Is 4K the real deal or a flash in the pan?

4K (or Ultra High Definition) gives viewers a picture definition four times better than the best 1080p HD displays currently on the market. Is 2015 the year that we finally realise the promise of 4K?

Could 2015 be the year we finally realise the potential of 4k?

Could 2015 be the year we finally realise the potential of 4k?

There are two key aspects to 4K adoption; content and hardware – a feedback loop in which one requires the other to come first.

The Content Chicken

The adage of ‘content is king’ is no truer than with 4K. So where can viewers find 4K content?

At the moment there’s only really one place, which is OTT delivered by IP. Yet, there are limited options; in some Netflix markets you can watch a select number of shows like House of Cards in 4K Ultra HD (but you have to pay a premium). Sony, Amazon, M-Go and others have nascent offerings and there is 4K content available on YouTube.

Broadcast and satellite has settled into HD, with all the major broadcasters offering their channels in HD and other broadcasters starting to move onto HD as well. Whilst the DVB specification is out there, there have been no commitments from any of the major broadcasters in the UK to offer a 4K broadcast or satellite channel...yet.

Blu-Ray is the next obvious choice to consume ultra-high resolution content, but 4K Blu-Ray players are still a year away. When they do arrive, the possibility of the existing films released to cinemas in 4K, as well as remastered films and box sets, may become an attractive proposition.

We may be in another ‘golden age of television’, but it is clear that not all production houses can afford to upgrade all their equipment to support 4K, so soon after HD. The large TV studios and broadcasters with the high value, big audience shows may be able to justify the investment, but not everyone.

The Hardware Egg

To process 4K content, 4K TVs and STBs will need a HEVC decoder and IP delivered content will need a 20-30Mbps What's the difference?connection to watch without buffering. TVs from 2014 onwards are starting to ship with the next generation of 4K decoders, and although internet speeds in the UK are getting faster, this shows there are still some dependencies to get the content on TV.

Retail data indicates that more consumers are buying 4K TVs as prices come down - but that doesn’t mean that 4K will become ubiquitous.  TV replacement cycles are quite long, as consumers are willing to stick with their current TV until it becomes absolutely compelling to switch.

With the plethora of set top boxes and dongles to ‘upgrade’ the internal software interface, consumers can bypass the slow update cycle of smart TV software. This way, the TV becomes a piece of glasswith which the user experience can be (frequently) upgraded by plugging in a new device into the HDMI port, making it less compelling to buy a new TV just for the software.

Therefore, buying a 4K TV today, with limited content availability, is an investment to future proof the viewing experience. Whilst people may have felt burned by buying a 3D TV, to buy a 4K TV today is to bet on the adoption of 4K content in the next few years, or at least will be able upscale existing HD content.

4K in 2015?

The likely scenario in the short term is that only some content will be in native 4K resolution; the high budget TV shows, films, sports, live events and appointment viewing. In the longer term, other content may be delivered at higher resolutions. So neither the chicken nor the egg have turned up yet, content is limited and 50% of consumers in the UK don’t know when they will buy a 4K TV.

Compelling content is likely to be the only factor that will push consumers to buy a 4K device, but the price of hardware and an appealing pricing model for 4K content should smooth the way.

There is an opportunity for content makers, broadcasters and CE manufacturers to take advantage of 4K’s slow start. 4K adoption is a question of when, not if. But as hardware begins to support 4K content, prices begin to drop, and more content becomes accessible, the question is if not 2015 for 4K, then when?