Entertainment, Graphics, Hardware, Software Programs

The State of 4K – Late 2013

As we remain committed to the future of 4K and its adoption, we wanted to take a look back at where 4K has gone in the past year and how far we’ve come since our last update earlier in March of this year. As we look back to the state of 4K in March, the industry was still in its fledgling stages and its kind of crazy to think how far things have come and how much further they still have to go. 4K is clearly going to be the next TV standard and there is no doubt that it will have a future much longer than the 3D fad did. But nobody can deny the incremental nature of 1080P, 3D and now 4K and the ultimate goal of 8K.

Since we’re talking about resolution, we wanted to cover the most important part of the whole equation, the displays. First and foremost, back in March we really didn’t have many displays on the market at that time. We were mostly limited to the $35,000 EIZO 4K display which used two dual-link DVI cables and had a plethora of issues with how GPUs handled the 4K resolution split. Since then, Sharp’s 31.5" 4K display and ASUS’ rebrand of that monitor have become available and were purchased in droves by AMD and NVIDIA as well as anyone else that could afford their $3500 price tag. Dell also announced their UP3214Q at Siggraph in July which is also available for the same price as the Sharp and ASUS and likely uses the same Sharp IGZO panel as the ASUS and Sharp monitors, explaining the price. Now, Dell also recently announced the much more affordable 24" 4K monitor, the UP2414Q which we will be reviewing shortly. This monitor not only delivers 4K resolution at an amazing 24" but it also does it at less than half of the price of the 31.5" predecessors at $1400. As if that wasn’t enough, Dell also said that they would be bringing in a 28" 4K monitor to market in early 2014 which would sell for less than $1000. This would put 4K monitors capable of 60 Hz at under $1000 for the very first time and do it in a responsibly sized footprint as well.

If you don’t particularly care for or need 60 Hz displays for 4K gaming or 4K video editing, you could easily go for the SEIKI 4K TVs which have enabled people to get 4K resolution at an incredibly low price this year. Sure, these aren’t the best panels or most capable TVs in the world but you get what you pay for when you consider that Sony’s 4K TVs that can also only do 30 Hz are selling starting at $3000 . SEIKI’s 50" TV is selling for as little as $770 on Amazon right now, in anticipation of what I suspect is a plethora of 4K TV announcements at CES from everyone and their mother. They also have an even more affordable 39" TV which also does 4K at 24 Hz for $499 (it was lower for Black Friday and Cyber Monday).

In addition to the displays, we’ve also got to talk about the connectivity that enables these resolutions. Most importantly, we’ve got to talk about the fact that HDMI 2.0 was announced this year (but not launched yet) and that DisplayPort 1.2 already supports 4K at 60 Hz. But do keep in mind that even HDMI 1.4a (current HDMI spec) is capable of 4K at 24 Hz. If you currently have a 4K TV you are likely within this group since no TV manufacturers have yet adopted DisplayPort 1.2 even though a few of them are on the way and we’ll probably see them at CES 2014. Also keep in mind that HDMI 2.0’s only really consumer-facing improvement over 1.4a is the ability to finally do 4K at 60 Hz, which we noted in our article about the announcement back in September

Now, for those interested in the future of display connectivity headed towards 8K, we also did a detailed story about DisplayPort 1.3, which has yet to be announced, but should be expected in Q2 2014. The standard’s primary goal is to enable 8K video, once we get there, which could be quite a ways off, but do keep in mind that DisplayPort 1.2 supported 4K nearly 4 years before any devices utilized it (in 2013). We currently are the only website with any info about DisplayPort 1.3, but hopefully we’ll learn more at CES as more TV manufacturers and VESA show more to the public.

Now that we’ve covered the displays we wanted to talk about the latest in graphics that will enable this. Around the time of writing the original article, AMD and Nvidia had mediocre support and Intel had just recently announced tiled 4K display support. Now, both AMD and Nvidia have significantly better 4K graphics and display support, with Nvidia’s driver release in September fixing most of their 4K gaming issues on GeForce cards. AMD has for the most part had a pretty solid 4K gaming experience thanks to Eyefinity, however they are still working on deploying important features like frame-pacing to 4K resolutions. Also, with Nvidia’s GTX 780 Ti and AMD’s Radeon R9 290X, you finally have cards that can deliver a 4K gaming experience at the very least 30 FPS with a single card. Nvidia had already achieved this with the GTX Titan, however the GTX 780 Ti is faster than a Titan when it comes to gaming. Although, realistically, anyone that wants to game in 4K will not want a 30 FPS average framerate and will buy at least another card to get a lag-free 60 FPS gaming experience. However, one player that was not very present in 4K earlier this year has shown themselves fairly capable, and that’s Intel. While Intel’s GPus are nowhere near as powerful as Nvidia’s for 4K gaming, Intel’s latest GPUs have shown that they are more than capable in basically everything else 4K related. Heck, I’m currently typing this article from a Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro with Intel integrated HD 4400 graphics seamlessly driving 3200 x 1800 resolution (not quite 4K, but close enough).

