The trouble with 4K TV

This week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was dominated by talk about ultra-high-definition or “4K”-resolution television technology. But serious challenges in distribution will have to be overcome if it’s going to take off. A new optical format to succeed Blu-ray may even be needed. Craig Wilson investigates.


There’s no other way of describing the technology: the latest ultra-high-definition (UHD) television sets look absolutely amazing. From television to cinema, the “4K” resolutions on offer represent a new frontier in entertainment. But the industry faces a big and perhaps even insurmountable challenge: distribution.

Solving the distribution problem could mean the difference between 4K becoming the new standard for video playback or just a novelty for the wealthy.

Though 4K resolutions represent the next step in high-definition video, standards for the format have yet to emerge and no one’s really figured out how to distribute video, with its massive file footprint, efficiently and cost effectively. How exactly does one distribute files that can run to hundreds of gigabytes? And will broadcasters ever realistically offer content in this format?

Even in developed markets, with high-speed, low-cost broadband, concerns are being voiced about the implications of trying to distribute UHD material to end users — to consumers who aren’t used to waiting for any length of time for content to load before they can start playing it back.

Japan’s Sony, which helped pioneer the Blu-ray optical disc format for high-definition video playback, hinted at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week that it is looking at a dedicated digital distribution service for 4K content. However, Sony executives have been light on the detail.

Media reports earlier this week quoted Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai as saying that although a physical format might be necessary or even desirable to distribute 4K content — and could even be welcomed by consumers — his company is looking at network-based solutions for distribution first.

Hirai also warned that standards for 4K content still needed to be finalised. Sony has traditionally favoured creating its own formats, but with so many other competitors developing 4K products, this may not be feasible.

Although some of the parameters for 4K TVs have been all but finalised — a resolution of 3 840×2 160 pixels and an aspect ratio of 16:9 for TVs, for example — for cinema there are already a handful of different resolutions and aspect ratios, and as many cameras capable of recording each format.

How big is big?
Johannesburg-based independent filmmaker and post-production specialist Stephen Abbott says it’s unclear just how large, in terms of gigabytes, 4K movies will be when standards have settled down.

“No one has really come up with a 4K distribution standard for the home yet,” he explains. The size of a 4K movie depends on a number of variables, including the 4K standard used, the bit-rate and the type of compression employed.

Compression is unavoidable and is done using various algorithms that, for example, identify scenes with static backgrounds that needn’t be rendered separately for each frame and result in smaller files without a discernible loss in quality. The difference between good and poor quality video is often the result of the compression algorithm used.

Stephen Abbott

Stephen Abbott

Given that uncompressed 4K footage has a bit-rate of about 600MB/s, and even the fastest solid-state drives operate at only about 500MB/s, compression isn’t merely likely, it’s necessary.

American digital cinema camera company Red is well known for its handling of video compression and recently announced plans of its own to create a 4K distribution network for cinemas using a dedicated device called the Redray 4K Cinema player, which will allow content to be stored and played back using an Ethernet connection and a 1TB hard drive.

Red’s distribution system is called Odemax and is expected to be launched by March. It’s an attempt by Red to bridge the distribution divide between content producers and distributors and cinemas. It could also be used by high-end home users and will, like iTunes or Netflix, mean bypassing traditional content distribution channels.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Red’s proposal is its claim that it can compress 4K content to a bit-rate as low as 2,5MB/s, resulting in video files — in the .red format — of under 20GB for an average-length feature film. Even at this bit-rate, it would still mean consumers need at least a 20Mbit/s connection at home in order to stream content without buffering, Abbott says.

Abbott expects to see 4K used extensively in cinemas long before it makes its way to the consumer space, if it ever does on a large scale. He says it makes more sense in the cinema environment, particularly because of the larger screens and the distance viewers sit from them.

As it is, consumers are often hard-pressed to identify higher-resolution content on their TVs, especially given that the compression applied to a great deal of HD content — like the content supplied by satellite broadcasters — often results in content that is HD in name alone.

“You could upscale content to 4K, but if you compressed it badly, it would be only marginally better than a good HD stream,” Abbott explains. “Similarly, people have historically made HD formats so heavily compressed it’s probably not fair to call them HD at all.”

Abbott says, too, that when it comes to TVs, if they’re being viewed from some distance, as is usually the case in most living rooms, a 4K 60-inch screen is probably reaching the discernible resolution limits of the human eye. “Just as there’s no point printing above 600 dots per inch because you can’t see it without a microscope, the same thing is happening with TV,” he says.

