At CES this year, 4K video arrived. All 3 pieces of the puzzle seem to be falling into the realm of possibility for most Americans: content creation, delivery, and consumption. On the creation side, quality cameras should hit the sub-$2000 price range this year. On delivery, Netflix is going to start streaming select content such as House of Cards Season 2 in 4K (if you have the bandwidth and capable decoding hardware. And for consumption, Vizio will be selling a Netflix-streaming 4K TV for $999 , while 4K computer monitors are even cheaper.
As someone who has tended to stay pretty cutting-edge when it comes to video technology (I began shooting/editing HD video back in 2007 with the Canon HV20), I’d normally be pretty impatient to start upgrading my equipment. I was all in favor of the jump from 480 vertical lines of resolution to 1080, so naturally the jump to 2160 is exciting. But I’m not sure I’m willing to pay the “early adopter” tax this time.
See, 1080p has only recently become really mainstream from creation to consumption, and still isn’t ubiquitous. Netflix only streams select content in 1080p to those with high-bandwidth connections and supported devices (most HD streaming from any provider is still 720p). HD cable and OTA TV is still only 1080i. 1080p recording at 30+fps is a relatively recent feature in the upper end of consumer point-and-shoots and entry-level dSLRs (and while your smartphone may technically be able to record 1080p video, a smartphone is still no substitute for a proper video camera with a decent lens, sensor and microphone). You still need a decent video card to play back 1080p content when editing it, the files aren’t trivial to store/backup in terms of size, and encoding it puts even a reasonably powerful PC through its paces. 1080p has become mature enough to be both affordable and easy for anyone who values quality video, but only just.
4K is definitely exciting. In terms of resolution, it’s equivalent to the jump from 480p DVD to 1080p blu-ray, and I think just about anyone can agree that the difference there is pretty substantial. But is the experience of going from 1080p to 4K equivalent? Not really. There’s an upper-bound on what level of detail our eyes can pick up on. As resolutions get higher and higher, the incremental benefit diminishes. I’m not saying you won’t be able to tell 4K from 1080p, especially on larger monitors/TVs at somewhat close distances. You will, and I definitely plan to make the upgrade someday. But the discernable difference will be less pronounced, and for that reason I believe waiting for the technology to mature and reach a greater level of commoditization is easier to justify for 4K than it was for 1080p.
Personally, the hardest decision right now isn’t whether I should buy a 4K TV since we are more than happy with our current home theater setup, or whether I should beef up my PC to support 4K monitors/editing. All of that can wait until prices come down and content becomes more available. What I am struggling with is whether to invest in a 4K camera in the next year or two. Right now I’m not in a rush because I don’t record that much video these days, but I expect that to change once we begin having kids, which could start as early as next year. At that point, the question is – do I pay a premium to future-proof our home videos, recognizing that it’ll be a struggle for a while to do anything with them (store, edit, etc.) and that the technology will likely progress a lot over the following several years? Or do I save the cash and start with 1080p? I’m one $500 camera body away from having everything I need to create and enjoy high-quality 1080p content. But 4K? That camera is at least $2000, and then it’s more costly upgrades and time before I can see what I recorded in all its glory, or even play it back without significant conversion effort – not to mention edit it in its original resolution.
It’s a hard call, but it’s not like 1080p video will ever look bad in the way that aged VHS video looks bad, especially if filmed well with a good camera. And it’s much more tempting to allow my 4K-readiness to progress through Cyber Monday steals and the natural obsolescence of my existing equipment, than to force the issue at much higher cost and effort. So as excited as I am about 4K’s progress this year and the prospect of recording in that format, I think I’m willing to wait.