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News Analysis
What Happened to 4K TV?
By Swanni

Washington, D.C. (January 31, 2012) -- In October 2011 at the CEATEC conference in Japan, the 4K TV was arguably the hit of the show. The new picture technology, which purports to offer a resolution four times better than current HDTVs, was gushed over by attending press and industry officials.

One CNET headline stated: "Toshiba's $12,000 55-inch 4K TV -- Dazzling!," in reference to Toshiba's 4K exhibit. But other 4K presentations received similar rave reviews. Geek.com called Sharp's 60-inch 4K set "the next major step in display technology."

After CEATEC, U.S. geeks could hardly wait for the Consumer Electronics Show in January to bow down before this awe-inspiring new image. And the industry as a whole prepared to christen 4K as the Next Big Thing in TV technology, if not technology itself.

But then, something happened.

During CES, some tech analysts, myself included, posted stories saying that 4K's picture, while better than current sets, didn't seem four times better. I wrote that I was impressed with the picture, but it didn't have the 'Wow Factor' I expected after reading the CEATEC coverage. The Los Angeles Times chimed in with its own less-than-overwhelmed review with a headline that read: "4K TVs Makes Their Debut, Minus the Hoopla."

Rather than aiming their gush at the 4K, tech journalists raved about the new ultra-thin OLED TVs, which only promised better pictures, not four times better. LG's OLED TV won CNET's 'Best of Show' award.

And then things got really bad for 4K.

Can the 4K TV turn things around?

Following the show, more semi-negative articles surfaced, including one particularly bitter diatribe from CNET columnist Geoffrey Morrison who questioned people's education levels for even thinking of buying a 4K set. Under a headline that read, "Why 4K TV Are Stupid," Morrison said the average viewer could not see the difference in the picture resolution on any 4K TV under, oh, 80 inches or so unless you sat extremely close to the screen. He did say that 4K might be a benefit for projection TVs which displayed images on screens 100 inches and above.

"But with televisions, 4K is stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid," he wrote.

Consumer Reports also took a shot at 4K with a story under this headline: "What The Heck Is 4K TV And Why Should You Spend $25,000 On It?" -- a reference to Sony's outrageously priced $25,000 4K projector.

So how did a new TV go from being The Next Big Thing to the Next Big Ridiculed Thing?

Three things:

1. Substance Did Not Equal Hype
I'm not sure what the CEATEC attendees were seeing, but 4K's picture is only an improvement on today's HDTVs, not a display breakthrough. The set may offer four times the number of pixels, but as Morrison points out, the average person can't see that unless they are sitting closer to the screen than that little blonde girl in Poltergeist.

2. OLED Exhibits Were Sharper Than 4K's Exhibits
While everyone was expecting a sharper picture from 4K at CES, what was immediately clear was that TV makers at CES had done a sharper job of exhibiting the new OLED sets. They were prominently featured in the LG and Samsung booths with lots of floor space to gather around to ooh and ahh. In contrast, the LG 4K exhibit was tucked off to the side, not quiet as accessible. And over at Sony's booth, the company featured a 4K Home Theater presentation in a screening room that required waiting in a long line to attend. (The presentation was also a ho-hum playback of some Spider-man movie trailers.)

3. 4K Had a Price -- A Big Price -- to Ridicule
Interestingly, the OLED makers never revealed what the price of their sets would be at launch later this year. Consequently, tech journalists and analysts focused their attention (and words) on the set's dazzling picture technology and amazingly thin panel. The product got all the attention, rather than debate over whether it was worth the money.

In contrast, Sony had already announced that its 4K projector costs $25,000. So journalists and attendees logically started asking whether the picture they were seeing was worth $25,000. And the answer, of course, was no. What picture is worth $25,000?! This product vs. price comparison generated more negative word of mouth for 4K, especially compared to OLED.

Bottom Line: A Consumer Electronics Show can make or break a new product. While this CES did not destroy 4K's chance of eventual success, it definitely made it more difficult. The media -- and millions of viewers and readers -- now have a slightly negative view of the technology, which might make it more difficult to generate interest when sets are available later this year.

And they say CES doesn't matter anymore.

What do you think? Offer your comments below!

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