What’s the Deal with 4K Content?
This is a question that has been asked by millions of TV aficionados. 4K TVs are all the rage in 2013, but the question on everyone’s mind is when will we get 4K content to go with these new 4K TVs? Are 4K TVs even worth buying before 4K content becomes available? To put it simply, the answer is both yes and no. Allow me to explain.
The Current Status of 4K Content
To be completely honest, there is barely any native 4K content available today. The first commercially available 4K movie, Timescapes, released in mid-2012 before the first 4K TVs even launched. This 160 GB file can be purchased for a whopping $299, and comes on an external USB drive. Aside from this singular 4K movie, however, there are no other commercially available 4K movies – unless, of course, you happened to pay $24,999 for Sony’s massive 84-inch XBR-84X900. Purchasing the XBR-84X900 will net you access to Sony’s special media server that comes preloaded with 10 remastered 4K titles. In addition, Sony plans on giving regular updates to the content via a “memory device” from its white-glove service. Then later on in the year, Sony plans on making downloadable 4K content available for those who have purchased 4K TVs from Sony.
Unfortunately, Sony seems to be the only company currently tackling the 4K content situation. There has been no word about 4K content from other 4K TV manufacturers such as Samsung, LG, Westinghouse, etc. Admittedly, however, Sony is the only company with a production studio.
Developments with 4K Content Delivery
As most of you may be aware, the current trend for watching any content is shifting from physical media (e.g. Blu-rays discs and DVDs) to on-demand media streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu. With current 720p and 1080p content, streaming is a good choice for those who have a speedy connection (although current connection speeds demand a bit of buffer time for 1080p content), and this trend will only shift more towards on-demand streaming over time as the overall available bandwidth available to the average user increases as services such as Verizon’s FiOS or Google’s Fiber expands their reach to more and more consumers. However, when it comes to 4K content, there is no feasible way to deliver streaming 4K content. To put it into perspective, consider the Timescapes movie. The runtime for this film is only 52 minutes, which means that at 160 GB, you will need at least a 416 Mbps connection to stream this smoothly. The only service to provide that much bandwidth is Google Fiber, which gives up to a 1Gbps connection (real world speeds of 700 Mbps); however, Google Fiber is currently only available in Kansas City. Providing a consistent 500 Mbps connection to everyone in a densely populated city will have astronomical costs to both the provider and consumer. Streaming 4K content at its current state is unattainable at this moment, to say the least.
Enter the newly minted High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), or more commonly known as H.265. This new format was recently approved by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and boasts up to twice the compression ratio of the current H.264 standard (the average reduction, however, is 35.4% reduction in bit rate). Assuming that Timescapes was compressed in H.264, this means that the file size of the 160 GB 4K Timescapes video can be reduced to only 80 GB, and thus reduce the required bandwidth for streaming to 208 Mbps. Of course, 208 Mbps is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s a start. In addition, the reduction in file size means that the latest BDXL Blu-ray discs will be able to hold a standard 4K movie due to its extended 128 GB capacity – which is not possible with the current H.264 standard.
The new developments with compression technology fit in nicely with Japan’s plan to officially launch the world’s first 4K channel available to the masses. Japan has plans to begin 4K broadcasts in July 2014 — just in time for the 2014 World Cup. Of course, Japan is one of the only countries in the world with the infrastructure to even attempt anything like this, sitting in second place for the fastest average speeds with 10.5 Mbps (for your reference, South Korea is the fastest at 14.7 Mbps). Mind you, this is the average speed, and not peak speeds. Peak speeds in Japan can reach up to 50 Mbps. Countries such as Japan and South Korea will pave the way for further on-demand 4K content because these countries have built their internet infrastructures from the ground up to accommodate easy future expansions in bandwidth. In the USA, on the other hand, Verizon and Google have had to invest millions of dollars to set up fiber optic cables in various neighborhoods in order for speeds of even 10 Mbps to be achieved in real world usage. However, even with Verizon FiOS, penetration of fiber optic connections is only at 12.7 million homes — a mere 4% of the American population. Compare that to the South Korea, which has a broadband penetration of 97.5%. With a penetration rate of 97.5% and average speeds of 14.7 Mbps, more than fully half the country has access to speeds over 10 Mbps.
The Future of 4K Content
“Google Fiber is the only service available that can stream 4K content at the moment”
Final Thoughts and Conclusion
So to answer the original question of whether or not you should purchase a 4K TV today, I will again say both “yes” and “no”. If you are one of the few people in the world who can afford to purchase a 4K TV over a brand new car and you love being on the cutting edge of technology, then by all means, yes; purchase your first 4K TV. While 4K content is currently lagging a bit behind the hardware, this has always been the case, as it was when HD TVs were first introduced. It doesn’t make any sense to create 4K content when there is no hardware capable of delivering a 4K experience, and on the flip side, early adopters pave the way for studios to release more 4K content as well as giving a slight return to manufacturers so they can continue the development of 4K panel technology. In addition, the upconversion of 1080p content to 4K still holds a definite edge over plain 1080p content in terms of picture quality, which will be a nice stopgap until more 4K content gets released later this year. The year 2014 will see a surge of 4K releases and will increase steadily over the years until they become as ubiquitous as 1080p releases are today. On the other hand, not everyone can afford these 4K TVs, which is why I also said “no”. The average consumer is much better off waiting until 4K technology has matured enough to become affordable to the masses, at which point there will already be much more 4K content available thanks to the early adopters. This will take anywhere from 1 to 3 more years, so the masses shouldn’t hold their breath just yet.
Personally, I will wait until the prices go down from the super premium level they are currently at now to a more reasonable premium level. Those who don’t see the value of 4K content displayed on 4K TVs clearly have not yet experienced it. It will blow your mind.