4K-ing hell! Will your shiny new Ultra HD TV actually display HD telly?

Even if it can find content to display, there's no guarantee it'll decode correctly

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Feature With just about every TV maker showing off 4K sets at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) earlier this month, and companies like Netflix promising to have content available in the format, it’s tempting to think that if you’re buying a new TV, 4K may be worth a look. Or, at least, worth hanging on for until it’s more sensibly priced.

It’s also worth looking at recent history too. With the launch of high definition programs on Freeview in the UK, a sizeable number of people discovered that the set they thought they’d bought wasn’t what they actually had bought: an “HD Ready” TV isn't necessarily capable of receiving HD broadcasts.

While Register-reading techies and Digital Europe, the organisation that created the labels, would doubtless say that the definition of “HD Ready” didn’t imply anything about a receiver - there was a separate “HD TV” symbol for that - to many people it was less of a logo and more of a statement that their set was ready for whenever HD broadcasts started.

Unsurprisingly, many of them were a bit miffed to discover that they needed to invest in a separate set-top box to be able to watch Freeview HD broadcasts.

So, are we going to face the same confusion all over again when it comes to 4K TV sets? Will early adopters find that the labels and logos make things more confusing, not less? Are there even going to be any transmissions in 4K, or does a bright new future of internet delivery mean we don’t need to worry about things like compatible tuners any more?

It’s worth noting that even the term 4K isn’t necessarily as well defined as you might think. The Digital Cinema Initiative also has a ‘4K’ standard, set at a resolution of 4096 x 2160 pixels and a 24 frames per second frame-rate. Of course, cinema isn’t quite the same shape as a 16:9 TV image. So when it comes to TV, 4K keeps the square pixels and aspect ratio of current HD standards, and so has a resolution of 3840 x 2160. It’s sometimes referred to as 4K2K, 4KTV or - increasingly by TV manufacturers - as Ultra HD. And down the line, there’s 8K, or Super Hi-Vision, too.

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Back in 2005, Digital Europe was called EICTA (European Information and Communications Technology Industry Association), and launched a certification and labelling scheme allowing sets to carry an “HD Ready” label if they met certain criteria. A separate (but less often seen) “HD TV” label was created for kit that could actually “process and decode” HD transmissions. And then, there were the 1080p variants of those, for the later generations of screens that actually had a full HD resolution.

Technology wasn’t standing still though, and the BBC was leading the effort to create the DVB-T2 transmission standard, which was eventually used for Freeview HD, alongside the H.264 digital video codec. While a sensible choice for transmission, DVB-T2 arguably muddied the waters further. A set could qualify for the HD TV label if it had a DVB-T tuner and MPEG 4 HD decoder, but it still wouldn’t work with the UK’s Freeview HD service.

No wonder so many people were baffled.

Sony KD-84X9005 84in 4K LED TV

And Digital Europe is at it again. In June 2013 it announced that it had started work on a family of labels for 4K, or Ultra High Definition, with the intention that, just like with HD, it will “provide assurance to consumers” who want to purchase new sets.

The baseline capabilities the organisation came up with in September 2013 suggest support for 8-bit colour depth and a frame-rate of up to 60fps, with PCM 2.0 stereo audio. I asked Digital Europe about its views on mandating features like HDMI 2.0, but hadn’t received a response by publication time.

There’s a big problem with all this, though. It’s not content - there’s likely to be a fair bit of that. As was the case with HD, upcoming major sporting events – we have the World Cup this summer – will be used to try and show off the new technology, and Netflix is planning to offer 4K streams. Its second House of Cards series will be among the guinea-pig shows, so there’ll be a fair bit to watch.

Shifting sands

The real problem is more to do with getting the content to you, from wherever it starts out. A 4K stream on Netflix will need a 15Mbps connection, falling back to normal HD at around 11Mpbs, so you’re going to need a pretty decent net connection – and neighbours who aren’t all trying to do the same thing and contend for the overall line bandwidth.

Netflix says it will be using the H.265 codec - aka HEVC - for its 4K service, and has partnered with set makers to ensure that appropriate silicon is included in new sets. That’s in the future, though. Chips to decode H.265 are only just appearing, and so the 4K sets around now don’t have it; you'll have to hang on a few months.

Google’s YouTube, meanwhile, is planning to use the online advertising company’s own VP9 codec, offering the prospect that it will once again hold out against a standard, as it did for a time against H.264. However, it seems unlikely broadcasters and other big content producers will go with Google when they could use the more widely supported H.265.

While IP services will undoubtedly be the way many of us first experience 4K, without a substantial upgrade to the UK’s infrastructure we’re not all going to be watching live UHD video streams any time soon. Without multicast and a lot more bandwidth, it’s not going to be possible for us all to be watching bog-standard HD via the net at the same time, let alone anything of a higher resolution – and that's especially true for those outside major urban centres. And, of course, anyone hoping to deliver lots of streams in 4K will themselves need deep pockets and plenty of bandwidth, too.

If you’re hoping for 4K from Blu-ray, you’ll be waiting a while too. There’s still no defined standard for that, either, though the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) anticipates that the details will have been thrashed out by the end of 2014.

So, given there are still questions to answer about delivering content in these ways, how about delivering 4K by traditional broadcast systems?

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