The big news at CES this year in the world of HDTV is "Ultra HD", also known as "4K" or "UHDTV". But what is Ultra HD TV and is it something the average consumer should be looking for when shopping for an HDTV?
What is Ultra HD TV?
Ultra HD refers to the resolution of the TV's display. Most HDTVs in stores today are either "HD", with 720 (or 768) lines of vertical resolution and 1280 lines of horizontal resolutaion, or "Full HD", with 1080 lines of vertical resolution and 1920 lines of horizontal resolution. Ultra HD has twice the vertical and horizontal resolution of Full HD, with 2160 lines of vertical resolution and 3840 lines of horizontal resolution. So, a little quick math tells us that Ultra HD HDTVs have four times the resolution of the Full HD 1080p sets in stores today.
The approximatealy four thousand lines of resolution are why Ultra HD is also called "4K", but it would have been more accurate to have called it "2K" to be consistent with the 720p and 1080p terminology. But clearly the industry marketing folks had their hand in the naming.
Does Ultra HD TV offer a noticeably better picture?
The answer, like so many things in life is "It depends." It's already difficult to distinguish the difference between 720p content and 1080p content at normal viewing distances.
With Ultra HD sets, the same will hold true. For a 50-inch set, you probably won't notice the benefit of Ultra HD over Full HD unless you're sitting within 10 feet of the set, and that difference won't be significant unless you're within 8 feet.
What Ultra HD TV content is available?
That's an easy question to answer—essentially none. You can hook up your computer and run programs at Ultra HD resolution and there is some special demonstration content out there, but there are no movie companies, cable providers or similar providing Ultra HD content today.
That, of course, will change in the future. Sony has announced that they will offering movies in Ultra HD on Blue-ray this spring, with downloadable Ultra HD movies starting in the summer. And we saw a demo of Ultra HD content from Netflix in the Samsung booth. But the number of titles will be very limited for some time (Sony said the spring launch will have "more than 10" titles), and Netflix still has almost no streaming in 1080p, much less Ultra HD. Bandwidth issues, both with ISPs and within the home, will likely limit Ultra HD streaming for some time to come.
Of course, any Ultra HD HDTV can play SD, 720p or 1080p content just fine. And most if not all Ultra HD TVs have upscaling capabilities that will improve lower resolution content to come closer to an Ultra HD image.
Should you look for Ultra HD when buying a TV?
Today, the answer is "no" for most people. The difference in image quality will be hard to distinguish and there will not be much Ultra HD content available for some time, perhaps years. And, you'll pay a significant price premium for an Ultra HD set over a similar 1080p model. You would be much better off buying a 1080p set today and then upgrading to an Ultra HD set in a few years when prices have dropped and (if) content is available.
But I really want one now!
Okay, okay. The good news is that almost every major TV manufacturer will have an Ultra HD set coming out this year. It's too early to evaluate relative quality between the brands, but each will be launched as a top-end set with the latest and greatest features. We don't have many pricing details, but expect them to range from very high to extremely high.
The one pricing exception we've found is from HiSense. Hisense is the number one TV manufacturer in China and they're looking to make a name for themselves here in the States, In 2013, Hisense will be launching a broad line-up of Ultra HD TV models, from 50-inches on up. According to a Hisense product manager I spoke to at CES, their 65-inch XT780 Ultra HD Google TV will be priced around $2,500, about double what a mid-range 1080p set currently goes for. If that price holds, that's a darn good deal for those that just can't wait to get their hands on the latest technology.