New 4K sets, like this wall of Samsung SUHDs, are stunning. The 4K content situation is improving, too. But you’d be smart to wait a little while before taking the 4K plunge.
This is the year buying a 4K TV seems to make a lot more sense.
Everything is falling into place: 4K services are primed to explode, and UltraHD sets will be both plentiful and more affordable. You won’t just see one 4K showpiece in a manufacturer’s lineup, you’ll see tiers of UltraHD sets. They’ll all upscale 1080p content, making it look even better. They’ll have built-in connectivity and streaming apps. They’ll come at every price-point. They’ll range from quantum-dotto OLED to sets that mimic 8K resolution. And you may see more new 4K TVs than HDTVs this year.
Make no mistake: this is not just hype. It is not 3-D. This is the future, and in the coming years, 4K will be as ubiquitous and essential as HD video is now. Everyone from studios and streaming services to the manufacturers are putting their full weight behind the push. This is why the TV industry expects 2015 to be a breakout year for 4K. The Consumer Electronics Association predicts UHD TV shipments will hit 4 million in 2015 and revenues will exceed $5 billion. That’s up from around 800,000 shipments and $2.5 billion in revenues last year— a huge leap forward.
Still, you may want to teeter just a bit longer on the diving board before taking the UltraHD plunge. Give it a few more months, because by this time next year, our picture of the 4K universe will be as clear as the picture on the sets. The content options and the hardware are only going to get better.
And that’s the thing: They’re only going to get better. At the moment, there’s a problem: there are competing approaches and content packages, with different manufacturers offering different ways to get all that amazing video. It’s not like the Betamax/VHS or Blu-Ray/HD-DVD format wars, which were about content delivery systems that worked with any TV. With 4K, the TV is the content delivery system. It’s more like an OS war.
And 4K is forked.
If you jump in now, you’ll need to consider exclusivity deals, bandwidth demands, which big-gun content providers are behind which TVs, and the nuances of each built-in smart platform. Until all the major services—Netflix, Amazon, etc.—run on every 4K set, until there’s a simple plug-and-play 4K device like a streaming box or a console, and until lower bitrates or beefier bandwidth are universal, you’ll be buying into a UHD construction zone. And while the pool of 4K content will greatly expand this year, it doesn’t mean everything you want to watch will be available in UltraHD.
This Is More Than a Resolution Jump
On the surface, the jump to 4K looks a lot like the transition from standard definition to HD. But it’s entirely different for many reasons, not the least of which is this: 4K is the first tectonic TV shift where traditional content delivery is secondary. The 4K revolution, for now, anyway, is all about streaming, not broadcast, or cable, or discs.
With 4K, streaming isn’t just a cable-cutting measure anymore. It’s the primary delivery mechanism, and that could change the entire nature of television—not just how we (binge-)watch it, but how we decide which company’s 4K set to buy. You see, you can’t buy a 4K-capable Roku, Amazon Fire TV, or Apple TV box right now. Yes, you can watch upscaled 1080p content, and that’ll look great. But if you want a true 4K experience—tack-sharp detail and you-are-there realism—you’re largely limited to the 4K services offered by each TV’s built-in smart platform.
So there’s no cheap-n-easy 4K set-top box just yet, but Roku and TCL are planning to bake one into TCL sets—at some point in the not-too-distant future. The industry is “nearing a 4K tipping point, where the amount of content will push consumer demand,” says Chris Larson, VP of sales and marketing for TCL North America. “We plan to have the 4K TCL Roku TV in market by [that] time.”
Meanwhile, Dish Network announced its 4K Joey at CES last week. It’ll require a monthly Dish subscription ($30 to $90 per month) and a Hopper DVR. That’s a much bigger investment than the fee-free 1080p streaming boxes you can get for less than a C-note, and so far Dish won’t dish on what specific 4K content might be available. More 4K streamers are certainly coming, but the major manufacturers are revamping their smart-TV platforms in an attempt to replace those boxes altogether.
Dish Network’s 4K Joey, which was announced at CES 2015, is the first 4K streaming box. It requires a Dish subscription and a Hopper DVR, making it different from simple plug-and-play 1080p options.
Inside the Fork Drawer: OS Wars, Exclusivity, and Blessings
This new wave of smart-TV platforms will diverge in terms of their OS underpinnings. Samsung will use Tizen, LG utilizes WebOS, Panasonic runs Firefox OS, while Sharp and Sony will use proprietary systems alongside Android TV. That could make app development a chore, but the bigger issue is that the content available on each brand of set will be governed by exclusivity deals.
For example, only some UHD sets work with 4K streaming services from Netflix andAmazon; last week, Netflix announced a “Recommended TV” program that will allow certain manufacturers to show its UHD content. M-Go and Comcast have 4K apps exclusive to Samsung’s TVs. Sony’s Video Unlimited 4K service may have the deepest 4K catalog right now, but it requires a compatible TV and a $700 media player.
