Americans have made it clear: They don’t want a lot of gimmicks in their TVs.
In an effort to improve sales, though, television makers have tried gimmicks anyway. Theyave lauded 3-D TVs. They’ve pushed voice controls. And they’ve highlighted Internet-streaming interfaces.
None have really moved the needle. The latest big selling point — ultrahigh-definition displays, also known as 4K — also faces an uphill climb.
But unlike many of the other gimmicks and features that have been tried in years past, 4K is one that we’ll most likely adopt. And with one name-brand 4K television available for $1,000, this could be the year that starts happening.
From a technical perspective, the term 4K refers to displays with twice the vertical and twice the horizontal resolution of high-definition TVs. The UHD designation combines the higher pixel count of 4K with improvements to on-screen colors that make the on-screen picture brighter and more realistic. The terms are used fairly interchangeably and most TV manufacturers tack on both.
There’s no doubt that with the right video playing, 4K simply looks better than a high-definition TV. And history shows that better-looking TVs with bigger displays will win us over, as long as the price is right.
"Pretty simple message, right?" said Stephen Baker, head of hardware analysis at the retail research organization NPD Group. "This is a better picture. Everything you watch, without your having to do anything, is going to look better."
He added: "I think itas clearly a sales catalyst, if only because it gives the TV brands and the retailers something to talk about that doesnat require them to explain a whole bunch of other weird things."
Ultrahigh definition, like high definition before it, seems to be the natural evolution of TV technology: a quality improvement that is prohibitively expensive at first and limited to TVs of unusual size, but that soon becomes mainstream in smaller sets at lower prices.
According to the Consumer Electronics Association, it took six years of HDTVs from being on the market — from 2003 to 2009 — before 50 percent of American households had them. Now, nearly 90 percent of households have one.
The NPD Group estimates that about 800,000 ultrahigh-definition TVs will be sold in the United States in 2014, out of the 38.5 million total TV sales. Baker said he doesn’t expect big sales numbers anytime soon because 4K TVs will be large and expensive in the immediate future.
"The real revolution comes when we get better quality products in smaller screens," he said. "It’s all dependent on obviously the costs."
For the past two years, electronics makers like Samsung, LG and Sony have been selling 4K televisions with huge screens and matching price tags.
Samsung has made the most aggressive push into ultrahigh definition. The company made headlines with its 85-inch TV with built-in stand, which retailed for $45,000 (it has since come down to $40,000). Smaller UHD TVs started at $5,500.
Sony announced 4K models in 2013 that cost $5,000 for 55 inches and $7,000 for 65 inches, and LGas prices have been similar.
But those prices have come down significantly in just a year. A 55-inch Sony 4K TV can now be found for $1,800; Samsung’s feature-filled 65-inch 4K TV with a curved design and next-generation LED is a surprisingly tempting $2,800.
And Vizio, the budget-priced electronics maker, has just introduced its P series line of ultrahigh-definition TVs that start at $1,000 for a 50-inch model. The TVs contain impressive display technology and don’t represent a huge quality compromise despite their lower prices.
Baker said an offer like that is likely to have an effect.
"Vizio will change the market because people have a lot of trust in Vizio," he said, "and they’re in a range of outlets that range from Wal-Mart to Costco."
The adoption of 4K TVs will also depend on the programming available in the higher definition a a sort of chicken-and-egg situation. Without extensive 4K programming available, people have less incentive to buy the sets. And if few people buy them, there’s less incentive to make videos in 4K.
So far, no channels are broadcasting in 4K, and very few DVDs come in 4K quality.
That means that if you have such a TV now, the video will probably have to be aupscaled to match the higher resolution, a software process that tries to fill in missing pixels by guessing what they should look like. The results can be choppy.
Mark Coxon, a former high-end audio-video installer who writes about TV technology, said upscaling often leads to blurry on-screen images, especially in scenes with a lot of movement.
"Obviously more resolution is a good thing if we have the content to follow," he said, "but scaling has never been something that’s been pretty."
More expensive 4K TVs will contain better technology for upscaling picture quality, he said, and some third-party manufacturers make expensive set-top boxes that can provide better scaling. But until more 4K content is available, consumers may be in for a rude surprise when they watch HDTV on ultrahigh-definition sets.
More 4K programming is being made, though. Some movie studios are shooting films in 4K. And Sony is pushing video makers to 4K with its devices, selling professional and semiprofessional cameras that shoot in the higher-resolution format. The company has also released a $700 set-top box that stores and plays back some 70 movie and TV titles to owners of next-generation sets.
A startup, UltraFlix, is scanning older movies from 35-millimeter film and remastering them into 4K digital movies that stream on its app. The UltraFlix app is included on Sony and Vizio ultrahigh-definition TVs.
And Netflix streams some of Sony’s movies and TV shows and is shooting some of its original series in 4K, including "House of Cards" and coming series like "Marco Polo."
"This is going to be the first format that will become popular first online, as a streaming format versus a physical media format," said Cliff Edwards, a Netflix spokesman.
But streaming 4K has its own next-generation requirements. It requires Netflix’s most expensive $12 per month plan, and a pretty fast broadband connection — the movies are about twice the file size of regular high-definition movies. Consumers streaming a lot of those big files will also want to watch their data limits, if they have them.
As for that upscaled HD content, Coxon offers advice for shoppers who will be facing a wall of TVs this holiday shopping season, each showing crisp, perfect photographs, slow-moving images or animation.
Look at an HDTV and a 4K TV side-by-side and ask the store to put the same channel on both, he said. "If you like the 4K TV better, you’ll like your choice."
And of course, wait for the holiday sales price, too. You’ll like your choice a lot more the less you have to pay.