Everyone knows by now that HD is better than SD, or “standard” video. And by everyone, I mean even my mother has some understanding of the differences. And if she knows, then just about everyone else with an Internet connection should know too. But there’s another term out there now, or rather has been for some time. But unless you keep up with the latest technology you might not have heard about it.
I’m talking about 4k. You might have seen new TVs advertised as 4k or 4k UHD. They’ve been on the market for several years, but haven’t quite become mainstream. That’s changing though, as more 4k content is becoming available.
But before I get to content, I think it’d be good to clear up some of the usage around the terms relating to 4k. The TV manufacturers use the term 4k to refer to their TVs that use a resolution of 3840 × 2160, Which is more accurately called Ultra High Definition (UHD) rather than 4k. And that’s where the confusion comes in.
The movie industry uses a 4k standard too, but it refers to a resolution of 4096 x 2160. This one was defined by Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) and is traditionally assumed to be the official 4k standard.
But sometimes you’ll see TVs listed as UHD, and sometimes 4k UHD, or just 4k. So when you see the term 4k, what the exact resolution is depends on context. For TVs, 4k is more of a marketing term used probably because people like it better the UHD (which admittedly befuddles the average consumer with all the HD this and HD that references being thrown about). But if you’re at the cinema and you see the “4K” in the credits then you’re watching movie filmed in true 4k as defined by DCI.
For example, at the end of the Minions movie my son saw the 4k and he flipped out. He’s a geek like me and was thrilled to have seen the real 4k. Now he wants a 4k home theatre. Sigh…
Where you can watch 4k now
Many new movies released to cinemas are in 4k. In fact, the film industry has been using 4k as a filming standard for years, even if their content was distributed in a lower resolution.
When it comes to streaming, everyone is using the UHD standard. Just check the Netflix, Amazon, YouTube or other providers websites for information and you’ll see that’s true. It makes sense because they are generally streaming to TVs (as well as mobile devices) that are designed to support UHD.
But the amount of content available to stream is still very limited. It’s a combination of availability of the content, available bandwidth to stream the content, and the fact not many consumers have made the 4k UHD TV switch yet. More on that later though.
It’s predicted that by Christmas this year Blu-ray players with 4k capability will be available. These are true UHD capable players rather than the current ones which just upscale standard Blu-ray discs to UHD resolutions. Along with the new players, it’s said there will be a slew of 4k Blu-ray discs to use in them. No one’s quite sure what movies will come out or how many there will be in time for the holidays.
If you want to see what the current and predicted status for both streaming and Blu-ray 4k is, check out rtings.com. They maintain a handy list of providers and the 4k content available. They also have some well written descriptions regarding 4k, UHD, HD and how to choose a TV that will make the most of whatever resolution you have or plan to use.
The best laid plans…
One reason it’s good to keep up with the current predictions on sites like rtings is because the underlying technology used in 4k content is still unsettled. Most 4k providers are using the HEVC codec to stream or store (like on a Blu-ray disc) the content. What that does for them is compress the extremely large data files for 4k content into something that is practical to stream or write to a disc. And even then it’s a stretch of the word practical. It can be done, but not everyone’s Internet connection will support it, and it’s also the reason you’ll need a brand new machine to play 4k Blu-rays.
But HEVC is still fairly new to the marketplace and is suffering some growing pains. I won’t go into it here, but you can read about it in this blog post. Basically the trouble is that even though companies have already moved forward creating hardware to support HEVC and 4k, they may not be able to use it at all.
If that happens then a 4k TV, Blu-ray player, or streaming subscription to 4k content probably won’t be under your tree Christmas morning.
Is it worth it?
Even if all the current issues with 4k and HEVC get ironed out in time, people are still wondering if it’s worth making the upgrade from good old HD video. I for one, can tell the difference between SD content and HD content on my TV. Most people can. But I’ve heard that it isn’t so easy to do so when looking at full HD (1080p) content and UHD content side by side.
Many review sites say it’s absolutely not worth it unless you have a tiny TV now, and you plan on buying a huge 80″ UHD TV. But another review site, trustedreviews.com said, “From the evidence we’ve witnessed so far its combination of 4x HD detail levels, HDR and wide colour gamut capabilities revolutionises picture quality to an extent that feels even greater in magnitude than the insanely popular step up from VHS to DVD.”
That’s a pretty strong statement. If you’re old enough to remember VHS tapes, you’ll know upgrading to DVD really was a huge leap. I guess we’ll have to wait and see who’s right.