The big story of CES 2013 was, undoubtedly, 4K TVs. But, some reckon that 4K is just a gimmick, nothing more than the latest buzzword that companies bandy around to over-compensate. That's wrong. 4K is here to stay, and in more than just TVs -- but it's not perfect yet.
4K's biggest and best application will be in TVs. Just like HD was the must-have thing for projectors and TVs ten or fifteen years ago, 4K is slowly but surely making its way from concept, to unfeasibly-expensive production model, and eventually (hopefully) to something that real people can actually own in their homes.
Is it worth it? Yes, but with caveats. Simply put, you need a whopping big TV in order for 4K to be worth it. HD vs SD on a 40-inch TV is like night and day; 4K vs HD on the same screen size, less so. On a relatively small TV screen like a 32-incher, the PPI would be something in the order of five times denser than needed for Apple's magic 'Retina' calculation; basically, it'd be totally pointless. In fact, in order to start seeing the difference with 4K, you have to get a TV around 80 inches. And that presents a couple of issues.
Size, for one. I'm sure a lot of the loving couples out there have had the fight over what the biggest TV the guy's allowed to buy is. I'm going to guess, and say that it was sub-80 inches. An 80 inch TV totally dominates whatever room it's placed in (and that's without Samsung giving it a Victorian-era wrought-iron frame).
And, of course, there's the problem of price. I have absolutely no doubt that 4K TVs are going to become a hell of a lot cheaper. Look at HDTVs -- when HD launched in the US in 1998, the cheapest HDTV was about £9,000. Now, a quick Google throws up cheapo HD sets for £130. Undoubtedly, then, 4K TVs are going to come down in price -- the Consumer Electronics Association reckons they'll come down to just two grand by 2015.
Of course, there is a third spanner in the works, to fully complete the trilogy of problems: a lack of 4K content. One of the things hampering the adoption of 4K TV is a fairly comprehensive lack of good stuff to watch on it. When HDTV launched in the US in 1998, there were a bunch of HD channels just ready and waiting to support it. At the moment, there's basically nothing broadcast at 4K -- the sole European 4K channel is a proof-of-concept demonstration channel being run by a satellite company. As a result, anyone who spends £20,000 on a 4K TV at the moment will be doomed to watch upscaled HD content. That sucks. You don't spend quite-nice-car cash on a TV, just so you can watch upscaled content. It'd be like hiring a prostitute and then spending the night making small talk. Waste of money.
There is a glimmer of hope, though. Once the delivery systems have been worked out -- thanks to the RED-Ray system, and the Blu-Ray Association, who is working on putting 4K on Blu-Ray discs, that's not looking to be too much of a problem -- there'll be enough 4K content to melt your retinas ten times over. 35mm film -- which has been the staple in film shooting for, ooh, I don't know, 80 years -- has an effective resolution of around 4K, so there's nearly a century of human creativity to be tapped there. In addition, digital and TV filming is quickly being taken over by 4K cameras. Give it a few years and a decent delivery system, then, and 4K content should be as commonplace as hi-def is now.
More 4K TV content is a good thing, because 4K is amazing. We've been on record before as saying "if you don't think 4K is freaking awesome, there's something wrong with you", and yeah, that's about right. On the right-size TV, with the right content, it's stupefyingly amazing. It feels wrong for images to look so beautifully crisp and stunningly sharp. Yeah, it's not quite the same shocking difference as standard-definition vs high-definition, but that's the law of diminishing returns for you. It's more of a subtle difference, and as long as you don't have insanely high expectations, 4K TV will blow your mind.
4K isn't just about TV, however. 1080p has crept into the rest of the computing world, and 4K is quite possibly going to do the same. As I said, a 32-inch 4K doesn't make sense, and a 27-incher would be even more zero-sense. But that's because you sit a couple of metres away from your TV screen. Most likely, you only sit a foot or so from your computer monitor (mine's 15 inches, I measured); most of the time, then, your computer screen isn't anywhere near retina-quality. And as Apple demonstrated rather handily with the Retina MacBook Pro, Retina-quality screens are quite handy. Text and photos -- which, let's be honest, are the two things you look at most on a computer screen -- get a massive boost from being viewed in higher resolution. (This, if nothing else, is the lesson learnt from the iPhone 4 and subsequent smartphone PPI battle.)
There's something to address first, though. OS X, and Android for that matter, give you icons that are a certain physical size, regardless of the resolution. Windows doesn't. As a result, the common theme of the Surface Pro reviews is that everything is too small on the 10-inch, 1080p screen. It's not just a problem with the Surface -- every Windows 8 tablet/laptop hybrid I've tested has exactly the same problems.
There are ways around it -- the Microsoft Vice President has offered us his own personal 8-step solution to the problem. But, seriously? Eight steps, not even for a solution, but for an ugly band-aid to stick on the problem? His 'solution' isn't even really one -- changing the zoom settings in different apps is an effort, to say the least, and often leads to stuff scaling in weird ways. In browsers, in particular, zooming in and out is annoying and often leads to mucking up the layout of the web pages. Honestly, trying to squint at tiny buttons and text has ruined almost all the Windows 8 hybrids I've had the delight of playing with. Windows needs a hiDPI mode like an alcoholic needs his booze-juice.
Relative physical size of objects on a 15-inch screen (back) vs on a 11.6-inch screen (front)
On the upside, the same Microsoft VP has acknowledged that there's a problem, and there's a fix in the pipeline. When that gets here, I'll be gunning for a 4K external monitor, and for every high-end laptop to ship with a retina-or-better display.
What about tablets and phones? Well, I'm afraid that a 4K tablet (or smartphone, for that matter) falls into the "totally pointless" category. A 1080p smartphone is total overkill. A 4K one would be like using a nuclear bomb to obliterate a cockroach -- which, by the way, is what a 4K display would do to battery life and performance. In the flesh, Panasonic's 4K tablet is impressive, sure, but no more impressive than something like the Nexus 10. I think, then, that apart from a few specialist applications -- architects or photographers, basically anyone who needs an insanely nice portable screen -- we're not going to see much by way of 4K tablets. And 4K smartphones? Don't make me laugh. The arguments against 4K phones are the same as against 4K tablets, but four times as powerful, because the screens are four times smaller and 4K would be 50 times more pointless.
4K is coming, yes. For TVs, as soon as we've got the price and content sorted, it'll spread to everyone who wants a big TV (and, truth be told, I think it'll drive adoption of much bigger TVs across the world). Computer monitors? Bring it on. Tablets and smartphones? Purlease. But a word of caution -- as with HD, it's too easy to get caught up in specs madness, and forget that there's more to a screen than resolution. Companies like Panasonic are also making huge improvements in areas like black levels and power consumption -- these will be just as important, if not more so, than 4K in the coming years. In any case, we can be sure that screens of the future will look freakin' awesome, and that's all that matters.
Image credit: Magnifying glass smartphone from Shutterstock