Why you shouldn't buy a 4K TV this year

Standards for Ultra-High Definition TV are still far from complete

Ultra-High Definition (UHD) 4K televisions are sure to be on many holiday shopping wish lists this season, but industry experts say now is not the time to buy.

For one, they're still pricey: Most UHD TVs large enough to showcase their better picture quality - that is, 65-in. or larger -- cost $5,000 or more. There's also a lack of 4K content that can be viewed, and industry standards that need to be hammered out.

In fact, the lack of standards is hampering the availability of 4K content.

"You can get more for your dollar going with a good LED HDTV from a top brand," said Veronica Thayer, an analyst with IHS Research. "They're coming out with great prices for this holiday season."

For example, Visio is expected to offer two HDTV specials this season: a 60-in. LED HDTV for $688 and a 70-in. model for $998, "which is much lower than ever before," Thayer said.

Ultra High Definition (4K) TV technology offers a resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels, or 8 megapixels -- four times that of 1080p HD TVs. In addition to far higher resolution, another advantage cited by industry experts is that 4K TVs can display passive 3D better than today's 1080p sets.

Screen resolution, however, is only part of the reason for superior UHD TV picture quality. The sets also have improved color standards, are capable of higher frame rates and have greater dynamic range (i.e., brighter highlights and darker shadowing).

For example, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) tested 4K televisions with viewers earlier this year and found the audience appreciated higher frame rates much more than increased resolution. "Early results give a clear indication that higher frame rates are appreciated by the observers, to a significantly greater extent than increased resolution," the EBU said in a statement.

While UHD TVs sport four times the resolution of 1080p HD TVs, some experts have argued that the human eye is only able to perceive the improved picture quality of UHD TVs at a close range -- within 10 feet or less. Viewing from further away, it's the size of the TV more than the resolution that plays a bigger role in perceived picture quality.

UHD TV
Seiki is offering a 55-in. 4K TV for $850 this holiday season, the lowest price ever for a UHD TV, according to analysts.

Lack of 4K content and standards

One of the biggest issues facing the UHD TV market is a lack of "available" content. That's not to say there aren't plenty of 4K movies and TV shows ready to be streamed to the public. Since 2004, the movie and television industry has been producing 4K content for the digital market.

"Broadcasters will always use the best equipment they can, because they want to be able to archive and repurpose that content in the future. But that's a long ways from saying they have 4K content in the production chain," said Paul Gray, director of TV Electronics Research for industry analyst firm DisplaySearch.

Buying a 4K UHD TV today requires a leap of faith in two ways: You'll need to believe broadcasters will begin streaming 4K content soon and feel confident that the content will conform to a standard a new UHD TV can decode and process.

"Neither of those things are clear because there are no standards for 4K video," Gray said.

UHD TV suffers from a lack of industry planning that HDTV didn't. In 1990, well before HDTVs were introduced to the market, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) hammered out Recommendation BT.709 (Rec. 109), which standardized the format of high-definition television.

To date, a similar standard for UHD TV has yet to be agreed upon. The current UHD TV frame rate specified by the ITU includes only 120fps.

Differing frame rates have been used for television since the 1930s, and when broadcasters and television manufacturers use different frame rates, it causes problems with motion portrayal (i.e., there is a visible "flicker" and objects being tracked by the eye appear as two or three blurry, overlapping images). Those motion issues become even more evident on the large, high-resolution television displays.

Today, the television frame rate is standardized at 30 frames per second (fps) in the U.S., 25fps in Europe.

Broadcasters and media content creators have experimented with frame rates that are higher than 100fps that prevent the "flicker" effect and offer a more realistic image for Ultra High Definition TVs. A frame rate of 300 frames per second (or even 600fps) has been suggested, but nothing has yet been set in stone.

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), a standards and trade organization, is working on a standard for the U.S., but the organization is behind the latest European efforts. "And, Europe hasn't worked theirs out yet," Gray said.

The roadmap for standards hadn't been expected to be in place until after 2020, Gray said. Yet, manufacturers are already selling UHD TVs, which could speed up that timetable. "Everyone's been ambushed by this," he said.

Currently, UHD TV manufacturers are deploying workarounds. For example, Sony's solution for 4K content is to sell a UHD media player -- the 4K FMP-X1 - that allows viewers to purchase content. The media player retails for $699 and comes bundled with 10 feature films and video shorts in 4K resolution. Sony announced the UHD player at the same time it released pricing for its 55-in. and 65-in. 4K TVs, $4,999 and $6,999, respectively.

4K FMP-X1
Sony's current plan for 4K content is to sell a UHD media player -- the 4K FMP-X1 -- that allows viewers to purchase content.

Paul O'Donovan, a principal analyst with Gartner, said 4K UHD TVs have a tough row to hoe to break into the television market. After consumers spent a decade transitioning from cathode-ray tube sets to flat panel TVs, the market has moved back to a classic replacement cycle where the average lifecycle for an HD TV is now 7 to 10 years.

When you combine replacement cycles with continued low levels of consumer confidence, UHD TVs face significant resistance to adoption, O'Donovan said. "Certainly, pricing will play a significant part of the adoption process," he said.

Premium brands such as Sony, Samsung and LG will not be offering heavy discounts on UHD TVs this season, said Thayer.

That's not to say there aren't deals out there. Seiki is offering a 55-in. 4K TV for $850, the lowest price ever for a UHD flatscreen, according to Thayer.

Earlier this year, Chinese-based flat screen maker TCL announced a 50-in. UHD TV for $999.

"All these TVs, of course, do include upscaling technology. That is still not as good as native 4K, but you can see improvement from 1080p HDTV," Thayer said. "It's not easy to see, but for certain movies you can see the difference."

DisplaySearch's Gray believes it will be another three or four years before UHDs will reach a price point and there will be enough content to justify a purchase.

"I think we'll see the first [UHD content] services in 2016. There will be a couple of them before that time for sure," he said. "But really, it will be 2017 onwards when we'll see it accelerating away, when you have a choice of content from a choice of providers."

Lucas Mearian covers consumer data storage, consumerization of IT, mobile device management, renewable energy, telematics/car tech and entertainment tech for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at  @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

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