Ultra HD: What is it? Do you need it?

Ultra HD Comparison

First came PAL – our original TV system on the old-school telly. Then Digital TV came along, followed by High Definition from multiple sources including free-to-air, pay-TV, Blu-ray and online streaming. Finally we got high Definition 1080P – the holy grail – providing crystal-clear vision even on huge screens.

And now we have Ultra High Definition. This article unpacks the latest Ultra HD technology, looks at how it all works, and tells you whether you should consider it when thinking about your next TV or projector.

What is Ultra HD?

Ultra High Definition (previously known as 4K resolution) is a next-generation format that has over four times the resolution of current 1080P high definition technology.

To be classed as Ultra HD, televisions or projectors must have a resolution of at least 3,840 pixels horizontally and 2,160 vertically, be 16:9 widescreen aspect (or wider) and be capable of accepting compatible inputs without requiring upscaling.

Here’s a comparison of Ultra HD against existing formats:

Ultra HD resolution

What products and sources are available?

At present only a handful of products have been announced, and the availability of source material in this format is extremely limited (i.e. virtually zero). It’s also important to note that all products in the signal chain must be able to pass Ultra HD signals (e.g. AV Receivers, HDMI cables etc). Below we list the few models of TV and projector currently available or soon-to-be available in Australia.

Televisions

As of November 2012, only two television models have been announced in Australia:

Sony Bravia KD-84X9000 ($24,999)


An 84″ Ultra HD TV, available for pre-order only from Sony branded stores.

LG 84LM9600 ($15,999)


Another 84″ TV, sharing the same panel as the Sony (an LG panel), to be available from mid-November.

Projectors

JVC have two models of projector that display 4K images – the DLA-X90R ($11,549) and DLA-X70R ($8,499).

However, these models don’t accept an Ultra-HD input, instead using standard 1080p HD chipsets that use a clever JVC technology called e-shift that double-exposes the panels to generate a 3840 x 2160 image with smoother diagonals and curves.

Sony’s VPL-VW1000ES is a true Ultra-HD projector, and this shows in the $24,999 price tag.

It sports three 4096 x 2160 panels and can upscale standard high def images to Ultra-HD resolution using Sony’s ‘Reality Creation’ engine.

Sources

There are no consumer source devices that can currently support Ultra HD, other than custom-made PC setups, but the bigger problem is the near total lack of Ultra HD content. There is talk of a new Ultra HD Blu-ray format in the works, however it’s dubious that a new format will get the critical mass to become a success at least in the foreseeable future. Consider this:

  • The entire film and video production chain will need to tool up to supporting the massive data and computing power required for Ultra HD
  • Many believe the potential market for Ultra HD to be very small (under 1% of the TV market by 2017)
  • Will the studios and distribution channels make a massive investment for what is likely to be a very small market?

No doubt we’ll see more products hit the market in coming months, but their ultimate success will depend on the availability of content. The old chicken and egg problem.

Should I buy Ultra HD?

The answer to that question comes down to two things. One is whether money is no object and you’re prepared to gamble that Ultra HD will become a common format with a decent range of content available over the next few years. It’s not just the display you’ll need to upgrade, you’ll need new source devices, a 4K-ready AV receiver HDMI 1.4 cables and potentially more.

The other is this – can you see the difference? Here’s the thing… the human eye has limited resolution; beyond a certain distance we can’t resolve the full detail of a given image. Take a look at the chart below:

This chart shows whether you’ll be able to see the difference between different resolutions for a given screen size at a given viewing distance. For example, if you’re seated 3 metres from the screen, you’d need a screen size of 77″ or more to see any difference. In the case of the Sony and LG TVs above, unless you’re closer than 3.4 metres (which is very close for an 84″ TV!) you won’t be able to tell the difference.

For this reason, we think that Ultra HD is virtually pointless on a television. What makes a lot more difference is contrast ratio (and black levels especially), colour (depth and accuracy of colours) and natural motion. In our opinion, you’re better off investing in a quality television that delivers those in spades. Call us biased, but Panasonic’s Plasma TVs are the reigning champions of contrast and black levels, and Loewe’s LCDs do stunning natural colour and motion.

What about Projection?

It’s a different kettle of fish for projectors – asĀ  most projection setups have screens of 90″ or more, the increased resolution becomes appreciable from about 3.5 metres away. The bigger the screen, the bigger the impact of the higher resolution.

The question of Ultra HD content still remains though. However, all else being equal (price especially!), going for a projector with 4K capability such as the JVC models mentioned above is not a bad idea. Given how well they upscale ‘normal’ high definition to Ultra HD resolution, there’s a benefit there for most people regardless of whether Ultra HD ever gets off the ground.

The Verdict

In a nutshell, we think Ultra HD is wasted on a television, as the screen size is too small to be able to perceive the higher resolution. Your money is better spent on better picture quality.

For projectors, screen size is not an issue, but the lack of content is. If in doubt, Ultra HD capability is not a bad idea, provided the price premium is not too great. The JVC models provide a good balance here.

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