This leads into the next thing, 4K gaming titles. Game developers are finally acknolwedging the importance of 4K gaming (most likely thanks to AMD and Nvidia’s marketing) and releasing games that look absolutely stunning in 4K, these include titles like Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, Batman Arkham Origins and Star Citizen among many others. These developers are including higher resolution textures and optimizing for the larger memory on AMD’s and Nvidia’s cards. In our testing earlier this year, we found that 4K gaming utilized about 2GB of a card’s memory under maximum load and as a result, some of Nvidia’s 2GB cards choked, but with their 3GB and 6GB cards, this is no issue. As such, seeing AMD’s latest cards coming in 4GB sizes (and soon 8GB) is a good thing for developers, especially if they want to utilize Mantle properly to get the best per
formance out of their cards. I think that in 2014, we will see Nvidia and AMD continue to fight for the best gaming graphics card title and 4K will be considered to be the primary resolution that they intend to battle within.

Continuing with content, we also wanted to address some of the interesting developments in 4K media and some of the hangups as well. One of the biggest announcements we had already covered in our original article, with the announcement of the H.265 codec, but it appears that progress on the codec has been incredibly slow. As a result, hardware vendors have had a hard time optimizing their decoders and encoders, especially considering it takes 5-10x more processing power to encode H.265 aka HEVC. Yes, there is an x265 encoder that was announced, which is designed to be an open source implementation of H.265 (as opposed to all of the proprietary codecs). But it remains to be seen if they can do 4K at 10 Mbps like NTT.Docomo had shown earlier this year. This project is being spearheaded by MultiCoreware much like the x264 project was, and is already optimized for multi-core x86 and should by now already have an OpenCL GPU accelerated implementation as well. The full GPU accelerated release is expected to be out by March of 2014, which should mean that we could see a lot of GPUs by then also optimized for x265.

Talking about the actual content, we wanted to address the fact that Sony already has a lot of 4K content available exclusively for their XBR 4K TVs through a DRM’d digital download machine. This $700 device known as the 4K Ultra HD Media Player (FMP-X1) delivers content from Sony’s Video Unlimited 4K service and comes with 2TB of hard drive space. It also has a USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 port on it to enable for expanded storage of the device in order to allow for more digital 4K content. This is currently the only method of 4K content delivery available on the internet, but Netflix is already testing their 4K video streams as well and recently announced that all Netflix Original Series (like House of Cards) would be shot natively in 4K. In addition to that, they said that they would be streaming House of Cards in 4K starting this spring. <> In addition to Netflix and Sony, Amazon also announced a few weeks ago that they will be launching an Amazon Original Drama and and an Amazon Original Comedy in 4K in 2014. They even introduced a guide that helps explain to their customers the benefits of 4K over 1080P as well as the technical differences (a great way to sell 4K TVs, media players and content).

Right now, it seems that 4K will primarily be delivered over the internet to consumers since Sony hasn’t announced anything regarding 4K and BluRay even though I suspect that a dual layer BluRay disk should be enough for a 4K movie. We still don’t have any details from Sony about the future of BluRay in 4K, but I suspect we may hear something at CES. Amazon currently lists 10 movies that are BluRay discs mastered in 4K, however none of them are really new films and as far as I know weren’t shot in 4K. 

In addition to 4K content, there is also the very rarely talked about 4K content creation and the fact that it is still pretty damn expensive to buy a camera that can do 4K. Sure, in 2013 we saw the launch of the JVC 4K camera which brought the cost of a 4K camera down to $5000. And the first commercial 4K capturing smartphone with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. However, most people’s smartphones are simply not capable of 4K just yet and that means that a lot of people’s personal content going into 2014 will still be 1080P even if their TVs and monitors end up being 4K. This is in spite of the fact that Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 is already capable of both 4K encode and decode. This is probably a good thing for services like YouTube, Vimeo and Facebook where they are already struggling with dealing with 1080P. Although, to be fair YouTube and Vimeo already support 4K resolution even though YouTube’s codec makes 4K look like garbage compared to Vimeo’s.

Looking forward, I suspect that a lot of the questions that have been left unanswered in 2013 will be addressed at CES 2014 or in the first half of 2014. We’ll certainly see tons of new 4K TVs and hopefully more and more affordable 4K cameras. Hopefully we’ll also get a GoPro 4K (instead of the GoPro 3 Hero+) and a bunch of other awesome 4K products in 2014. 2014 is definitely looking to be the year of 4K and anyone not prepared for it will likely be run over and forgotten.

If you missed our State of 4K and 4K gaming article from earlier this year as a prelude to this, highly recommend you give it a read and see how far we’ve come in the past year.