The popping buzz word from Sony, Microsoft, a handful of developers and many TV manufacturers is “4K.” It’s the future of entertainment. There’s no better way to watch movies or play games. It’ll solve the world’s problems (probably not). Question is: What is 4K? Is it even viable?
Let’s start with part one: What is it?
4K is shorthand for ultra-high definition video at 3840×2160 lines of resolution. It draws the name 4K from rounding up the number of lines that run out from the horizontal sides of a screen. Now, every time a horizontal line and vertical line intersect, there’s a pixel. So with some fast math on a calculator, 4K has 8,294,400 pixels in one screen. That’s four times the number pixels in a 1080p (1920×1080) screen.
Now that sounds great.
On the face of it, 4K sounds like four times the amount of detail. The only problem is no one is really making 4K content yet. If you run into a Best Buy and go sit in front of their 60-inch, 4K-TV display, which is probably playing the nonstop nature montage, of course it’ll look crisp. That was made for display purposes, playing something filmed with specialized 4K cameras and outputting in native 4K.
If you buy that TV, go home and put on Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Blu-Ray, there won’t be the same level of detail as you saw in Best Buy. So maybe you want to honor the late, great David Bowie with a 4K viewing of Labyrinth. You can do that; just know that’s no natural 4K Bowie. He was upscaled.
And this is where it starts to get tricky.
For the first wave of hardware this console generation (i.e., Xbox One and PlayStation 4), 4K was out of the question. Console revisions changed that, however. The Xbox One S, which released earlier this year, and the PlayStation 4 Pro, coming out Nov. 10, can both upscale games to 4K. Microsoft has said that their Project Scorpio, announced for some time next year, will be able to display all first-party releases in native 4K.
Now, upscale versus native, does that difference matter? Yes.
When a video is upscaled, the TV is stretching whatever the native resolution is to fit those 8 million pixels by essentially inventing new pixels. When you stretch an image, you create something called “artifacting.” In layman’s terms, “artifacting” means “looks bad.” Through interpolation algorithms, imaging-sharpening software and pixilation dampening, we can get something more vivid in upscaled 4K than we can get it in native 1080p. No matter what, though, upscaling cannot add more detail; native 4K can.
The Xbox One S can, however, play UHD movies in their native 4K resolution, whereas the PS4 Pro cannot.
That brings us to the last major question. Is it worth buying a 4K TV?
This is the major road block most new technology runs into. Content-makers don’t want to make expensive projects for a small audience, and audiences don’t want to buy expensive products with little content. It does come down to the big players to push through the rough stages. It’s in Sony’s best interest to release movies from their film department in 4K so they can sell their 4K televisions. It’s in Microsoft’s best interest to put out native 4K games to have a leg up on the competition.
Luckily, 4K TV prices are going down. And those prices will continue to go down as Samsung and Sony develop cheaper manufacturing processes. So if you have the money, go for it. It’ll help us all in the long run. Eventually, everything will be native 4K, and we’ll sit and discuss why 8K isn’t worth dipping into yet.
Of course, none of this takes into account the problems with broadband data limits and streaming ultra-high definition video. But that’s a topic for another time.