Thoughts on Tech – Ultra HD

The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) recently finished up and one of the big topics this year was “Ultra HD” (formerly known as 4k) resolution for TVs. The big draw of Ultra HD is that it has four times the pixels of 1080p HD and is just that much more clear and amazing. Think of it as a Retina Display for your TV. The TV industry has been struggling as of late to keep consumers buying now that HD is no longer such a new concept. They shoved 3D into TVs a few years ago but it did not result in the sales boost that companies had been hoping for. Ultra HD is supposed to be that next big thing that causes people to replace all of their aging 50″ LED 3D ultrathin TVs with new higher resolution models. There’s only one problem: it’s not going to work, not yet anyway.

First of all, Ultra HD TVs are expensive, somewhere in the $6,000 – $20,000 range. Cheaper sets in the $3,000 – $4,000 range are coming but they aren’t out yet. New technology is usually expensive at the beginning so the stunning price tags aren’t that surprising. As prices for HD TVs have dropped significantly in the past five years, so will prices for Ultra HD TVs, that is if anybody buys them. The big problem for Ultra HD is not price but content and bandwidth. Currently there is little content available in Ultra HD format. It can’t fit on a BluRay disc (which still don’t sell as well as DVDs anyway) and no cable companies have Ultra HD stations so the only way to get it is via the internet. Still not the biggest issue. Content will be created and companies will start picking it up… or will they? The big, big, biiiiig issue with Ultra HD is that its files are so large that it is currently difficult for cable companies to actually deliver it. Cable companies already try to compress the daylights out of HD and shove three channels down the line at one time to save on bandwidth. A single Ultra HD stream would completely obliterate that. Fios anyone?

I see Ultra HD becoming a reality in the future but not in the near term. I’m going to guess that it won’t start to take hold until at least five years from now due the bandwidth issues. If cable companies can’t deliver it, TV shows won’t be available in it. If it is difficult to stream, most movies won’t take advantage of it either. Owners of Ultra HD TVs will have access to a desert of content and will spend most of their time watching scaled up 1080p content. As a result I don’t think sales will be that amazing. Not until the content delivery issues are solved. There is also the ancilary issue that many consumers probably won’t be able to tell the difference in quality from the distance that they watch TV. Few people sit close enough to the TV to appreciate the lack of visible pixels that Ultra HD provides.

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