TV with this cable, and voila—the TV is now receiving "native" UHD/4K. Seiki also introduced an upscaling Blu-ray player with the Marseilles chip for $99 at CE Week last month.
Another factor is that native UHD/4K content is not gushing out of the studios, in part because many of the elements other than pixel resolution have yet to be standardized; see my coverage of a recent SMPTE webinar that addressed this problem
. Those elements are not likely to be settled upon for at least two years, so whatever native UHD/4K content becomes available in the meantime will have the same colorimetry and dynamic range as good ol' HD. Thus, it's no surprise that upscaled HD is very close to native UHD—everything about them is identical except the native pixel resolution, and upscaling by a precise factor of two in each dimension is relatively easy to do well (Seiki TVs notwithstanding).
Many people ask me if they should buy a UHD/4K TV now, and my answer is usually, "No, wait for the standards to be finalized and for TVs and content to implement those standards." That is still my advice if you buy a new TV infrequently—say, every 5-10 years. If you buy a UHD/4K TV now, it probably won't be able to display the higher dynamic range and wider color gamut in the content that's coming a couple of years from now—and in a side-by-side comparison between today's UHD/4K content and that future content on a compatible display, the differences will NOT be subtle, I can assure you.
On the other hand, if you buy a new TV every couple of years, getting a UHD/4K model now might make sense. They tend to be premium models with top-notch performance, so if you have the dough, you'll get the best picture quality available today, especially with a high-quality upscaler, either in the TV or external. Yes, these sets are more expensive than comparably sized HDTVs, but prices are dropping fast.
Then there's self-generated content. One of the earliest benefits touted about 4K TV is the fact that you can display digital photos at their native resolution—or at least closer to it than HDTVs can. And 4K camcorders are becoming more affordable every day, so all you budding filmmakers can see your work at full resolution. However, the dynamic-range and colorimetry issues remain.
So what do you think? Is Ken right that 4K TV does not need native 4K content? Is it unwise to get a UHD/4K TV now, or do the benefits outweigh the transitional nature of today's models?
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