Furthermore, resolution is not the only aspect of visual experience. “Frame rates, brightness, dynamic range — these are all factors,” Abbott says. Just as digital stills camera manufacturers have somewhat moved beyond talking about megapixels and resolution to talking about details like high-ISO noise and dynamic range, so TV manufacturers could go the same way. “There are lots of places to go besides more Ks.”

Is 4K overkill?
Standalone content aside, even with heavy compression, 4K content presents enormous challenges for broadcasters.

DStv Online CEO John Kotsaftis says 4K is highly unlikely to be used by broadcasters in the foreseeable future. “It’s way too expensive to give up the amount of satellite capacity required to broadcast at 4K,” he says.

John Kotsaftis

John Kotsaftis

Kotsaftis says very few broadcasters even offer content at 1080p.

While early adopters may embrace 4K in the same way they did Blu-ray, Kotsaftis says he thinks the uptake for 4K will be even slower than Blu-ray.

“There’s a quality versus convenience curve that we’re already on,” he says. Consumers are willing to make all sorts of quality compromises in exchange for speedy and convenient access to content, he argues.

“I don’t think [4K] is going to push the boundary,” Kotsaftis says. “Everyone thought 3D would be the next big thing but it hasn’t been.” He suggests that much like 3D, 4K is something manufacturers hope will allow them to sell new TVs, but that most consumers probably won’t care for it.

“An acceptable level of quality has been reached,” he says. “Now it’s about content and convenience. Where you probably could tell the difference in quality is on larger form factors.”

Kotsaftis says manufacturers will probably begin shipping and promoting larger TVs. “In coming years, 50-inch or 55-inch screens will have become the sort of standard that 40-inch TVs are now. To exploit 4K, you need a larger form factor. You’re just not going to notice enough of a difference on smaller screens.”

The same quality/convenience argument leads him to believe that physical media for 4K content will struggle to gain traction among consumers. “4K implies going back to physical media. Even over the Internet, it’s going to require massive files and, given the choice, most people would happily settle for a 720p or 1080p file anyway.”

With bandwidth of around 10Mbit/s, Kotsaftis says consumers can watch “really high quality video over the Internet”. Although South Africa is still catching up with developed markets when it comes to broadband, he still can’t envisage a situation where people want optical or physical media. “Physical media has lost its value,” he says. “I used to prize it and cherish my CDs and DVDs, but now I can get most of that content online.”

Audio streaming services like Spotify have taken off in the US and Europe, followed closely by services like Netflix for video content. Kotsaftis says he expects the same thing will happen in South Africa. Aside from the convenience of streaming, there’s the option of getting recommendations based on viewing or listening habits, something physical media don’t offer.

“I don’t think the big change in TVs is going to be 4K. I think it’s going to be about functionality. TVs are going to get easier to use and user interfaces are going to get speedier and more elegant,” Kotsaftis says. The problem of content has, by and large, been solved, he says, but ease of use and proper integration of applications and online tools into TVs has some way to go.  — (c) 2013 NewsCentral Media

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  • Delano Stockhoff

    I just figured out – at 600MB/s, a 90 minute feature film would be 3.24TB. Mind = Blown. Compression is a must.

    I do, however, believe 4k is unnecessary, a bit like those 3D TVs that showed up at CES a couple years back.

    If you have seen Blu-Ray content playing on a 1080p TV, you will be amazed. It looks stunning. In fact, I read that at a 2m viewing distance, a full HD TV qualifies as “Retina”. I believe there is a threshold for how good a screen can look to the eyes. And I believe Retina is that threshold.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    It’s just the progression of technology. It becomes easier and cheaper to fabricate these more precise parts, and 4K will follow the exact same curve as 1080p … as manufacturers re-equip or upgrade their production facilities, they’ll be capable of making 4K panels. After a few years, 4K will be standard in panels coming off new production lines.

    When 1080p came out, we had the exact same problems as this article brings up – streaming it was but a pipe dream. Qualcomm announced a mobile chip at CES yesterday (available Q2 2013) that can encode/decode 4K on the fly, so by the end of the year we’ll have cheap media players that can handle the streams, and the Bluray spec allows players/recorders with multi-layer disks, so it’s just a matter of time until some companies start packaging those and we can have reasonably priced 4K players (be it streaming, optical or whatever).

    It’s cool tech, but as a consumer do what you did with 720p, 1080p and 3D … sit back and let the passage of time drive those prices down, and by the time you need to replace your 1080p panel, 4K panels will probably be a similar price. Whether you need it or not is irrelevant, it should be a standard feature in all good TVs.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    >>I read that at a 2m viewing distance, a full HD TV qualifies as “Retina”. I believe there is a threshold for how good a screen can look to the eyes. And I believe Retina is that threshold.

