4K TVs Highlight Fuzzy Video
Speckles around the letters in the word "AQUOS" are typical of what you see around details in upconverted video. (Color shifts are artifacts of the photo process only.)
CREDIT: Sean Captain
Most new technology, no matter how over-the-top it seems, eventually becomes the norm. A 1-GHz dual-core smartphone processor seemed like overkill until people found apps to use all that power. Now it's pedestrian.
So too may televisions with 4K (also known as Ultra HD or UHD) resolution go mainstream. But no time soon, because included in the extra detail they display is extra fuzziness.
Both 4K and UHD refer to screens with about four times the resolution of today's best HDTVs. That's also four times the 1080p resolution of video from the best Blu-rays, streaming services and console games (in fact, most console games are only at 720p).
And that's the rub. It doesn’t take long to write a smartphone app that sucks up more processing power, but it takes years to convert old TV shows, movies and games to a new format (or make new ones). And while an old app doesn't work worse on a more powerful smartphone, old video does look worse when stretched over a screen with more pixels.
That dilemma was clear this week in New York City when Sharp introduced its new mouthful of product, the 69.5-inch AQUOS Ultra HD LED TV, which will go on sale in August in the United States for $8,000. It's not a mainstream product, but it shows why, even after the inevitable price plummets in a few years, 4K TV still might not be so enticing. [See also: Sony's Ultra HD TVs — Not Quite for the 99 Percent]
TV makers often show their 4K TVs displaying rare samples of 4K video. Sharp gets credit for also showing what regular HD looks like when it is "upconverted" (digitally enhanced) to fill a 4K screen. The company wanted to show off how well it spiffs up the video. And overall, it looked quite good.
But when you get close enough to see all the detail a 4K screen offers, you also see the flaws. Small objects — a leaf, buildings in the distance, ropes on a sailboat — were surrounded by a halo of fuzz like what you see on some cellphone photos when they are enlarged in Facebook profiles. And wide expanses with little detail, like the ubiquitous blue water and skies in TV demo videos, also had a slightly fuzzy, "crawling" look.
These artifacts, as they are called, would look familiar to people who have watched regular DVDs stretched across HDTV screens; such DVDs were often the best there was to watch before Blu-rays, HD broadcasts and HD streaming became common.
The artifacts only appeared up close (within about 3 feet), but the oft-touted benefit of 4K is that you can get much closer to a large screen without seeing the grid of pixels. Step back so that the fuzziness fades and so does the extra detail that the screen promises. In fact, the fuzziness is the detail.
By all accounts, Sharp has done a very good job upconverting video. Its set is the first 4K TV to pass the 400 tests, including upconverting, that THX labs require to give its seal of approval. And with real 4K video, which Sharp also showed, the screen is mesmerizing.
But it could be a long time before that video appears en masse. There is no federal push to convert to 4K TV broadcasts, as there was for HD. The upcoming Xbox One and PlayStation 4 can theoretically send out 4K video, but 4K games aren't on the horizon.
Customers jumped on HDTVs not just because they had more pixels (in fact, lots of people still aren't watching HD video on their HDTVs). They went for the big, flat, bright screens. [See also: TV Buyers Only Care About Price]
4K TVs aren't necessarily bigger, flatter or brighter. They just have more pixels — which, for now, are more pixels than they can use.