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FAQ: What is 4K exactly, and do I have to buy a new TV now?

Evan Dashevsky | Jan. 14, 2014
One of the most undeniable trends as this year's CES expo was 4K TVs. There were giant 4K sets, curved 4K sets, and bendable 4K sets. But all that 4K action might leave you wondering: what does 4K mean? And what effect does the onslaught of 4K have on the future of the HDTV I just bought?

But the Ultra HD standard is about more than just a lot of pixels. The video specs also call for a larger color space, which should make everything look better even if you can't see all of the pixels. 

That's all well and good, but it's not like there's anything to watch on 4K, right?
That was a mostly true statement until very recently. But things are changing rapidly: Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube have all announced that they will produce more 4K content beginning this year.

So, I'll have to buy a UHD TV now just to watch Netflix and YouTube?
No, don't worry. Those streaming services will surely make various resolutions available for the foreseeable future.

Will my Blu-rays at least work on a UHD set?
All of your existing HD content, including Blu-rays, will work on an Ultra HD TV. They'll be scaled up to fill the screen, though, so they won't look as good as true 4K content.

The current generation of Blu-ray discs supports resolutions up to 1080p. But the Blu-ray Disc Association has expressed an interest in developing 4K-compatable Blu-rays down the road.

So, you're saying I'll need to get some of those "mastered in 4K" Blu-rays?
No, those are rubbish. Blu-ray packaging that describes the enclosed disc as "mastered in 4K" or as offering a "near 4K" experience may claim to offer a better viewing experience on a UHD TV, but even the studios behind them admit that they don't deliver a true 4K experience. The video on the disc is still just 1080p.

No current Blu-ray can offer 4K resolution, it's just not part of the Blu-ray spec.

That's sketchy, isn't it?
Indeed! But the more important question may be, why should anyone want physical movies in the age of the streaming services and smart TVs? In the future, physical movies may be as obsolete as physical albums.

New video compression formats will allow broadcasters and Web services to stream bulky 4K video files more easily. The International Telecommunications Union recently introduced the H.265 (or HEVC — High Efficiency Video Codec) standard as a successor to the H.264 standard widely used to deliver video via Broadcast, Blu-ray, and Web. H.265 promises to deliver quality comparable to that of H.264, despite using half the bandwidth. 

In addition, Google has developed its own competing bandwidth-lite format, VP9, which the company will use to stream 4K videos on YouTube. It, too, promises equivalent quality at half the bandwidth of H.264.

I'd probably need to buy a bunch of new hardware and stuff to go along with an Ultra HD set, huh?
Eventually, yes. Most TV peripherals use HDMI, but only the two most recent version of HDMI (1.4 and 2.0) support 4K resolution. And only HDMI 2.0 can handle a 4K signal at 60 frames per second. HDMI 1.4 is limited to handling a 4K signal at 30 frames per second. 


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