CES Round-up: Ultra HD is the next big thing, but don’t get too excited just yet

One of the main themes of CES 2013 was Ultra HD, the next generation of high-definition being shown off by most TV manufacturers.
Without any real Ultra HD content to enjoy and eye watering retail prices, is it too soon to get excited by what will eventually become the new standard for TV?

In this feature, we’ve rounded up the news from CES in a single place, plus taken a look at exactly what Ultra HD can offer and when it might actually be time to invest.

If the 85-inch Ultra HD isn't enough, Samsung also showcased prototypes of even larger panels

110-inch Ultra HD, perfect for your average living room…

To get some context to begin with, Ultra HD is a massive leap in picture quality over HD, which was in itself a huge leap over standard definition. Ultra HD jumps from 1920×1080 pixels to 3840×2160 pixels, or four times the resolution.

In camera megapixel terms, ordinary HD is just over 2-megapixels, while Ultra-HD is 8.3-megapixels.

If you get to see an Ultra HD in the flesh, showing proper Ultra HD content, you will be amazed for sure. However, to fully appreciate the extra definition, you need a big screen so don’t expect to see Ultra HD appearing on your 22-inch TV in the bedroom anytime soon.

The major manufacturers used CES a year ago, followed by IFA in September 2012, to showcase what was then referred to as 4K HD. This saw the unveiling of huge screens, but this year has seen some smaller ones (relatively speaking) that might be more practical for the average sized living room.

Sure, there’s also 8K HD for the future too (which is a whopping 33.2-megapixels, or 7680×4320 pixels), but it’s fair to say this resolution won’t be used on televisions for the home, unless you live in a house the size of a movie theatre. Expect this format to be perfect for outdoor broadcasts, smaller cinema screens and the like. Oh, and to cost way more than the already out-of-this-world prices for Ultra HD sets.

What sets can you buy now or in the future?
LG's 84-inch Ultra HD is on sale now!

LG’s 84-inch Ultra HD is on sale now. Yours for a cool £22,500!

If you’ve got a few quid tucked away and you can’t wait for the industry to sort itself out, LG and Sony already launched 84-inch Ultra-HD sets last year. The LG set will set you back £22,500 and is only available from a limited number of retailers.

To bring the price down, as well as offering sizes more suitable in most homes, 55 and 65-inch sets were unveiled but don’t expect a massive drop in price, with these sets still likely to retail for between £10,000-£20,000.

That’s quite a lot for a TV that supports a new standard of video not even being broadcast by anyone yet, bar some test transmissions from Eutelsat.

Samsung opted to not only launch some smaller sets but go bigger too, with 95 and 110-inch models shown. Samsung hasn’t confirmed if either set will go into production and probably made them purely to show off (and why not?).

Anyone concerned about increasing energy consumption might want to look to Sharp, which showed off a 32-inch monitor with an Ultra HD resolution. Using its IGZO (Indium Gallium Zinc Oxide) semiconducting technology, power consumption can be reduced by as much as 80-90% compared to traditional LCD panels. Sharp will use this technology for larger screens in the future, which will cost significantly less to use – although possibly more to buy.

Sony OLED: The first 4K Ultra-HD OLED TV, shown in prototype form

Sony OLED: The first 4K Ultra-HD OLED TV shown at CES, in prototype form

For now, perhaps the most exciting screen at the show was Sony’s 56-inch OLED display, which can show Ultra HD broadcasts. This, along with news that Sony is also planning to introduce its own content delivery system to let owners view films from the Sony Pictures archives (sadly for US residents only to begin with), made it one of the most exciting developments – but it was only a prototype and might not appear for months. It’s also likely to be more expensive than nearly every other Ultra HD set already mentioned above.

Panasonic also showed off its own 56-inch prototype OLED with Ultra HD support, so hopefully some competition will help to get products into stores quicker, and lower prices.

LG and Samsung also showed off flexible OLED screens, but neither supporting Ultra HD for the time being. It’s quite obvious that both manufacturers won’t take long to catch up.

With an infinite contrast ratio, OLED screens (such as LG’s 55-inch OLED TV) are considered to be the future of television – replacing LCD and plasma panels. The problem is that the difficulty in making large screen panels is going to make OLED an expensive investment for the foreseeable future – but if you’re already going to shell out loads to buy an Ultra HD ready TV, it might make sense to stump up some extra for OLED to future proof yourself.

When is the right time to buy into the Ultra HD revolution?

Given the lack of content available, most owners will only get to experience Ultra HD from the upscaling features built into the TVs, trying to turn standard HD into Ultra HD, with varying results. Any upscaling system can only have limited success, given the need to make guesses and assumptions about the missing information. But, with little else on offer, it might be the only way to justify the purchase for many.

The other option is to connect a secondary box that can stream Ultra HD content. YouTube now offers a selection of Ultra HD/4K content, but streaming requires a fast and stable Internet connection to avoid buffering, or incredibly long waits to start viewing. As yet there’s no sign of any UK broadcaster, cable or satellite (and certainly not terrestrial) broadcasting Ultra HD content and it could be a year or two before this changes. Even then, any broadcasts might be extremely limited, rather like when the BBC first started dabbling with HD in the early days.

Not enough 4K content for your Ultra HD TV? Just connect your PS3 and enjoy your existing photos in extra high-definition instead

Not enough 4K content for your Ultra HD TV? Connect your PS3 and enjoy your existing photos in extra high-definition instead

Sony has come up with software for the PS3 that can show your photos in Ultra HD quality on your compatible TV, but it almost smacks of desperation to think that someone would shell out £20k or more for such a feature.

Finally, it’s important to point out that many manufacturers are also pointing out (in the small print) that while the panels can display Ultra HD images, they can’t guarantee to be able to decode whatever video files might be used once the various transmission standards and codecs are ratified. It’s thought that the new High Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC), likely to be ratified this month, might be a long way off being ready for live transmissions.

Analyst firm Strategy Analytics believes that by 2016, 10 million homes worldwide will own an Ultra-HD TV. It’s not until 2020 that the company expects more widespread ownership, and even then the numbers are fairly low at 130 million owners worldwide.

So is Ultra HD really just a waste of time (and money)?

For now, and probably for a year or two, we’re going to have to say yes. But, CES has always been about showcasing new technologies ahead of time, and while it might be a few years before Ultra HD takes off – take off it will.

Unlike 3D, the quality of Ultra HD is obvious to everyone and it’s not a gimmick. Everyone will want Ultra HD, but it’s just too early to invest now. Besides the cost of the televisions themselves, the industry needs to sort out how to record and deliver the necessary content.

Even all the old movies that have been converted to regular HD will have to be processed all over again in Ultra HD, a time consuming and costly process that will also take a significant time.

Only once all of that happens, can Ultra HD really take off. And by then, we’ll all be looking forward to 8K.

Only kidding.

  • Check out our CES 2013 photo gallery for more Ultra HD television sets being showcased

About author
Involved in tech since 1990, from selling mobile phones and computers, to writing about them for trade and consumer publications, such as Mobile News, What Mobile, Know Your Mobile and Stuff. If writing about mobiles wasn't exciting enough, being paid to watch TV during work hours is the icing on the cake. Jonathan on Google+

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