You know, it’s hard to force change on people. They just don’t want it, even if it’s good. It took discontinuing analog TV in the USA to really get people to buy even modest 720p TVs, and about 20% of TV viewers still watch on standard def sets even today. The jump to “full” (implying there’s a half-full?) 1080p was more of a stumble, but the slow phase-out of lesser resolution panels did the job. Again, we took away the 1080i option, forced the change. Yes, people change, kicking and screaming all the way.
Then the 3D debacle. This time 3D stayed longer and stronger than any of its previous attempts, but in the end, those darned dark glasses finally were just way too much trouble to experience what little 3D content we had. And we did have at least some.
Soo….. Ultra HD, huh? Is it better? Sure, and mostly the improvement is actually visible, at least some of the time, to some viewers, no glasses required. Which is a funny thing to say in almost 2014. “No Glasses Required!” was the catch-phrase CinemaScope used when pitting their anamorphic wide-screen format against 3D in the 1950s. Guess who won. Actually, neither. TV won. But in theaters, anamorphic wide screen was the clear winner, though 3D gets points for persistence.
Again I say, Ultra HD, huh? Yes, I want it. I’ve seen it, it’s better in many ways, but oddly, dramatic resolution improvement isn’t one of them, because to see it you’d have to sit with your nose 3′ from your 50″ TV. Here’s the deal: we don’t have any native Ultra HD content. None. Nada. Zip. There is 4K content around, but guess what? Not the same, and no perfect way to convert! The problem is, there are lots of flavors of 4K, all of which are 4K pixels wide, but with various heights. 4K wide doesn’t scale well at all to 3840 x 2160, even worse than 2K scales to 1920 x 1080. The cheat is, we’ll all see a cropped off version. Not a huge deal, but what on earth were they thinking? Beats me, really it does. That little resolution conflict makes about as much sense as picking 16×9 for HDTV when movies everywhere were already 1.85:1 and 2.35:1. Just dumb. So no, we have no native Ultra HD at all. And we probably won’t.
Where do we get any Ultra HD content at all? So far, Sony can get you some if you buy one of their Ultra HD sets. The library is highly limited, though. There’s no broadcasting it. No cable stations can squeeze that kind of picture size into their bandwidth, and while YouTube, of all companies, has a 4K possibility, you’ll pay up for the computer hardware to see it. Pay up for YouTube? Seriously…pay anything for YouTube to force-feed you commercials so you can watch funny cat videos in 4K? Ok, apologies to Freddie Wong. But no, there’s not much content. Are we again in a cart vs. horse situation?
Not quite, my equestrian friends. You see, up-scaling content is something done every day by DVD and Blu-ray players connected to HD TVs, but showing a standard DVD. Works kinda good, right? Actually, a little too good. Scaled DVDs have fooled experts into thinking it was real HD. Scaling 1080p content from a Blue-ray to Ultra HD isn’t hard at all, and works quite well. You don’t get the advantage of real pixels with real detail, but the fake ones are really pretty much good enough for most people. But some of the Ultra HD magic is in its new color abilities, and it’s doubtful that any scaling will take advantage of that, even partially. There are other aspects to the Ultra HD picture improvement, but little point in discussing them here in depth, since you won’t really see any of them until real Ultra HD content is left crying in a basket at your front door. And while you wait for that, scaled 1080p gets you the ability to project it even bigger, something we already know that less than 1% of home viewers would want to do, because they don’t have the room for a 180″ screen.
Nobody is in a position to answer the title question of this post. What we can say is, Ultra HD has the ability to improve 1080p content noticeably on larger displays, and without glasses. In that way, it has a leg up on 3D. And, it’s really another rung in the ladder, of which “Enhanced Definition” was one (remember those fuzzy days?) followed by 720p/1080i, 1080p, 1080p high refresh, and of course 1080p 3D, though I think someone sawed through that last rung. We step up to Ultra HD, but the ladder goes higher. 8K is out there, not in someones imagination, it’s really being done. And I’m afraid 3D hasn’t taken it’s last bow either.
Buy an Ultra HD display today and get at least some picture improvement of your existing 1080p, but don’t hold your breath for real Ultra HD content. And I wouldn’t pay up too hard, the ladder is, after all, still extending.