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On the Road to 4K UHD

This blog provides an update on 4K Ultra-High Definition (UHD) standards, services and products.  2013 is the year in which the essential pieces will be coming together that will enable large scale production of 4K UHD products and services in 2014.  Also I provide a word of warning about being an early adopter of 4K UHD technology. Since 4K UHD has already been discussed in some detail in several of my recent blogs, I will keep the introduction very brief.  4K UHD is considered by many within the consumer electronics industry as the next generation of television.  4K UHD has twice the horizontal and twice the vertical resolution of the best HDTV format (i..e., 1080p).  While the increase in resolution is the most often discussed benefit of 4K UHD over the current HD system, there are also improvements in several other technical areas which allow for a wider color space offering more saturated colors, increased color bit depth and increased chroma (i.e., color) resolution and increase frame rates.  When the potential enhancements are fully realized throughout the video chain from the video source to the display, 4K UHD is capable of presenting a more lifelike image that some viewers have described as having the realism of looking out a window. 4K Standards Update I have reported extensively on the various industry and international standards related to UHD in several previous blogs (i.e., most recently HERE, HERE and HERE).  I have picked up a little more information since my last previous blog on the subject.  Specifically: HDMI Version 2.0 Silicon Image (SI) is a major supplier of HDMI chipsets used by many of the leading consumer electronic manufacturers in their products. On March 8th SI released a statement that, in part, said:

Silicon Image, Inc. announced that the long-awaited HDMI 2.0 spec with support for 4K video at 60 Hz likely will be available by mid-year, with the first 2.0-compliant chips expected to reach volume production in 2014. The new HDMI spec had been expected to be released by CES, but with Apple, a long-time DisplayPort supporter, joining the HDMI Forum, the complexion of the negotiations changed.”

Based on the above report from SI and informal information from other manufacturers involved in the development of HDMI 2.0 products, it appears possible that a limited quantity of HDMI 2.0 chipsets may become available late this year with large scale production next year.  For information on why HDMI 2.0 support is important see the final section of this blog below. ITU H.265 – HEVC Standard The initial version of the ITU standard for High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) was released in January 2013 and at that time is was indicated that work was underway on developing an amendment intended to define extensions for additional capabilities.  This initial amendment to H.265 was said to be targeted for released by early 2014. I discussed the new ITU H.265 standard in an earlier blog – HERE.  The planned first amendment will include 4K UHD extensions to HEVC that will likely add support for 3D, greater color resolution and increased bit depths.  Recently an industry insider involved with the HEVC standards development indicated that the draft text detailing the extensions for 4K UHD with 10-bit depth and 4:4:2 chroma coding was completed in late March and it is expected to go through the approval process and be included in the first amendment that he expected to be issued at the end of this year.  HEVC is important since it is expected to be the encoding used with a number of future 4K UHD video sources, potentially including a future version of 4K Blu-ray Discs. 4K UHD Displays & Projectors Other than the Sony VPL-VW1000ES projector, which has been available since early 2012, all of the other available and officially announced 4K UHD consumer display devices are LCD/LED flat panel displays.  Sony has released a new 55 inch model (MSRP $4999) that recently arrived at several national retail chain stores in the USA (I saw one last week at the local H.H. Gregg store.  This joins Sony’s previously released 84 inch model and Sony’s 2013 4K UHD TV line up will be filled out with a new 65 inch model to be released within the next couple of months.  These Sony models are full featured “Smart TVs”. Chinese manufacturer Seiki is now offering a 50 inch entry level 4K UHD TV with a retail price of just $1500.  This model offers only the most basic features, but is by far the least expensive 4K UHD TV currently available.  Seiki plans to add a 65 inch model within the next few months.  Several other mainstream manufacturers, including LG and Samsung, have plans to introduce new 4K UHD models over the next several months while other budget models are expected from Westinghouse and other Chinese based manufacturers. Consumer Electronics Daily has recently reported that an executive from the a leading LCD panel manufacturer, AU Optronics, is saying that they expect by the end of 2013 that about 20% of all of their production of LCD panels of 55 inch and larger sizes will be 4K UHD models.  AU Optronics is supplying 55 inch and 65 inch LCD panels to Sony, and other manufacturers, and as both production volume and unit yields increase during 2013 the per unit cost by year’s end will be 1.7 to 1.8 times the cost of a 1080p HD LCD panel of equal size.  A spokesman for AU Optronics said they expect 4K UHD TV shipments to total about 1 million in 2013 increasing to perhaps 4 million in 2014. As for 4K UHD projectors, Sony’s VPL-VW1000ES has now been available since early 2012 and no other consumer projector with native 4K resolution has been available nor announced.  However, new 4K projector models are expected to be announced at the CEDIA Expo in late September and available by early 2014.  The most likely manufacturers to announce plans at the CEDIA Expo for new 4K projectors are Sony, with perhaps a lower priced model as well as a new flagship model replacing the VPL-VW1000ES, and JVC with perhaps a mid-level model based on E-shift technology and/or a new flagship model with native 4K resolution.  More info on JVC’s E-shift technology, as used in current JVC models that provide pseudo 4K upscaled displays, is HERE.  It is also possible that Epson has plans for future 4K LCD-based projectors and perhaps consumer 4K DLP projectors may also be in the works.  We may even see a new flagship 4K projector announced by at least one manufacturer at this year’s CEDIA Expo that incorporates a laser light source rather than being lamp-based.   To be clear, this is all speculation on my part and is not based on any inside information.   I’m certain we will have a lot of 4K UHD news to report in late September as the CEDIA Expo gets underway. 4K UHD Video Sources   Download/Streaming 4K Video Services In previously blogs I have reported on Sony’s plans for a 4K Video Distribution Service that they plan to offer starting this fall (i.e., perhaps in the Oct. 2013 time frame).  This will require the consumer to purchase a Sony 4K video player and it now appears there will be two options for this.  The first is the Sony model FMP-X1 dedicated 4K video player (pictured below and previously discussed HERE).   It also appears (but not yet officially confirmed by Sony) that the planned Sony PlayStation 4 (PS4) will also be able to serve as a 4K video player with Sony’s 4K Video Distribution Service.

