New Year's Resolution: The Ultimate Guide to UHD TV

Here's what you need to know about the next generation of television, from displays to content.

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Say it with me: I will never again dismiss new technology as "over my head."

UHD, or Ultra High Definition, is as good a place as any to start. The new display format is already making waves in the television, computer monitor, and tablet markets. But many people have little idea what the technology actually offers, or simply dismiss it as another gimmick in the vein of 3D TV.

Maybe you're on the fence about when to upgrade your TV, or maybe you haven't the slightest idea what all the fuss is about.

In either case, don't panic: Our guide will help you define new definitions and resolve new resolutions.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is UHD?

UHD, or "Ultra High Definition," is the next evolution in broadcast and display technology. It’s a catch-all term that includes any display with an aspect ratio of at least 16:9 and a resolution at least four times higher than “Full-HD” 1080p. “4K” and “8K” are the current planned UHD formats for broadcast and display technology.

What are the standard resolutions of 4K and 8K UHD displays?

4K televisions have a resolution of 3,840 pixels wide by 2,160 pixels high (aka 2160p), while 8K displays have a resolution of 7,680 pixels wide by 4,320 pixels high (4320p). 4K panels feature four times the resolution of 1080p Full-HD displays, while 8K displays will have 16 times the resolution.

UHD Comparison
The relative pixel dimensions of SD, HD, 4K UHD, and 8K UHD formats. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons, "Libron"] View Larger

Will the aspect ratio be the same as HD?

Yes, both the 4K and 8K formats utilize a 16:9 aspect ratio, just like 720p and 1080p televisions.

Will I need a new TV to watch UHD content?

Yes, to watch UHD content in its native format, you will need a new TV. The first 4K televisions are already available for purchase, while commercial 8K displays are still in development.

Can I watch 720p and 1080p content on a UHD television?

Yes. 720p and 1080p content can be viewed on 4K and 8K televisions, but it will be "upscaled" (aka "upconverted") to fill the space. All UHD TVs will come equipped with on-board upscaling engines. That means you'll be able to connect any device that outputs 720p or 1080p content and the TV will automatically enlarge it to fill the screen.

While acceptable for most viewers, upscaled HD content won't look as clean or as crisp as content viewed in native UHD resolution. The effect will be similar to viewing a standard-definition DVD through a high-definition Blu-ray player.

Why should I upgrade to a UHD display?

A comparison of the old iPhone screen vs. the new Retina display
A more pixel-dense display creates a more lifelike image, particularly when viewed from up close. [Credit: Flickr user "prack"] View Larger

Much like "retina" screens in laptops and tablets, a UHD TV offers substantially improved resolution in terms of pixels per inch (PPI). This results in a sharper, more lifelike image at any given screen size.

The higher resolution also opens up the possibility of much larger displays. From five feet away, a 65-inch HDTV’s pixels become visible, which degrades perceived picture quality. Due to its higher PPI, a 65-inch UHD TV viewed from the same distance maintains a higher-quality, more realistic image.

How big of a TV will I need to benefit from UHD resolution?

The benefits of UHD resolution are appreciable in televisions of virtually any size. Essentially, 4K allows you to either double the size of your TV while maintaining the same viewing distance, or halve the viewing distance while maintaining the same size. 8K displays take this relationship even further, letting you quadruple your screen size or quarter the viewing distance.

Even at very large sizes, 4K and 8K TVs can be watched from much closer than 720p and 1080p TVs without their pixels becoming visible.

The higher pixel count offered by UHD TVs is most appreciable in terms of field of view (FOV), which refers to how much of your vision is occupied by the screen. The screen size and viewing distance possibilities created by UHD resolution mean you can increase your FOV without picture degradation. Even at very large sizes, 4K and 8K TVs can be watched from much closer than 720p and 1080p TVs without their pixels becoming visible. This means more of the viewers' visual field can be occupied by the screen, which greatly increases the feeling of "being there."

A very useful screen size/distance calculator can be found here.

How much will UHD TVs cost?

The UHD televisions on the market today are very expensive (between $4,000 and $40,000), not unlike the first wave of high-definition TVs in the 1990s. However, if history is any indication, as the technology becomes more mainstream and widespread, prices will likely normalize to near the level of current HDTVs.

When will I see UHD content?

If you’ve been to the movie theater recently, you probably already have! Many theaters are now screening films in 4K digital projection.

Where home viewing is concerned, Netflix has recently announced that 4K streaming will begin in January of 2014. Additionally, many television production companies—like the UK’s BBC and Amazon Studios—are already shooting content in 4K and plan to convert the footage to 1080p for broadcast. YouTube has also announced its intention to offer less bandwidth-hungry 4K content in 2014.

Once enough UHD sets are on the market, cable and satellite companies will begin to adopt the standard, as well.

What about UHD-ready Blu-ray discs?

Unfortunately, the Blu-ray Disc Association itself hasn't come to a conclusion yet. In order to deliver 4K/8K content via disc, the necessary parties (including governing bodies, manufacturers, and content provides) need to agree on standards for codecs and compression. An announcement concerning the disc format is expected any time now.

Despite a recent push toward streaming as the content delivery system of the future, it seems likely that UHD will not live entirely within the cloud. Even so, it's taking longer than expected for a disc format to be finalized.

Does UHD guarantee improved image quality overall?

No. Increased sharpness is the only improvement guaranteed by current UHD televisions. Color fidelity, contrast ratio, motion performance, and other performance categories are completely independent of screen resolution.

However, the ITU (International Telecommunications Union), which authorized the UHD standard, states that UHD televisions should offer not only improved pixel count but also an increase in color saturation. While current 4K TVs don’t adhere to these stricter standards, 4K and 8K screens will eventually adopt them, resulting in a marked improvement over HD TVs.

Will UHD screens be used in devices other than TVs?

Panasonic 20-inch UHD Tablet
Panasonic's massive 20-inch 4K tablet debuted at CES 2013.

Yes, UHD technology has already shown up in some tablets, monitors, and institutional displays, and it’s reasonable to expect more will appear as the format matures. It seems likely that 4K screens will also be used in high-end laptops, and could even appear in mobile phones, though their utility in devices that small is debatable.

Are UHD and OLED related?

No. Though both are buzzwords in today’s display market, these are unrelated technologies.

LG's 77-inch 4K OLED
LG's new 77-inch 4K OLED television. View Larger

What UHD has done for pixel count, OLED (organic light-emitting diode) displays have done for color fidelity and contrast ratio. Currently, only two OLED displays are available on the market, and both use a 1080p resolution. However, the improvements OLED displays offer to picture quality are as valuable as those offered by UHD displays, and combining the two is both desirable and necessary for the continuing evolution of display technology.

While the first UHD OLED TV has been officially announced, you can expect them to remain rare (and expensive) for some time to come.


For further information, visit the CEA's consumer information page for UHD technology.

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