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New Generation Of TVs Promises More Clarity, Big Price Tag

Jun 30, 2014

It’s being billed as a revolution in television — a TV with four times the definition of standard high definition television (HDTV), which is also known as 1080p television (a resolution of 1920 pixels wide by 1080 pixels high).

These new “Ultra HD 4K” TVs have been on sale for about a year, ranging in price from about $1,000 to over $20,000 for the biggest, fanciest models. But is there content available for these new televisions? And can cable companies transmit that much data?

Joining Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to figure it all out is David Katzmaier, who writes about televisions and other gadgets for CNET.


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Tomorrow is another big day for the U.S. at the World Cup and this time the U.S. will have to win to move on. They'll face off against Belgium to try to advance to the quarter finals. If you were watching over the weekend, you probably saw some great matches, Brazil defeating Chile in penalty kicks, Costa Rica defeating Greece, also in penalty kicks. The Netherlands coming back from behind to beat Mexico with two late goals and Colombia knocking out Uruguay. There was no biting in that game. And behind the players in all those games, you may have seen an ad on the field for 4K TV. It's being billed as a revolution in television. It's a TV with four times more definition than the standard 1080p high definition TV, but is it really the next big thing, and is it worth the cost? David Katzmaier writes about televisions and other gadgets for He's with us from New York. David, welcome.

DAVID KATZMAIER: Thanks a lot. Good to be here.

HOBSON: Well, first of all, what is a 4K TV and what makes it so special?

KATZMAIER: Well, the difference between a 4K TV and a standard TV you see out there, whether its LCD or plasma is the resolution. The number of pixels that they put on the screen. So 4K TV technically has 4 times as many pixels as the standard 1080p TV. 1080p TVs are the generic kind of resolution that most TVs have, regardless of screen size these days.

HOBSON: And would I be able to tell the difference between the resolution on a 4K TV and the resolution on the TV that I might have right now?

KATZMAIER: That's a really good question. That's the main issue actually with 4Ks - that it really is difficult to tell the difference at standard screen size and standard seating distance. By standard I mean most people sit around 9 feet away from the television. By screen size I, you know, am talking about something smaller than 60 inches. Once you get above that size, or you sit closer, you will be able to discern a slight difference but again, it's not going to rock your world like it did between standard def and high def.

HOBSON: Well, and by the way, we look at the prices on let's say Sharp's new line of 4K TVs - if you're going to get a 60 inch TV, it's going to cost you about $3,000 - a 70 inch, $4500. Is that generally where the prices are right now for these things?

KATZMAIER: Those are a little bit high, but, you know, they are a lot more expensive than standard 1080p TVs. The least expensive ones that you've heard of - Samsung, for example, just announced a 42 inch at $999. Visio has a 50 inch coming out later this year for $999. So, those are the entry level, again at the relatively small screen sizes of 42 inch to 50 inch. When you get bigger, which is again, where 4K is really going to be visible, extremely bigger, then of course they're a lot more expensive.

HOBSON: Which manufacturers are doing the best job in this arena? Who's been out front?

KATZMAIER: Sony has really been the forerunner with 4K TVs. They came out with some of the earliest 4K TVs and they have a really large line up. Now, one of their impetuses is that Sony Pictures, of course, has a lot of 4K movies, and you can actually buy a little 4K video player from Sony that only works on Sony 4K TVs that gives you access to 200-odd movies and TV shows that are, again, Sony Picture's properties. So, they're kind of the forefront. Samsung is the world leader in television sales, so of course they have a lot of 4K TVs out there as well. One of the guys to look out for, I mentioned earlier, Visio. They're actually cutting prices on 4K TVs a lot more aggressively than anybody else, and I expect them to be a really big seller, too, later in the year.

HOBSON: Well, yeah, that's another big question. Are these prices going to drop so fast that it would be silly to go buy one right now - you could buy one a year from now for half the cost?

KATZMAIER: Yeah, I'll give you a little idea. The prices now have dropped, you know, significantly compared to last year. I think they're going to drop even faster and further. Again, the thing with 4K is it's really easy to make and TV manufacturers know that they have this window to get these prices in, and actually now they're starting to fall even more so by the end of the year they're going to be falling even more. And then next year a 4K TV will probably cost the same amount as a standard high-end 1080p TV this year.

HOBSON: So I asked you whether we'll be able to tell the difference. The other question is, is anyone going to be producing content for these 4K TVs?

KATZMAIER: Well, there's a lot of content actually being produced right now. The 4K World Cup is a really good example. They're actually shooting select matches, including the championship match in 4K. The real question is how they're going to distribute them. Getting all those extra pixels out, you know, whether it's by a cable or the internet, requires again 4 times the bandwidth. You compress it and maybe get it to twice the bandwidth, but it's a real issue to try to get all that extra picture detail out to the TV where you can actually watch it.

HOBSON: And what about the cables. Can you use your standard HDMI cable on a 4K TV or do you have to get all new cables?

KATZMAIER: Well, the answer is yes, you can pretty much use any standard HDMI cable to transmit 4K signals, so don't believe the hype if somebody tells you, you need to buy a new cable to watch 4K TV. The real issue is not the cables or the TV, it's the source feeding those devices.

HOBSON: And what about the source? What about cable companies? Are they all ready to do 4K?

KATZMAIER: Well, if they have the cable boxes that could come out with it, maybe. A cable box is usually the last thing to switch over. It took a long time for everybody to get high-def cable boxes, for example. So that's going to be, at the end. There's really no blue-ray players that can handle 4K yet. The blue-ray consortium has yet to come out with a standard for 4K blue-ray so that's again a couple of years in the future. Right now, the only way to really get 4K is if you own one of these TVs is to get Netflix and they actually have just a couple of shows, "Breaking Bad" and "House of Cards, Season 2," that they're kind of doing an experiment with in 4K. I've seen them. Again, it's really hard to tell the difference between Netflix' standard 1080p feed and their 4K feed.

HOBSON: Although there are some questions about whether 4K is so realistic that it's disturbing to some people. There's an LG TV commercial that spoofs that with a montage where people jump, screaming from their seats, when a meteor lands and explodes on the massive 4K TV mounted on an office wall.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Ah... Lalala...Ah...

HOBSON: (Laughing). Is it really that scary how realistic it is?

KATZMAIER: It sounds pretty scary to me. I don't know, I never had a meteor hit my office, but if I did I'd be running.

HOBSON: But does it feel like that when you're watching the 4K? That it could be right there in your room?

KATZMAIER: Yeah, it does. It feels that way when you're watching a 1080p TV, too. That's the real issue - 1080p TVs look really good already and if you - unless you sit really close to a really large screen it's going to be tough to tell the difference.

HOBSON: David, if you were to guess at this point whether 4K TV or 3D TV is going to be the TV that we all have a few years from now, what would it be?

KATZMAIER: Oh, that's easy. 4K. We're definitely going to all have 4K TVs in the relatively near future. The easy thing about 4K for TV manufacturers, is that it's really easy to make. You can put extra pixels on a LCD panel with relatively little cost increase, which is why you see these guys jumping on board to market these 4K TVs and try to get as much profit as they can out of the industry. So 4K is one of these things, just like 1080p that's going to come along and replace pretty much all the TVs and you won't know it, but you'll have a lot more pixels behind that screen in another couple of years.

HOBSON: David Katzmaier writes about TVs and other gadgets for, joining us from New York to talk about 4K TVs. David, thank you.

KATZMAIER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.