Just when you thought you had a state-of-the-art television set — by purchasing a 1080p 3D HDTV, perhaps — the market has made another big change. In 2013, television makers like Sony, LG and Samsung have started pushing the next big thing: 4K televisions.

For years, manufacturers have been slimming down and improving the quality of TVs, but now they’re saying that 4K is inspiring them to re-imagine how TVs can exist in the home.

Pardon me, but haven’t we heard this before?

Blu-ray discs were all the rage back in 2005, but consumer adoption of Blu-ray content has been lower than the industry hoped as people increasingly rely on their Internet connections to access television and movie content like Netflix and Hulu. And what about that 3-D TV craze that picked up steam in 2010 after “Avatar” wowed theater-goers? Well, 3-D TV sales have lagged in large part because of the annoyance of wearing 3-D glasses and the startling lack of quality 3-D content.

Over the last few months, consumers have rightfully voiced their concerns: Is 4K just the latest technology gimmick? How does 4K work? Is it really that much better? More importantly, is it worth the money? Let’s answer these burning questions.

What is 4K?

4K television sets offer a digital video resolution with a horizontal dimension nearly 4,000 pixels across (many 4K sets offer a picture that’s 3840 x 2160 pixels). Currently, the best resolution you’ll often find in stores is 1080p, which boasts a picture of 1920 x 1080 pixels. In simpler words, 4K TVs double the width of a 1080p high definition display (which has long been considered the best around) and offers four times as many total pixels.

That seems like an incredible amount of resolution — and it is. The 4K display is massive compared to every other 16:9 video format. In fact, it’s more or less the same resolution as you’ll find in most movie theaters in the United States.

Of course, the development of 4K technology is allowing TV companies to make much larger sets. For example, Samsung has crafted a “floating” 110-inch 4K Ultra HD TV. This gigantic but thin model uses a metal frame that props the display up, allowing it to be angled up or down at the viewer’s pleasure. Even more interesting, the frame itself includes a built-in speaker system, eliminating the need for additional external speakers.

While Samsung’s gaudy model certainly costs a pretty penny (an estimated $37,900), it is without question a clever design and a signal of what’s coming in the future. Maybe author Ray Bradbury wasn’t too far off when he predicted that floor-to-ceiling TV sets would one day come to fruition in “Fahrenheit 451.”

Is 4K that much better?

This question remains hotly debated. It all depends on the content that’s available and how people plan to use their TVs.

At first glance, it seems obvious that a 4K display would offer substantially better image quality than a standard HDTV. After all, it has four times as many pixels. However, that advantage is only significant when watching 4K content. Otherwise, the systems are simply upscaling lower-resolution content to the massive 4K display (much like watching standard definition programming on an HDTV).

Public venues, sports bars and well-off home theater fans who need everything as large as possible — well, at least 70 inches or more — will undoubtedly be the first to adopt 4K technology enthusiastically. But it’s not clear how well 4K technology will scale down to 40-, 45- and 50-inch TV sets, which fit more comfortably in everyday living rooms.

The handful of folks who have embraced 3-D HDTVs may well be interested in smaller-size 4K displays since they’re capable of delivering four times as many pixels to each eye. That should translate to a more-convincing 3-D effect.

“The instant I saw a 4K TV in person, I regretted having just bought a new HDTV,” Armando Rodriguez, technology reporter for PC World, said after the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

However, folks considering screens 40 inches and smaller may be hard-pressed to see any significant difference between a 1080p display and a 4K display, especially if they’re back a reasonable distance from the screen.

“When people talk about seeing 4K, they are way closer than they would normally be,” explains Geoffrey Morrison, former editor-in-chief of Home Theater magazine and current writer for CNet.com. “Up closer, yeah, 4K looks amazing. This is, of course, how they’ll sell in stores. People will walk right up to the screen and go ‘Wow!’”

When will 4K TVs be affordable?

For the last six months, the biggest charge against 4K has been that the sets are too expensive. That’s true. The first 4K TVs — among them, 84-inch displays from Sony and LG priced between $20,000 and $25,000 — were out of reach for many consumers.

The Consumer Electronics Association projected during CES that the average wholesale cost of a 4K TV would drop to $7,000 by the end of 2013, to $2,800 in 2014 and would continue to fall in 2015.

Today, it appears those prices might be dropping even more than the Consumer Electronics Association expected.

In April, Sony priced its 55-inch Bravia X900 4K TV at just $5,000, while also releasing a 65-inch version at the price of $7,000. These still are significant expenditures, of course, but they’re also the sorts of figures that will make many people seriously consider a 4K TV rather than just laugh the idea off. Consumers looking for a new TV right now and wanting something future-proof should start weighing the pros and cons of buying a 4K TV. Simply put, Sony suddenly has succeeded in making 4K TVs look far more feasible than they once were.

Several reports also have hinted that Chinese manufacturers like Hisense and Sekei are developing 4K TVs that will cost around $2,000 when they’re released in the U.S. Many prognosticators expect technology companies to amp up the 4K race and prices will drop because of it.

“TV manufactures are smelling margin like blood in the water. This is something they can do, now, and for a profit,” Mr. Morrison says of the emergence of 4K Ultra HD TVs. “So it’s happening, whether it’s necessary or not.”

According to industry projections, it’s looking more and more as if 4K Ultra HD TVs could be marked at widely acceptable prices by the 2014 holiday season. Consumers also can expect 1080p HD TV prices to also fall slightly by the end of next year.

Where is the 4K content?

This seems to be the biggest issue moving forward. The reality is that 4K content generally isn’t available to the public yet.

“There isn’t yet a standard for 4K Blu-Ray discs, and don’t expect the broadcast industry to jump on 4K until there are enough sets out there to make it worth their while,” says Larry Magid, consumer technology reporter for Forbes. “Even then, it will take a few years.”

Taking advantage of the fact that it owns its own movie studios, Mr. Magid says, Sony is trying to jump start content by re-rendering some of its own films into 4K and encouraging short film makers to create content.

Earlier this week, Sony released the FMP-X1, its first 4K media player, for $699. The machine comes bundled with “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “Taxi Driver,” “The Other Guys,” “Bad Teacher,” “The Karate Kid (2010),” “Battle: Los Angeles,” “That’s My Boy,” “Salt,” “Total Recall (2012)” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and several short videos in 4K resolution.

The company also announced this month that Video Unlimited 4K — Sony’s dedicated 4K video distribution service — is on schedule for a fall launch. Feature films will be available for rent or purchase starting at $7.99 and $29.99 respectively.

But other than Sony’s newest offering, 4K content hasn’t been a big focus for movie studios and broadcasters in the States. They’ve been a little braver across the pond.

Eutelsat Communications launched the first 4K Ultra HD demo channel in Europe in January. In the U.K., the BBC has plans to film some documentaries with 4K equipment in 2013. Just as “Planet Earth” was one of the first programs to be shown in HD, the BBC’s Natural History Unit has been given the task of filming a program called “Survival” in 4K Ultra HD. Meanwhile, the 2014 World Cup Final from Brazil will be shown in 4K Ultra HD to satellite viewers in Japan.

But even those 4K offerings are few and far between.

“It will still be awhile before there is enough native 4K content out there to give viewers a lot of choice of programming,” Mr. Magid says.

Shea Conner can be reached at shea.conner@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @stjoelivedotcom.

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