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The fuss over 4K



Anybody can go out and get a 4K monitor for about $5,000, and some have suggested that the standard (also known as Ultra High Definition or UHD) — which is mainly used for digital movie productions — will become the next standard for home entertain and maybe even home computing.

In fact, the next Sony PS4 will come with a 4K-movie service, which could spur some investment in screens. Games won't be 4K for a long time however, not until there's a 4K market for them, so this is a movies-only proposition

There are a lot of reasons why the shift to 4K isn't going to happen all that quickly, especially if you like your entertainment to fill a whole screen.

True 4K screens have a resolution of 4,096 by 2,160 pixels, or roughly 8.8 megapixels (8,847,360px). In terms of width that's more than double the pixels of a 1,920 by 1,080 high definition screen, or more than four times the total pixel count by area (2,073,600px for HD).

While more resolution sounds like a good thing, consider what it means:

In terms of television, many HD shows broadcast in the 720p standard, which is a screen measuring 1280x720 (921,600px). Those programs can be optimized to fill a 1080 screen, but on a 4K screen they would fill up a little more than a tenth of the total pixels on the screen.

Software can probably upscale the data but it's going to look like crap when you have to expend every single pixel of colour into an area occupied by 9.6 pixels. Even a 1080 HD broadcast, which looks pretty damn good, will have to stretch every pixel to fill 4.2 pixels worth of space on a 4K monitor.

Right now the odds of networks actually broadcasting in 4K are slim to none.

Consider that a movie at 4K resolution takes up 100GB of space, although it could be compressed to around 70GB. There's no disk available today that can hold that much data (Blu-ray discs currently max out at 50GB), which leaves downloading and streaming as your only viewing option. Streaming is out of the question unless you have a network connection that can download 50GB of data in an hour, which is probably about 10 times more than my own high-speed connection can handle during the slowest times.

Consider that the average desktop computer ships with a 2TB drive: even if your operating system is on a separate flash drive, that leaves you with space for nine or 10 movies in total.

For cable companies, supporting 4K would mean completely upgrading the network, replacing every receiver and set-top box and shipping digital video recorders with multiple TB of storage.

It also means that their networks, assuming they're already optimized, would have to reduce the number of channels available given that a single 4K channel would consume as much data as four to 10 other HD channels, and the same data of roughly 20 standard channels.

While televisions and projectors could shift to 4K in the future — I'm thinking at least 10 years, given that it took a full 30 years for HD to become commercially available — computers could move a lot quicker.

Right now the top screen on most reviewers' lists is the 27-inch Dell Ultrasharp U2713HM, a $700 monitor that offers a 2,560x1,440 resolution. That's about the highest resolution that you can play video games, providing you have a top-of-the-line (read: very expensive) graphics card. It's also 3,686,400 pixels, less than half the pixels of a 4K monitor and about 1.6 million more pixels than an HD screen.

It works pretty well according to reviewers, although almost nothing is optimized for that resolution — not web browsers, not web content, not software interfaces. Things that look normal sized on a regular monitor look incredibly small on the screen, and while system text is legible a lot of reviewers had trouble reading it without upsizing the default font settings.

Making use of a full 4K screen requires a lot of processing power, a lot of memory, higher bandwith (if UHD content ever becomes available), and may end up looking worse in some situations.

For example, take a standard 640x480 web video — on a regular HD screen it takes up about a third of the width of the screen without too much distortion caused by upscaling to full screen mode. On a 4K screen it would take up about sixth of the width of the screen.

The default resolution of a PowerPoint presentation is 1,024 by 768 pixels. Websites are built to serve every kind of screen resolution, and increasingly mobile phone and tablet screens, but not UHD.

The bottom line is that 4K is probably more pixels than the average person could reasonably use in any application at this point in time, and while that will eventually change — faster internet, optimized software, etc. — there's really no rush for even the keenest early adopter to rush out and buy a 4K monitor.

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