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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Addy

4K TV…. About as much use as a chocolate teapot?

4K televisions are being marketed as the next big thing in high definition home entertainment. In fact, 4K goes beyond high definition, by offering four times as many pixels as Full HD 1080p, and more than twenty four times as many as the standard definition 480p format. While 4K television and digital media can technically provide clearer images and a better viewing experience, the reality may be different for many consumers, and the question still remains – is 4K worth it, and should consumers and content owners be concerned about this relatively new format?

When 1080p became mainstream, it was a significant improvement over the standard broadcasts and home media formats that had been the norm for a number of decades. However, it is worth noting that even to this day, many content providers around the world are still broadcasting in formats that sit slightly below Full HD 1080p. The United States is a good example, where free to air broadcasts peak at 1080i, and many subscription services use 1080p with a reduced frame rate, which is sometimes only half of the 60 frames per second that is possible on high definition physical media. For home consumers, the only way to receive true 1080p Full HD content, is through physical media like Blu-ray discs. Even streaming services use reduced bit rate encoding, which means that the final picture quality is compromised.

Considering all of this, it is clear that 4K broadcasting and content distribution will be a significant challenge. While 4K televisions are readily available, and are even becoming affordable, there is a serious lack of content available for the format.

Streaming Limitations

A Blu-ray disc is able to playback 4K video at a bit rate of 108 – 128mbps. The higher the bitrate, the more information there is in the digital image, which results in higher quality. By comparison, YouTube streams 4K content at 16mbps, as do paid content streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, and Sony Ultra. Shows and films on streaming services are mostly limited to 1080p Full HD, with 4K content rolling out slowly. The latest 4K Blu-ray format was only finalized in 2015, and available releases in major markets are limited to about 1300 in total, compared to the tens of thousands that are available in Full HD.

As a final hurdle on the road to 4K success, it is important to note that even 4K content streamed at a relatively low bit rate of 16mbps, uses about 7GB of traffic per hour, and requires a stable internet connection of more than 16mbps to ensure smooth playback without buffering. The average internet speed in the United States is 12.6mbps, and in the UK things are barely faster with an average of 13.0mbps. According to the Akami Q3 2015 speed surveys, only four countries – South Korea, Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland – have sufficient average speeds to facilitate low bit rate 4K streaming.

Is it actually better in a real world consumer scenario anyway?

The big question is whether 4K is actually noticeably better than Full HD. THX, the digital audio and video mastering firm, says the golden number is 55 inches and 6 feet. If your TV is more than 55 inches and you are viewing it from a distance of 6 feet or less, you will actually notice the difference between 4K and Full HD. If not, forget about it.

The bottom line is that the conditions where UltraHD becomes relevant are unrealistic for most homes. A screen in excess of 55 inches with a viewing distance less than 6 feet is highly unlikely. In fact, that’s going against the recommended formula to buy a TV for your living room.

To sum up all of this information comes back to one question – is 4K TV just a fad? While it is true that 4K formats can allow for significant advantages in picture clarity and color depth, there is simply not enough content available at this time to make 4K devices worthy of mass adoption. While physical media is ready for 4K, streaming services and traditional broadcasters still have to face significant technical challenges to be able to deliver 4K content at quality levels that provide a significant advantage over the mainstream 1080p Full HD format.

In the average consumer setting, its clear that 4K is simply pointless…. But the commercial and educational use for 4K has fantastic possibilities,  if the tech providers get it right.

I guess if the TV was made of chocolate, like the teapot, you could always put it to great use and eat it!

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