Sony FMP-X1 Video Player

Red Digital Cinema some time ago announced plans to introduce their Redray 4K player (pictured below) while Odemax will provide the companion 4K video download service.  Very little is known about what or when Odemax will be offering their service nor what the associated user costs may be.  The price announced for the Redray player is more than twice that of the Sony FMP-X1 player and perhaps four times the price of a PS4, so only time will tell if the Redray/Odemax offering will be able to compete against the Sony offering.

Redray Video Player

Netflix has indicated they are working on a 4K video streaming service, but this is probably two years away from being offered to Netflix customers. Update on Progress for Blu-ray Disc 4K Video The maximum video resolution supported by the current Blu-ray Disc standard is 1080p.  Unfortunately Sony, and perhaps other studios, have recently begun releasing a number of movies on Blu-ray Discs that are said to be “Mastered in 4K”.  These Blu-ray Discs are still just offering 1080p resolution while the original source video from which the disc was created was recorded with 4K resolution.  Thus what is recorded on the Blu-ray Disc is simply taking the source 4K video and digitally scaling it down to normal HD 1080p resolution.  This may be confusing to some consumers who may not understand that such discs, when played on a Blu-ray Disc player and connected to a new 4K display, do not yield a true, full 4K UHD result.  Similar confusion may come Blu-ray Disc players, that have already been on the market for several months, that offer internal upscaling of standard 1080p HD Blu-ray Discs to 4K resolution and are advertised has having a 4K output.  Again this falls far short of what can be expected from native 4K UHD video sources and has the potential for misleading current or future owners of 4K UHD displays, especially once true, native 4K video sources do become available. An update to the Blu-ray Disc standard is the necessary initial step in producing a next generation optical storage media for native 4K video content.  There has been some recent news, or tidbits of information, on this subject. As I reported in an earlier blog, the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA), that controls the Blu-ray Disc standards and related patents, formed as task force back in the Oct. 2012 time frame to investigate future enhancements to the Blu-ray Disc standard including the potential for higher resolution video formats. The BDA, in a statement given to and reported by CNET, has indicated that a final recommendation is expected later this year.  The BDA statement indicated:

“As part of its ongoing responsibility to maintain Blu-ray Disc as the premium platform for watching movies and other content at home, the BDA established a task force last year to study a range of possible format extensions, including those that potentially enable 4K content playback on Blu-ray.

Through the first quarter of this year, the task force solicited and received numerous proposals, and is now evaluating the various technologies.

The task force, which is comprised of representatives from BDA member studios, consumer electronics manufacturers and media technology companies, looks forward to sharing with and receiving input from content creators, and is expected to make specification and technology recommendations to the Blu-ray Disc Association board of directors later this year.”

CNET’s concluding paragraph to their article includes, in part, the speculative statement that they “....should hope to see Blu-ray introduce a UHD/4K delivery platform in 2014....” Thus the bottom line we should take from all of this is that it now seems possible, perhaps likely, that there will be consumer products coming to the marketplace by the end of 2014 that support a new version of Blu-ray Discs with native 4K resolution and the other UHD improvements. Early Adopters Beware Although a few consumer 4K UHD display devices are already available with more on the way over the next few months, a word of caution is appropriate. Input Limitations – All currently available consumer 4K UHD displays/projectors, and those announced to begin shipping over the next several months, come equipped with HDMI version 1.4b inputs.  This version of HDMI can accept 4K video signals, but it is limited to refresh rates of 24 Hz and 30 Hz.  It is also limited in other technical aspects that negatively impact video quality.  The next generation of HDMI, version 2.0, is important because it is expected to provide support for a much broader spectrum of anticipated future 4K UHD video services.  This includes 4K UHD signals at higher refresh rates (i.e., up to 60 Hz.), and improved color resolution and range, and perhaps support for 3D at 4K resolution.  As a result, the initial generation of 4K UHD displays currently available and coming to the marketplace over the next several months have hardware and software limitations.  Such limitations of the near-term 4K UHD displays are expected to only be overcome with the introduction of future 2nd generation 4K UHD displays that will be equipped with HDMI 2.0 inputs along with internal video processing to support the enhanced features enabled this next generation of HDMI.  It has been reported that Sony will offer a future upgrade for the VPL-VW1000ES, the only currently available 4K UHD projector, to add HDMI 2.0 support.  However, to the best of my knowledge, there has not been any official statement from Sony if or when this upgrade might be available nor has there been any indication from Sony on what would be the cost if this upgrade were offered to the existing VW1000ES owners. So a word of caution is appropriate for anyone considering the purchase of a new 4K UHD display.  If you really want a 4K UHD display or projector that is as close to “future proof” as possible, then you may want to wait until the 2nd generation models become available, as these will likely come equipped with HDMI 2.0 inputs and also be capable of supporting the enhanced UHD features (e.g, higher frame rates) enabled by those more advanced inputs  Such 2nd generation 4K UHD products are expected to become widely available during 2014 and perhaps a few such products may even come to market by very late this year.

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