Commentary Having experienced Sony's 4K TV firsthand, we look at what the tech needs to become the next home entertainment standard.
There's no doubt that 4K video is stunning. In fact, subjectively speaking, the difference between HD to 4K seems like a wildly larger shift in quality than that of SD to HD. Seeing the Sony Bravia 4K TV in action out at Sony Australia HQ yesterday was a genuine revelation in terms of just what level of quality we're talking about. On paper — and, more pertinently, on screen — 4K should be the next evolution of video. But there are a few practical hurdles that need to be cleared first.
Bizarrely, 4K works better the closer you sit. Even on Sony's 84-inch monster. Sony group manager Paul Colley told us that to get the best viewing experience, they recommend a seating distance of 1.5 metres for 4K video, 3 metres for HD and 6 metres for SD. It's a lovely theory, but the average user — even the above-average user, who can afford a 4K TV right off the bat — isn't likely to be rearranging a lounge room any time they want to watch something. Nor is anyone likely to have a couch sitting a metre and a half away from a wall-sized TV as a default position.
Big is beautiful
While it may be smaller than some of the drive-in-sized screens available, the 84-inch Bravia 4K is still enormous. And there's a reason for that: 4K panels work better and (more importantly) are cheaper to produce at larger sizes. The higher the pixel density (ie, the smaller the screen), the more expensive it becomes to manufacture the panels. If 4K TV manufacturers intend to stay larger than life for a while, then that means it isn't just a case of being able to afford the cash — you'll also need to be able to afford the space.
What will you watch?
Content is king, and without media to watch, there's just no point in, well ... you know the rest. Nearly every new home entertainment technology has suffered from this criticism since we stopped recording on wax cylinders. Sony firmly believes that consumer demand will drive the content creators to produce 4K material, and for the most part history backs this up. But 4K does have a special slog in that currently, as no disc-format media (such as Blu-ray or DVD) is capable of being used for 4K. Timescapes, the world's first commercially available 4K film, has two 4K versions. One, an MP4 encoded in H.264 at 4096x2304, is available as a 25GB file on a USB stick. The other, 4K Cineform, is 330GB and ships on a hard drive. You'll pay US$99.95 for the former and — gulp — US$299.95 for the latter. It's obviously not a commercially viable distribution model for the mainstream.
Although we've noted previously that 4K is a technology that could naturally lend itself to digital delivery, Australia isn't a great place to be trying that, thanks to our poor broadband speeds and high costs (when compared to the rest of the globe). There are also a number of upscalers at the moment, able to take an existing media source such as a Blu-ray and extrapolate it out for 4K viewing. Sadly, we haven't seen one in action yet, but traditionally, upscaling devices haven't been exactly awe inspiring...
There's no doubt that 4K is a superior viewing experience, even lending itself to better passive 3D viewing. But whether it can become firmly entrenched in a home entertainment environment remains to be seen, with a number of challenges on the horizon for manufacturers hopping on-board the 4K bandwagon.