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4K – how many pixels is too many?

Monday, June 23, 2014
Our viewing standards have changed massively in a very short time. In little over a decade, we have moved from boxy 4:3 SD (Standard Definition) images on our TV screens, video cameras and computers to 16:9 widescreen becoming the norm. Full 1080 HD is now commonplace, where it was seen as revolutionary just a few years ago.

SD DVD’s have been replaced by HD bluerays, which in turn are threatened by Video on Demand (VOD), streamable media and 3D TV. It seems that new standards are emerging at an exponential rate, and it may seem difficult to keep up. However, progress waits for no man, and already there’s a new video standard looming on the commercial horizon that aims to make the still recent HD obsolete, and that standard is 4K.

On the face of it, 4K isn’t new, and has actually been around for a while, but really only in the broadcast and commercial entertainment industry. The first 4K camera, the Dalsa Origin was available way back in 2003, and Youtube has been offering 4K resolution videos for viewing since 2010. Cinemas have been projecting their films in 4k for a while now, and Sony released the first 4k home theater projector in 2012.

How much difference is there between 1080 HD and 4K? A massive amount, as the image below shows.

1080 HD comes in at a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels, as opposed to 4K which has two resolutions that will target the consumer market – UHD, at 3840 x 2160 or UHD-2, which comes in at a massive 7680 x 4320 pixels.


Obviously, the main challenge posed by broadcasting, encoding and storing such enormous resolutions is the sheer amount of bandwidth and storage space required to deal with it. Even a compressed one hour video file would be over 160GB in 4K. However, these challenges are being met by the manufacturers of the first wave of 4K televisions, which include Sony and Samsung.

At this point there are no plans by any major broadcasters to air in 4K, the bandwidth requirements are simply too large. However, early adopters of the new Televisions will be able to choose from a large range of big budget feature films, many of which were shot in 4K and also older films which were shot on 35mm film and can be up-scaled.

The question asked by many is how much is this massive upscale in resolution actually needed? There is some skepticism that the benefits of this standard will ever outweigh the challenges and increased cost, especially when the following points are considered.

Click for a larger image to compare the quality

  • Viewing Distances – In the bad old days of 12 inch screens and SD images, people sat at an average distance of 3 meters away to view. Despite massive changes in screen sizes and resolution, people in general still sit the same distance away when they watch TV. At this distance, the resolution benefits of 4K become negligible.
  • Screen sizes – Unless of course you have a screen sized between 80-100 inches or above. According to studies though, screen sizes in the average household still sit somewhere between the 35-40 inch range. Unless prices drop dramatically, it’s hard to see this changing.

Taking this into account, will 4K ever become a mainstream standard like 1080 HD has? Streaming broadcaster Netflix believes so, and has made one of their flagship shows ‘Game of Cards’ available for streaming in 4K for the lucky (And wealthy) early adopters. However, they believe that the industry is still five years away from the ‘critical mass’ needed, where prices have dropped sufficiently and there’s enough content available for the general population to enter the market. At this point, 4K televisions will become the norm on store shelves, and 1080 will theoretically go the way of SD.

As always, it’s impossible to predict exactly which way any new technology will develop, and it’s entirely possible that some new standard will emerge in the next few years that will render any debate about 4K obsolete. At this early stage though, it’s definitely a technology to keep a close eye on, even if it means moving your couch a little closer to the TV to get the full benefit.