When they write the history of resolution, they will say the reign of 4K began in 2010, but that 2015 was the year the fog cleared and the majority of people stopped fighting. They will also say it was Google who fired the first real shots against standard high definition, citing its early support of 4K streaming on YouTube as the green light that ignited the ultra-high-definition revolution.
Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait a while yet to read that book—and, in the interim, put up with some lingering fog that seems to suggest 4K is already facing danger from higher resolutions newer to the market.
While the fact that you can now buy 4K displays and televisions from Wal-Mart means that the technology has clearly arrived for the masses, the fact that Apple and LG have upped the ante with respective 5K and 8K displays has led many to question whether 4K is already outdated. These skeptics are right in that it might no longer be the peak of technology, nor has it been for some time. However, it is not peaks that ultimately matter in broadcasting and consumer electronics; it’s universal standards that matter, and 4K is going to be the standard among resolutions for quite some time—for much the same reason that IMAX has yet to catch on in sports bars and living rooms.
For the vast majority of users, buying a display with a higher resolution than 4K would actually be a step backward, not forward, and this will hold true for years to come. All things equal, five thousand and eight thousand horizontal pixels certainly outrank four thousand. However, all things are not equal, as the entire industry has spent years revamping their infrastructure to handle 4K content—and not a pixel more (let alone twice as many).
We might be waiting for cable and satellite providers to cut the ribbons on the next generation of 4K broadcast packages, but we already have the ability to upscale 1080i channels (which include everything from HBO and Showtime to AMC, NBC, and The Weather Channel) to resolutions far beyond the capabilities of high-definition hardware. We can’t officially call this “4K content,” but we might as well. Meanwhile, we’ve already got genuine 4K streaming by way of YouTube, Netflix, Vimeo, and Amazon, not to mention the next generation of 4K “Ultra HD Blu-ray” discs set to debut in time for the holidays.
As a result, there will be no shortage of content for 4K displays by the end of the year, but the idea that we should upscale all of this content beyond 4K is, quite literally, a bit of a stretch. If you’re buying a display in 2015, odds are 4K is the resolution for you. Even though the technology exists to record in resolutions substantially higher, the infrastructure does not exist to view them—nor will it for quite some time.
Still, the next few years are likely to see a rise in exaggerated displays for the same reason we have 41-megapixel camera phones when professional photographers are happy with half that amount; however, we won’t see a wealth of actual content beyond 4K, which will make higher-resolution displays a bit pointless for most. Being the first person on your block with an 8K display might be good for bragging rights, but the next few Super Bowls are likely to look just as good on 4K displays, if not better.
That’s not to say higher resolutions are useless. They’re just best reserved for more specific uses than most of today’s users require. The big appeal of hardware like Apple’s 5K displays is that they’re large enough to allow for simultaneous views of both full-resolution 4K content and video editing tools side-by-side (a nice advantage for editors). For everyone else who might prefer to watch content full-screen, those extra pixels stand to water down the resolution, which only increases as you approach resolutions of 8K and beyond.
Doubtless, we will eventually see aging 4K displays priced to move at every garage sale, but those times are very far off—and the technology that will replace them won’t be one of the alternatives currently available today. No one can predict the hardware we’ll use to watch the next forty-year anniversary of Saturday Night Live, but we are best served in the present to watch in 4K and not one of its big brothers.
The same holds true for the camera industry, which remains fixated on bringing 4K recording capabilities to consumer-grade DSLRs. It’s going to take years for giants like Canon and Nikon to upgrade their entire product lines to 4K, and they’re not going to segment themselves further by embracing something larger before they’ve finished.
As a result, the market has no shortage of room to grow horizontally before climbing vertically again, so it’s safe to view 4K purchases as longer-term investments than we’re used to seeing in the technology world.
Add the fact that Breaking Bad and House of Cards are presently available to stream in 4K, and there’s hardly a reason to resist the upgrade.
*This VideoBlocks original first appeared in Streaming Media.