4K TVs Caught in Standards War
It's a big screen, but will it fill up all the way?
CREDIT: Sean Captain
From an obscure topic a year ago, super high-resolution TVs, known alternately as Ultra HD or 4K, are now among the newest tech buzzwords, thanks to heavy promotion by Sony and other TV makers at this year's Consumer Electronics Show.
But if the $20,000 or more price tag on these TVs doesn't give you pause, consider this: Your particular model may end up on the wrong side of a technology standards war.
Different industry organizations are promoting slightly different resolutions for the next generation of video content. With no agreement yet on what the standard will be, consumers could face a big issue later, said Joel Silver, president of Imaging Science Research Labs, a company that helps manufacturers test and refine their televisions' performance.
4K sets come in two flavors. The so-called Ultra HD variety championed by the Consumer Electronics Association and some other industry groups has a resolution of 3,840 by 2,160 pixels, which matches the aspect ratio (width to height) of current HDTVs, at 16:9. Most of the 4K TVs announced at CES this year fall into this category; LG, Samsung, Sony and other major manufacturers have said they will deliver Ultra HD sets. [See also: Sony's Ultra HD TVs — Not Quite for the 99 Percent]
But another standard, pushed by the Digital Cinema Initiative, clocks in at 4,096 by 2,160 pixels — wider than today's typical 16:9 ratio. This could be called "true" 4K, since it delivers more than 4,000 horizontal pixels.
Since there's really no 4K content to watch at this point, this difference in pixels doesn't matter yet. Current 4K sets "upscale" high-definition content to make the movie or show you're watching fill all its pixels, while guessing at and filling in the missing detail.
But if your monitor has 3,840 horizontal pixels and the source video is wider than that, you'll end up missing some action on the edges. On the other hand, if you have 4,096 pixels across and the signal is for 3,840 pixels, part of the exotic screen you just paid dearly for will be black around the edge.
Too little color?
Current 4K specs also lack a standard for color depth, which determines how many hues the screen can display. High definition broadcast and Blu-ray signals provide 8-bit color. That translates to 256 shades each of red, green and blue — allowing close to 17 million color combinations. But today's monitors — including the current Ultra HD televisions — can display more than that. If the 4K video standard adopted 16-bit color depth, for example, the possible colors would jump to trillions.
Silver said that increased color depth is where you'd really see an improvement in picture quality. The increased resolution of 4K makes images smoother, but more colors means a more realistic picture.