With the holiday selling season about to kick into high gear, a big question that folks shopping for a new TV will be faced with is, “Should I buy one of these fancy new Ultra HDTVs, or that plain, old regular HDTV?” Even with recent price drops (and there have been lots of them), the price difference between the two is not insignificant: Samsung’s 55-inch UHDTV, for example, sells for around $1,000 more than the company’s F8000 Series 55-inch regular HD model. But Ultra HD is the future, and the new format’s benefits are as plain as day, right? Well, the answer may not be as clear-cut as the blue-shirted salesmen might have you think. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of buying a UHDTV, after the break.
The Argument in Favor
There are some compelling reasons why you should want a UHDTV. The most oft-cited one is that their screens provide 3840 x 2160-pixel resolution—four times the detail potential of 1080p HDTVs. And native Ultra HD content, while lagging behind the hardware itself, is coming soon to fill those pixels. Netflix has posted a few Ultra HD test clips, and more compelling content from that service is apparently in the works. YouTube also stocks a reasonably large library of videos recorded with 4K-rez cameras. It’s anticipated that a re-worked Ultra HD version of the Blu-ray disc format is expected to arrive in 2014, though the details are still being hammered out and no official announcements concerning it have been made yet by the Blu-ray Disc Association. Lastly, we can expect to see Ultra HD television broadcasts at some point, along with Ultra HD satellite transmissions from DirecTV and DISH, both of which have publicly expressed a commitment to providing higher-resolution content to keep pace with consumer demand (e.g., a sizeable installed base of UHDTV-owning subscribers).
UHDTVs can also display 2160p signals with a 60-Hz frame rate. This will mostly be a benefit for sports, where an increased frame rate helps to reduce motion blur. (Sports on ABC, FOX and ESPN will also be delivered in a format with nine times the resolution of the 720p HD format currently used by those networks when the Ultra HD switchover happens.) The catch here, however, is that an HDMI 2.0-compatible interface is required for sets to handle 2160p/60, and all of the UHDTVs currently on the market (Panasonic’s TC-L65WT600 LCD model excepted) sport HDMI 1.4 connections. So far, both Sony and Toshiba have announced a forthcoming firmware upgrade to make their 2013 sets upgradeable to HDMI version 2.0. Samsung’s solution is to offer a new HDMI 2.0 version of the One Connect box that comes with the company’s UHDTVs as part of its ongoing Evolution Kit upgrades. Other UHDTV manufacturers haven’t announced HDMI 2.0 upgrade plans—a point to keep in mind while shopping.
Another benefit that Ultra HD could bring is images with increased bit depth. Regular HDTV uses 8 bits to capture brightness steps for the red, green and blue colors in a video image, for a total of 16.8 million possible colors. But Rec. 2020, a list of technical recommendations for Ultra HD put forth by the International Telecommunications Union, allows for 10- or 12-bit depths, which will deliver just over one billion and 68 billion colors, respectively. The end result? Pictures with smoother color gradations than current HDTVs deliver. It’s not yet clear that Ultra HD content will utilize these higher bit depths, but if it does, the sets can handle it.
One more interesting aspect of Rec.2020 is that it defines a considerably wider color gamut than the Rec.709 one used for HDTV. While it’s not clear that this particular color gamut will be supported by future UHDTVs, they will at minimum have the capability to reproduce a wider range of of colors than is capable with Rec.709.
It’s also possible that Ultra HD will use other methods of chroma subsampling—a compression technique that reduces bandwidth by limiting the resolution of color information in the video signal—than the 4:2:0 scheme used by HDTV sources like Blu-ray. With 4:2:0, both the horizontal and vertical resolution of color channels is reduced by half. But for Ultra HD content, it’s possible that 4:2:2 chroma subsampling, which retains full vertical resolution for the color channels, or even 4:4:4, which retains full horizontal and vertical resolution, will be utilized.
Finally, for those who still care, 3D TV will look better on UHDTVs—LG’s 65-inch 65LA9700, for example—since you’ll be able to see full 1080p-rez left and right images with no need for active glasses and their attendant flicker and brightness reduction.
The Argument Against
While it’s true that UHDTV offers a significant resolution increase over standard HDTV, you won’t get the full benefit of all those extra pixels unless you’re sitting extremely close to the TV or viewing on a very large screen. How large? At a fairly typical 8-foot viewing distance, you’ll need to use a 110-inch screen to fully appreciate Ultra HD’s added detail. Compare that with 1080p HDTV, which requires a 55-inch screen size for the same viewing distance.
I mentioned above that Ultra HD content is on its way, but most people who buy a UHDTV will undoubtedly want to watch Ultra HD programming now. That’s a problem—one that didn’t exist in the late 1990s when the first HDTV broadcasts were timed to coincide with the arrival of sets in stores. It’s worth noting that stopgap measures have been put in place by manufacturers seeking to lure prospective buyers, most notably Sony’s Video Unlimited 4K download service. Video Unlimited 4K currently offers 70 titles for rent or purchase, with 100 expected by year’s end, using the company’s FMP-X1 media player ($700 alone, or $500 when bundled with a Sony XBR65X850A 65-Inch or XBR55X850A 55-Inch UHDTV). The catch? The FMP-X1 only works with Sony TVs. Not one to be outdone, Samsung has begun bundling a USB hard drive pre-loaded with IMAX content including two feature documentaries free of charge with its Ultra HD models.
UHDTVs are also pricey. You can expect to pay somewhere in the $5-6,000 range for a 65-inch model—probably the absolute minimum screen size you’d want to consider given the resolution/seating distance caveats mentioned above. Compare that with $2,200 for Panasonic’s HD Guru top-rated VIERA TC-P65ST60 65-Inch 1080p plasma model or $3,300 for Samsung’s impressive UN65F8000 65-inch 1080p LED LCD HDTV. It’s true that UHDTV prices will drop further in the near future, but that won’t do you a lot of good when you’re in the market for a set right now.
Moving beyond the questions of whether you’ll be able to see Ultra HD’s added detail over 1080p, the lack of native Ultra HD content and the high price of sets, there are other issues at stake that should be considered before taking the UHDTV plunge. Some video experts and industry insiders are pressing for Ultra HD to provide mandatory support for 2160p/60-format 12-bit signals with 4:4:4 chroma subsampling. Oh, yeah, and a 120-Hz frame-rate option. While such specs fall within the bounds of Rec.2020, a problem with that scenario is that HDMI 2.0, the interface of choice for forthcoming UHDTVs, lacks the bandwidth to convey those combinations. So, will the content that eventually ends up on UHDTV screens represent a compromised version of the format’s potential? That could be the case.
Buy or Fly?
If you’re an early adopter with a need for a new set, chances are you’re going to pull the trigger on a UHDTV anyway, no matter what the arguments for or against. And chances are you’ll be happy with your purchase, since The UHDTVs coming from each maker are easily as good as their high-end 1080p models. Also, TV replacement cycles are now much shorter than they were in the recent past, with many consumers now replacing their sets every 6-8 years on average. Just go into the deal knowing that the technical minutiae surrounding Ultra HD isn’t fully locked down, and that sets a few years down the road could offer better performance and more features than those available now. (But isn’t that always the case?) At minimum, make sure the UHDTV you buy has an upgrade path to HDMI 2.0—though that in itself may not be the end of story when it comes to a no-compromise next-generation video standard.
—Al Griffin/ Email
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