Consumer electronics manufacturers do love their acronyms - DVD, HD, LED, LCD, OLED, CLED, 3D to name but a few - in fact it’s enough to make the poor consumer think they’re looking at an optician’s eye test chart! This year at CES we were introduced to yet another acronym, with the manufacturers promoting their new 4K displays, but what exactly is 4K?
Well to put it simply, 4K is a new video format that uses an image with a resolution comprised of roughly four thousand vertical lines, hence the acronym 4K. In actual fact the precise resolution of 4K video is 4096 x 2160, which is why it also sometimes referred to as 4K2K, offering over twice the number of vertical lines compared to standard high definition video and effectively creating an image with more than four times the resolution. To put this in perspective, a standard high definition image has a resolution of 1920 x 1080 and is capable of delivering an image comprised of just over 2 million pixels. However a 4K image, with has resolution of 4096 x 2160, can deliver an image that is comprised of a whopping 8.8 million pixels.
The reason that Samsung currently have no plans to release a 4K panel yet is quite simple; there is almost no 4K content available at the moment. At present the majority of content that will be watched on the new TVs and projectors will be 1080p content scaled up to the full 4K resolution. This means that the quality of the scaling in these new 4K TVs is paramount because whilst you can’t add detail that isn’t there, the video processing needs to take advantage of the additional resolution without adding any obvious scaling artefacts or unwanted sharpening. This situation isn’t new of course and high definition ready TVs began shipping long before there was ever any high definition content to watch on them, however it does mean that consumers won’t be able to take full advantage of the 4K display’s increased resolution for the foreseeable future.
The highest resolution source content currently available is 1080p Blu-ray but unfortunately a Blu-ray disc doesn’t have the storage capacity to compress an entire movie at full 4K resolution. Sony has recently released a Blu-ray player that can upscale 1080p content to 4K but this is essentially the same processing that is being done in the displays themselves and is nothing more than a stop-gap. In order to encode and deliver an entire movie at a resolution of 4K, a new video delivery system needs to be developed, one with a greater capacity than the current Blu-ray standard. At present, no such delivery system has been announced but the good news is that once it has been developed, there will be content that can be delivered on the new format. This is because filmmakers have been shooting movies on 35mm film for over eighty years and whilst film doesn’t have the physical line structure of video, its effective resolution is at least equivalent to 4K. In addition, a lot of the restoration work done on older films has been archived at a resolution of 4K and new masters are often created at this resolution. Digital filmmaking has also moved to shooting at a resolution of 4K, as have some TV broadcasters, so there should be plenty of content for the studios to release on whatever replaces Blu-ray disc.
But what if you want to watch 4K content right now? Well there is 4K content that can be downloaded from the internet, just make sure you’ve got a high speed broadband connection. YouTube also offers some 4K content, although this service is only available to their premium members. If you want to create your own 4K content but don’t want to shell out for a professional grade camera like the Red Epic, then luckily JVC have just announced a 4K domestic video camera, which will be released later this year. Although if you are planning on shooting at 4K, try and avoid too many close-ups as the higher resolution will show every imperfection.