The relentless march of tech progress is tramping through our living rooms again, with current-gen TVs set to be booted out by this year's poster boy – 4K.
Sound familiar? Yes, we heard all this before, with 3D TV.
But where 3D faltered, despite manufacturers trying repeatedly to ram it into our retinas, 4K really is set to soar this year.
The 4K picture is simply astonishing
Lawrence of Arabia restoration
Netflix 4K hands-on
Watch native 4K footage and HD will never look the same again. For one thing, you'll find yourself trying to wipe non-existent Vaseline from the screen, or flapping your arms to clear the fog that must surely be obscuring your vision.
4K is just that sharp. If you want to get into specifics, it delivers 4096x2304 pixels versus 1080p's 1920×1080 pixels. Many "4K" TVs are actually Ultra HD resolution, cramming 3840x2160 pixels into a 16:9 aspect ratio – whatever the case, you're getting around four times the resolution.
Even your old films will look better in 4K – the resolution of 35mm film is roughly equivalent to that of 4K, meaning it's time to restock your media library yet again.
On the plus side, older films will look even better than they did at the cinema on release. After scanning Lawrence of Arabia at 8K resolution for its 4K restoration, Grover Crisp's team at Sony Pictures discovered that white streaks in several scenes were actually cracks caused by heat damage to the emulsion itself. "They've always been there, they've been visible on every print anyone has ever seen," explains Crisp. Not any more.
4K is hitting the high street hard
Kogan 4K TV
Sony Ultra Short Throw Projector
Last year's 4K sets came in at around £4000-£6000 (S$8000-S$12,000) on release, but 2014 has already seen prices slashed dramatically – Polaroid has announced a 50in set that costs S$1200, and Australian firm Kogan has launched a 55in set for a wallet-friendly S$1100.
Of course, if you want to spend the big bucks, there are still plenty of options, with LG announcing 55in, 65in and 77in EC9800 curved 4K OLED TVs running WebOS at CES 2014 – and netting a 2014 CES Hot Stuff Award for its trouble.
If you're feeling particularly flush, there are also massive flexible 4K OLED screens from LG and Samsung. And Sony's 4K Ultra Short Throw Projector – also a 2014 CES Hot Stuff Award winner – can blast 147in images onto your wall for an eye-watering US$30,000-US$40,000 (S$38,200-S$50,900).
You can also pick up a 4K monitor for your computer – Asus' PQ321 31.5in 4K monitor, for example, is priced at US$3800 (S$4850) – though you'll need a pretty powerful graphics card to play games at that resolution. Time to buy a pretty powerful graphics card.
With 4K, bigger is better. And big is good
Almost all 4K TV sets are big, starting at around 50in. There's a reason for that – those extra pixels mean that the video you're watching will look crisp even when blown up to epic proportions.
Scot Barbour, Vice President of Production Technology at Sony Pictures, explains: "Basically, to be able to even see 4K resolution, there's a given distance sweet spot from the screen, one and a half screen heights away. So you're going to want to have a bigger screen and be closer to it to actually be able to perceive 4K for what it's really about."
OK, so there's not much to watch yet – but it's coming
Taxi Driver Mastered in 4K Blu-ray
Want to watch something in native 4K? Your options are limited, although they are set to expand throughout 2014. The big movie studios have yet to agree on a disc standard, meaning that for the time being, the only way to watch 4K is using streaming media.
4K media streamers include the US$1750 (S$2230) Redray and the more reasonably-priced US$300 (S$385) Nuvola NP-1. Sony offers the FMP-X1 for US$700 (S$890) – currently in the US only – with a fairly limited choice of films including Taxi Driver, Salt and The Amazing Spider-Man.
Sony's plugging the gap with "4K mastered" Blu-rays - scanned at 4K, downscaled to 2K and upscaled back to 4K by your 4K telly or a 4K-ready player. Having seen The Amazing Spider-Man's 4K Mastered Blu-ray side by side with a native 4K version, it's impressive - but it's still not the real deal.
No need to cast down your popcorn in anger, though – 4K Blu-rays are on the way. Eventually. "There have been some discussions about how to do 4K delivery via physical media," says Jeremy Glassman, Manager for Emerging Platform Development and Marketing at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. "The Blu-ray disc itself is a great foundation - if they were to go that way. Because it's been able to support internet connectivity, it's been able to support 3D – 4K is a great evolution of that."
Netflix to the rescue
House of Cards
Fortunately, you don't need extra hardware to stream 4K – YouTube can stream some videos in 4K using Google's royalty-free VP9 codec, while streaming rival Netflix will be launching an Ultra-HD streaming service on 14th February, with the second season of House of Cards airing in 4K.
Netflix will also play host to the entirety of Breaking Bad, shot in 35mm and remastered in 4K – though it's keeping tight-lipped on other 4K series for the time being. Expect to see plenty of visual wallpaper in 4K before more Netflix Originals drop in Ultra-HD.
Netflix is able to deliver 4K over broadband thanks to the H.265 codec, which enables it to stream 4K at bitrates of around 15Mbps. The catch is that your 4K set will need a HEVC decoder, which isn't included in last year's models. Netflix reckons that manufacturers will be developing HEVC set-top boxes, though – and in the short-term, expects a firmware update to the Sony PS4 that'll make it 4K-capable.
4K broadcasting isn't as far off as you think
Although BBC North controller of production Mark Harrison notes that, "We are years away from being able to make and transmit in 4K," broadcasters are already gearing up for the 4K revolution. The HEVC H.265 codec brings bitrates down to around 15Mbps, close to the 12Mbps currently used for some 1080p HD broadcasts – which means that 4K could be broadcast using the existing physical infrastructure.
Over in Japan, the government is preparing for full-fledged 4K broadcasts this year, while in Blighty the BBC has begun 4K trials, shooting last year's Wimbledon in 4K.
"There are three pieces of the puzzle," says Keith Vidger, business development manager for digital cinema production at Sony. "Display technology, content - and people have been making content for years in 4K - and transmission. That's the thing that we have the least control over, but it seems to be taking care of itself in short order, far and away over the 20 years that it took for HD to take hold."
Unencumbered by ludicrous glasses, and with an arsenal of films, documentaries and dramas set to blast our eyes with razor-sharp detail, 4K is going to dominate our living rooms in 2014 – and beyond.