Codecs remain something of a barrier too. Both Netflix and Amazon use HEVC/H.265, which rapidly is becoming the compression standard. Google backs its own 4K-friendly codec, VP9, which also will be used for UltraHD YouTube videos. Many of this year’s new 4K TVs support both codecs. But even if a 4K set has an HEVC decoder, it may not be compatible with all the services using that codec. That goes back to the certification processes streaming services use to put their stamp of approval on certain TVs.
The longer you wait, the more you are to see these 4K forks disappear. CES 2015 marked the announcement of the UHD Alliance, a consortium of manufacturers, studios, and content providers that aims to standardize the 4K content field. We’re talking DirecTV, Dolby, LG, Netflix, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, Technicolor, Walt Disney Studios, Twentieth Century Fox, and Warner Bros. That kind of firepower should help align the tines, although big-name players like Amazon, Google, Hisense, Roku, TCL, and Vizio are missing from the roster.
A platform-agnostic cavalry is on the way. DirectTV and Dish Network have 4K satellite services in the works. 4K Blu-ray discs and players are expected by the end of the year, and Panasonic had a prototype at CES. But until this stuff is available, we have a baked-in platform war—one vastly different from the format wars of yore. Questions of VHS vs Betamax or Blu-ray vs HD-DVD were divorced from the TV sets themselves. No matter which device you chose, it would work with your TV. With 4K, the television set and content-delivery system are one in the same. Make the wrong decision and you may not get the content you want.
From Broadcast to Broadband
Let’s say you find a set compatible with every 4K service available—and it looks like Samsungs are the best bet right now. You’ve still gotta worry about bandwidth. 4K video is beefier than HD video—four times the resolution means a hell of a lot more data—and not all home networks can handle that rushing river reliably.
Netflix recommends 25Mbps download speeds for streaming 4K video, while the service’s 1080p streams require about 3Mbps. If your streaming setup buffers and stutters with the average HD video, 4K will be a struggle. According to Akamai’s most recent State of the Internet report, just 19 percent of U.S. homes had “4K-ready” connection speeds of 15Mbps or greater. According to Ookla’s Net Index, the mean broadband download speed in the US is 32Mbps, but there are major speed variances from ISP to ISP and state to state.
The good news is you may not need to upgrade your service to get smooth 4K streaming. Beamr, a post-encoding video-optimization service, is working with movie studios and streaming providers to chop 4K video bitrates by 40 percent. Beamr claims it can whittle 4K video down to a 9.5Mbps stream, making it easier for networks to handle the load. It works with HEVC-encoded video, and the company demoed its bitrate-shaving work at CES. The technology will be used in a new 4K partnership with M-Go—a service that’s only be available on Samsung’s 4K sets.
Beamr claims its optimization software is smarter than an encoder—it’s applied after a video is encoded using HEVC—as it removes bits where they won’t be missed: Blurred backgrounds, smooth textures, and parts of a scene that don’t need 4K detail. According to CTO Dror Gill, even experts can’t see a difference between the bitrate optimized video and the source files. That’s why Beamr is working with studios to install the optimization software as part of their digital-delivery workflow instead of content aggregators.
“We do not hurt the quality in any way,” says Gill. “If we would start with Amazon and Netflix, they would say, ‘Hey that’s great, it saves us bits.’ Then the studios would say, ‘We don’t want you to do that to our content.’ … We wanted it to be verified by the ‘golden eyes’ of the studio. They can see any change in texture and any change in color.”
Such stream-shrinking could expand the potential audience for 4K. According to the Akamai, the number of American homes that can handle speeds of 10Mbps or greater jumps to 39 percent. That doubles the number of 4K-ready homes, but it’s still just a start.
Welcome to the Era of Amazing 1080p TV Deals
The waiting is the hardest part, but at least you’ll have a 1080p set until the 4K train gains momentum. And guess what? They’ll practically be giving away high-end 1080p sets in the years to come.
At CES 2015, none of the major TV manufacturers highlighted new 1080p sets for the coming year. On the downside, that means things like quantum-dot color enhancement, OLED panels, and impossibly thin sets likely won’t show up in many (if any) 1080p offerings. Manufacturers will save all that cutting-edge stuff for their top models, and all those high-end models will be 4K TVs.
But you should be able to find some excellent deals on last year’s top-tier HDTVs, and some of this year’s HDTVs should offer unprecedented bang for the buck. For example, Roku announced it would be including its streaming features on a slew of new HD sets this year, including new partnerships with Insignia (Best Buy’s house brand) and Haier. TCL debuted 15 new TVs this year, and 12 of them will also have Roku baked in.
If you want to get in on the OLED game, keep an eye on the prices for LG’s 1080p OLED TVs throughout the year. They’re currently priced around $3,500, and they’re bound to dip even further as 4K dominates the showroom. Top-shelf 2014 options such as Samsung’s H8000 series, Sony’s W950B series, Sharp’s Aquos Q+ sets, and Vizio’s M series should be available for cheap prices at large sizes as the year goes on.