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How Does HD Video Look On a 4K TV?
By Swanni

Washington, D.C. (February 10, 2014) - Editor's Note: TV's Answer Man, aka Swanni, takes your questions regarding how to best use the latest products and services in TV technology. If you have a question about TV technology, ask TV's Answer Man by sending an e-mail to swann@tvpredictions.com

Q. I was thinking of buying a 4K TV and I know there isn't much 4K content available yet. So my question is: How does normal HD video look on a 4K set? Will it look better than it does on my current HDTV?  -- George, Indianapolis.

George, that's a great question. But for those not familiar with 4K TV, let me first briefly explain what it is.

4K TV, or Ultra High-Definition TV, are the names given to TVs that can display a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160 pixels, which is roughly four times more than current 1080p High-Definition TVs. Does that mean a 4K TV's picture can be four times better than a 1080p HDTV? Uh, no. But a high-quality 4K set does display more detail, particularly if you are watching it on a large screen.

Which brings up a good point. Many display experts say that 4K's sharper detail can only be detected if you are watching it on a 60-inch TV or larger. Furthermore, they say you need to sit much closer to the TV than you normally do, perhaps five feet instead of nine feet, let's say.

And, as you noted, there isn't much 4K content available yet, which is one of the reasons why I haven't been able to advocating buying a 4K TV quite yet.

So, if you do buy one, you will mostly be watching good old High-Definition TV, whether it's from your TV provider or a Blu-ray high-def disc. And the big question then becomes: How will a High-Definition program or movie look on your new 4K TV?

Some 4K TV makers, such as Sony and Samsung, say their sets include upscalers that stretch the data in each pixel of the lower-pixeled HD video so it will fill the entire 3820 x 2,160 4K screen. Consequently, the TV makers argue, the HD video on a 4K set will look even better and more detailed.

Ready to buy? Hold on. The definitive answer to your question is not that simple. I asked several display experts for their opinions and they varied wildly.
 
For instance, Geoffrey Morrison, a long-time industry journalist who writes about picture technologies for CNET among other news organizations, expressed doubt that the HD video can be stretched as easily as the TV makers suggest.

"It's a lot more pixels for any scaler to upconvert," he told TVPredictions.com.

If Morrison is correct, the HD picture on a 4K set could occasionally break up, which is known as "pixelation."



Thierry Fautier, vice president of strategy and solutions at Harmonic, which provides video infrastructure to content companies, says 1080p HD video will upscale quite well on a 4K set. But both 1080i, the HD video standard used by such channels as NBC, CBS and HBO, and 720p, which is used by Fox, ABC, ESPN, could have some issues when upscaling, he adds.

Fautier acknowledges that he has not personally tested 1080i and 720p on a 4K set, but he believes that 1080p, which has more data and pixels to start with, is a better bet when upscaling to a 4K TV. "1080p is good," he says.

If Fautier is correct, the 4K TV owner would be wise to stock up on Blu-ray discs, which are produced in 1080p. There are no broadcast or cable channels available today in 1080p.

Finally, I asked Raymond Soneira, president of DisplayMate Technologies, for his expert opinion. Soneira said all HD images will "look somewhat better on 4K" because the upscalers will interpolate the 4K pixels rather than use "straight pixel replication...so the images will appear less pixelated."

Soneira notes that "not all TVs are created equal and deliver excellent picture quality, so a mediocre 4K TV will produce inferior picture quality HD images than a high quality HDTV." But he adds that a "high quality 4K TV will produce better picture quality for all content regardless of what its native resolution is."

Before you get too encouraged, though, Soneira says you may not notice the better picture when watching any video on a 4K set unless it's displayed on a big screen and/or you are sitting closer to the screen than you are used to.

Bottom line, George: It's too early to answer your question with any degree of confidence. There are not many 4K TVs in homes yet and even many of the industry's experts don't own one. I think we need to wait a year or so to get more data and first-hand observations on how HD video really looks on a 4K set.

Until then, if you have the money and really want to buy one, go ahead. But I can't guarantee you that your high-def programming will look as good (or better) as it does on your current HDTV.

Final note: Popular Mechanics recently posted an article quoting Sony spokesman Rob Manfredo as suggesting that 720p HD video will not upscale on a 4K TV as well as 1080i and 1080p HD video. Manfredo tells TVPredictions.com he was misquoted and that all HD video will look better on a 4K TV.

I've asked Popular Mechanics if they plan to 'correct' or 'clarify' the article and the publication told me that it's still reviewing whether a change is necessary.

Update: Davey Alba, an editor at Popular Mechanics, says the magazine stands by the quote and the writer's paraphrase of Manfredo's statement.

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Phillip Swann is president and publisher of TVPredictions.com. He has been quoted in dozens of publications and broadcast outlets, including CNN, Fox News, Inside Edition, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Financial Times, The Associated Press and The Hollywood Reporter. He can be reached at
swann@tvpredictions.com or at 703-505-3064.



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