TV’s next big thing
By now, most people have upgraded to high-definition, large-screen flat-panel TVs. Many even have TVs that can play back 3D content. But manufacturers, eager to keep people upgrading, have already moved on to the next big thing. Welcome to the ultra-high-definition future. By Duncan McLeod.
Most consumers have by now ditched their old-fashioned cathode-ray tube (CRT) TV sets. As the price of liquid crystal display (LCD) sets has plunged, thanks to manufacturing economies of scale, adoption of flat panels has taken off. And the more prices fall, the bigger screen sizes get, to the extent that 46-inch sets — which dwarf old CRT sets — are now considered the new norm.
The upgrade cycle — first to 720p- and 1080p-resolution high-definition sets and then to 3D technology — have underpinned massive sales growth at market leaders such as Korea’s Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics (though intense competition has meant profits haven’t kept pace).
Now these manufacturers, keen to keep people on the upgrade treadmill, are already eyeing the next big thing. It’s called 4K ultra-high-definition television (UHDTV) and offers consumers four times the resolution of today’s 1080p standard.
Last week, I was offered a demo of Sony’s new top-of-the-line UHDTV set, which is being introduced in South Africa next week. Costing R279 000 — you read that right — the KD-84X9000 provides a resolution of 3 840×2 160 pixels, for a total of 8,3m pixels on a massive 84-inch screen.
This might sound like overkill, but the image quality is breathtaking, even when viewed up close. In fact, unlike similarly sized 1080p sets, large-screen UHDTVs are best viewed from close up. Sony recommends people watch its 84-inch monster as close as 1,5m from the screen, providing the sort of immersion usually reserved for the sort of top-end high-definition movie theatres not found in SA.
Apart from the bank-draining price tag – this will come down sharply in the years ahead as manufacturers start to crank out the sets in volume – the problem is that there is a distinct lack of content available in 4K resolution. Even Sony’s own Blu-ray optical disc format, which is still relatively new in the market, supports video playback at only 1080p.
Broadcasters, for one, aren’t about to start offering 4K content any time soon. For one thing, few people have the technology to receive it. For another, the cost of delivering 4K broadcasts, particularly over satellites, is prohibitively expensive.
Sony thinks it has the solution: upscaling engines that take today’s high-definition content and upscale it to 4K resolution. It works surprisingly well, especially with Blu-ray content, but it still feels like a kludge. Could a new optical format solve the problem? That’s highly unlikely. As broadband speeds accelerate, and as consumers increasingly turn to the Internet for their entertainment, Blu-ray will be the last physical format used for distributing video — and this is despite the fact that the average size of a 4K-resolution movie is about 120GB!
If you’ve just invested in a new flat-panel TV, the good news is it’s going to be several years yet before there’s a need to upgrade to a UHDTV set. Unless you have money to burn or just must have the latest and greatest toys, there’s little reason now to upgrade.
In a few years, TVs based on another emerging technology called OLED — it’s short for organic light-emitting diode — promises to usher in an era of much thinner TVs that offer a far superior picture quality over today’s LCD sets. OLED and 4K together promise a revolution in television, one that will make even today’s top-end sets look like museum pieces by later this decade. By then, of course, 8K technology — the standard for which has already been defined — will be well on its way. — (c) 2012 NewsCentral Media