THE BLOG

4K: The New Standard, or Just a Sales Gimmick?

27/03/2014 11:18 GMT | Updated 26/05/2014 10:59 BST

As 4K television sets are expensive to buy and many early adopters have probably only just purchased a 3D TV set, people are unlikely to be rushing out to buy a new one. So why all the excitement over 4K video? Well, put simply, with a good quality input 4K TV looks as if you are looking out of a very clean window.

A lot of the time problems with picture quality are not the resolution of the TV, but the level of compression applied to the signal. Having seen standard definition out of the back of a TV camera, you'd think that you were looking at a HD image. However, by the time it has compressed or decompressed several times during edit and across the transmission networks, a beautiful 225Mbps slightly compressed image produced by a pro grade video camera might arrive as a 10Mbps MPEG2 stream to your TV.

So why does Netflix and other streams use less data but look better? They are using modern codecs to compress the video which can squeeze a 10Mbps stream down into 3 or 4 Mbps. Those firms doing the compression need to use the correct settings for a particular film to ensure the best playback. The life span of decoders in TVs and set-top boxes means many are not able to handle the latest codec standards, and who wants to keep buying new modules for their TV?

The world is moving towards an IPTV environment and the extra radio frequencies needed to transmit 4K channels means transmission over broadband connections seems to be the favoured option. Sony originally suggested 100Mbps bit rates would be needed for 4K TV, but samples using the new H.265 codec suggest that when Netflix is talking about needing 15Mbps for a 4K video stream, it should be acceptable and look vastly better than existing HD content.

So will Netflix content be enough to make millions of us purchase a 4K TV in 2015? This is very unlikely. Those who use Netflix are also the cost-conscious consumer who has £2,000 to £3,000 of spare cash to buy a large TV. Another issue is that 4K resolutions mean you need to buy an even bigger television. In short, a 40 inch TV on the other side of the lounge will not be enough. In fact, you are looking at the sort of TV that saves you having to wall paper one wall.

For those of you who have bought a 4K TV, remember to check whether it has support for HDMI 2.0. To enjoy the higher frame rates, which is one of the reasons why 4K looks better than other devices, make sure it has HDMI 2.0 and buy the best panel you can find rather than the one with the most software features. It's a lot easier to add the latest and greatest set-top box as an external device than it is to upgrade things, like built-in Smart TV applications and hardware.

The debate over the speeds of UK broadband constantly spills over into the 4K debate. It's been estimated that 95 per cent coverage of superfast broadband on the current Government agenda means around 1.4 million homes may not have speeds to stream 4K, even in three years' times. This has never stopped new technology being rolled out and with Virgin Media covering approximately 48 per cent of UK homes, millions already have the option of buying a 152 Mbps service; ultrafast broadband. The only thing holding people back is that cheaper options are available and it seems the majority vote with their wallets rather than spending the £37.50 that would cope with several 4K feeds at once.

Ofcom has published an average speed based on what products people buy in the UK of 17.8 Mbps (November 2013 data, published in March 2014). However, looking at the data I estimate the average connection speed for the UK is 23.7 Mbps. If all Virgin Media customers on the old 30 Mbps tier chose to upgrade to 100 Mbps we could see this average connection speed rise to 32.5 Mbps. This will never happen unless Virgin Media stops selling the slowest tier, which as of a week or two ago was 50 Mbps.

The struggle for sales people is to convince us that the outlay is worthwhile when millions of us still feel like we're paying for the HD sets we've struggled to buy during the recession. Unlike broadband adoption, buying a better TV doesn't create the savings from being able to do all your banking and shopping online. This is why so many people seem happy to get by with fairly old ADSL/ADSL2+ based connections when faster options are available.