Ultra HD 4K displays were everywhere at CES 2014, with super high resolution displays measuring up to 110 inches in size. But the question remains, do we need displays with such high resolution, given that the human eye isn't likely to be able to tell the difference between 4K and 2K in most viewing environments? And who is making content in 4K anyway?
It's now a month since CES, and after making jokes about the ubiquity of 4K screens at the Las Vegas Convention Center last month, it now seems to me that 4K is an inevitable part of our future. While the hype around 3D TVs from a few years ago didn't really strike a chord with consumers, it seems as though 4K could be different. Here's why:
First off, there's the truism that specs matter, even when they shouldn't. Consumers who care about video quality will soon be boasting about their 4K displays, and it will become a key part of marketing televisions in the months and years to come. Furthermore, I think that shoppers will fall in line.
Don't believe me? Do you pay attention to how many megapixels your digital camera or smartphone camera can capture? Many people do and it continues to be the key shorthand spec for comparing cameras, even though it's just a small part of determining image quality.
4K is much the same. Surely it must be better than not-4K, right?
Research firm NPD DisplaySearch predicts that two million 4K desktop monitors will ship in 2014, even as the overall desktop monitor market is expected to contract. Keep in mind most desktop monitors are relatively small screens compared to the wall-filling 4K displays seen at CES. On a screen that size, whether or not you're looking at 4,000 lines of pixels or 2,000 will be practically impossible to determine with the naked eye, and yet they're expected to sell.
Perhaps most important, 4K seems to have achieved the momentum and critical mass necessary for it to gain mainstream adoption. Fearing being left behind, all the major manufacturers have boarded the 4K train as it leaves the station.
As I mentioned, every big tech company at CES made sure to have their take on Ultra HD. A few, like Samsung, even went a step further, offering an 8K display concept.
But these companies aren't just out to show what they can do, they're also looking to offer a real consumer product at a competitive price. Both Polaroid and Vizio showed 4K 50-inch displays that sell for less than US$1,000.
Along the same consumer-friendly lines, Sony has sought to make 4K tech more portable and practical, showing off a 4K short throw projector.
Just this month, Google also announced that its Chrome mini-PC, meant to capture the lower end of the market with a price tag of only $179, will offer support for high-end 4K displays. Hardware makers see the 4K tide building and don't want to miss catching the Ultra HD wave as it crashes on shores around the world.
For many months, the big punchline about 4K was that no one was creating content at such high resolution, making the need for an Ultra HD display moot. The processing power alone needed to edit and render video of such high resolution seemed like a significant enough barrier to torpedo 4K.
That all seems to be changing very quickly this year.
Google has announced a new 4K streaming format, VP9, to reduce the required bandwith needed to stream 4K from YouTube or elsewhere. And Netflix CEO Reed Hastings popped up at multiple CES press conferences to tout upcoming 4K content on the streaming service, starting with the second season of House of Cards.
There were also 4K cameras spotted on the sidelines of this year's Super Bowl, even though the big game wasn't yet able to be broadcast in Ultra HD.
Refusing to be left behind, Amazon and cable TV king Comcast have both announced partnerships with Samsung to bring 4K television content to all the Ultra HD TVs Samsung plans to sell in the US this year.
While many may have thought all those glitzy screens at CES last month were all specs and no substance, it seems as though 4K is more about progress than punchlines. What remains to be seen, however, is if enough consumers agree.
With the obvious exception of early adopters, who may already be reading this on the latest 4K monitor, many people will have purchased a HDTV in the not too distant past. It's unlikely the move to 4K will be enough to convince many of these to upgrade again so soon, but anyone in the market for a new TV will have a tougher choice.
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