    Long before Apple coined the term “Retina”, home theatre geeks were using the same calculations to determine optimum screen size and resolution, the earliest reference I have to 1080p in home theatre is from 2006, in this chart (updated recently to include 4K) –

    If you’re interested in fiddling around with these numbers, I’ve shared an online spreadsheet here: … For 4K, you get “Retina” at 45cm for an average desktop monitor (23″ monitor), and you need a 100″ TV for 4K resolution to be worth it from a (very close) viewing distance of 2m.
    Having said that, it’s always a good idea to get a TV with higher res if you’re not paying too much more – this usually means they’re using cutting edge manufacturing techniques and it’ll have better colour reproduction, contrast, etc.

  • Nicklas Rudamsson

    It’s for the future, 4K is not something retail consumers will run out and buy in the store today. But in 5 years from today, sure.

    A doublesided Blu-ray disc would fit a full 4k movie with no problem. An 15 GB sized 1080p movie do look great on my FullHD tv-set, a 4k movie would be tripple the size, landing at 45 GB in size.

  • ushere

    unfortunately we’ll still be watching the same old crap on it – or hollywood ‘youth market’ junk.
    still, the wheels of invention must turn to keep the wheels of commerce turning in order to wheedle more cash from the poor, confused public…

  • M C

    This is why H.265 exists…

  • Chris

    I just bought a LED, 50 inch, Full HD TV. Even in my small lounge I’m really enjoying this TV and when viewing full HD programs, I cant believe the quality of the movies. I cant believe that 4K will be “so much” better than HD. And as mentioned in this article the size of these movies are lickly to be huge! It will be a very slow up take of 4K the way I see it, but then again I’ve been a programmer for 20 years now, and I remember when it was a miracle if you could play any movie file on your PC. And that wasnt even that long ago. The technology will be sorted within the next 4 -5 years, thats a given, but is 4K really going to be “so much” better? I dont think so, I think it will be for a few people just like 3D

  • Stephen Abbott

    Now is a great time for independent cinema. Perhaps a flatter distribution system (à la iTunes) will allow you access to more content beyond Hollywood’s walls…

  • Lyndon

    What annoys me about the “4k” distinction is that they’re now using the horizontal resolution instead of the vertical like we currently do. 4k is 3840×2160 which going by our current naming system would be called 2160p. But of course the hardware manufacturers go with marketing speak to throw off the naive consumer.

  • Aadil Lakhi

    I wish the focus would shift to the software powering Smart TV’s. At the moment, they’re slow and unresponsive with terrible UI. Improve that first

  • bb80

    A nice MKV 1080p is between 10 or 12GB for a movie. The new encoding scheme H265 should give a 2x reduction in size. That should average 20-25GB for a 4K/H265 movie. The moment SOC vendors as broadcom, realtec or sigma release a 4K/H265 capable chip that finds its way into sub 200dollar streamers the stated problem go’s away really fast.

  • omnichad

    Well – that’s because 4K has special meaning in the digital film industry, and the term is being carried over from there. Last time I went to see a movie, the digital projection company’s logo popped up and said it was 4K.

    2K is the lower digital resolution in film, which is roughly equivalent to HDTV. So going to a 2K digital theater is barely better than watching the film at home on Blu-Ray. 4K is 4 times the resolution (double the width, double the height).

    The reason for the switch is because it’s so close to film that there’s no reason to have two sets of terms to describe the size.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    Good timing – Broadcom announced this very chip yesterday :) … will only be in full production early next year, but 4K TVs won’t be consumer items before then anyway, so it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that the video delivery techniques are getting ahead of the panels.

  • Aadil Lakhi

    How will 1080p content look on a 4k screen? SD content looks horrible on HD screens. Will we suffer the same problem?

  • Guest


  • Delano Stockhoff

    English please.

  • Andrew Fraser

    But you haven’t seen it, right?

  • Chris

    No havent, but even on my HD now, the HD movies and blueray and even DSTV HD channels are excellent. Im not going to go right up to my screen and stare at the pixes, I sit a few meters away and it looks perfect to me. I cant believe that going to 4K would be “so much” better than HD. Maybe in a few years time, 4K will be the standard and we will laugh at HD, but I’ll wait a number of years again before buying a new TV in any case again. Any just to mention a problem with HD now, is that everything that is not HD looks a bit crap on the TV, how will a 1960’s movie look on 4K?

  • Taffy

    I agree with you, Chris. But remember how DVD looked “so excellent” compared to VHS and regular TV broadcasts?

  • Chris

    Taffy, I’ve got to give you that one!

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