Holiday TV shopping: For jumbo-sized models, '4K' a possible reason to wait

If you’re considering buying a jumbo-sized TV, you might want to wait — if you can bear to do so — for some new technology to mature.

TV manufacturers are developing a technology called “4K,” which offers about four times the resolution of 1080p high-definition images. You can think of it as offering for televisions the same thing that Apple’s “Retina Display” technology offers for tablets, smartphones and computers. Displays of the same size get more pixels, which allows them to show sharper images.

 4K technology, also known as “ultra-high definition,” is intended to address a problem that’s becoming increasingly apparent amid American’s love affair with ever-bigger TVs: The larger the screen size or the closer you sit to a  TV, the less sharp its images look. While an HD image looks extremely sharp on a smaller TV, it can look stretched out and fuzzy on a larger one. That’s because larger TVs contain the same number of pixels as smaller ones, but those pixels are spread over a much larger area. The effect can make a high-definition video appear as if it were a standard-definition one on a smaller TV.

Unfortunately, you should be prepared to wait — and wait — if you’re interested in a 4K TV, because  it could be many years before it is a practical, mainstream technology. Right now, prices on such TVs are extremely high and the amount of content available for them is extraordinarily limited.

The first 4Ks TVs will  hit store shelves this holiday season with prices north of $10,000. Sony, for example, is asking $25,000 for its 84-inch 4K TV.

You can expect those prices to plummet in coming years as production ramps up and as growing numbers of manufacturers offer their own 4K TVs. Samsung, for example, is expected to demonstrate its own 84-inch 4K TV at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in January. But analysts don’t expect 4K TVs to approach even 1 percent of TV shipments until at least 2015, meaning it could be a long while before volumes rise enough for prices to reach mainstream levels.

But an even bigger long-term problem for 4K TVs is content. Almost nothing transmitted over the broadcast or pay TV netw0rks, or that is available on disc or from movie services such as Apple’s iTunes or Netflix is in 4K. And because the bandwidth required to transmit 4K content and the disc space needed store such videos are enormous, content distributors face huge challenges in getting such content to consumers. Those challenges could take years to overcome.

That said, there are reasons you might want a 4K TV anyway. For one thing, you probably already have 4K content in your home in the form of digital pictures. Nearly all the latest digital cameras shoot images with resolutions that match or exceed 4K’s 8.3 megapixels. And some of these same cameras will shoot movies that are in 4K format. Right now, there’s no way to view those pictures or movies on your living-room big screen in full resolution.

And more 4K content is available. YouTube, for example, already offers a selection of 4K movies. Meanwhile 4K TVs will likely include features that upscale lower-resolution content to improve its appearance.

So, it’s something to think about — among other things — if you’re shopping for a TV this holiday season.

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (255 Posts)

Troy writes the Tech Files column as the Personal Technology Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He also covers the digital media, mobile and video game industries and writes occasionally about Apple, chips, social networking and other aspects of technology. Previously, Troy covered Apple and the consumer electronics industry. Prior to joining the Mercury News, Troy reported on technology, business and financial issues for TheStreet.com and CNET News.com.