When Will 4K "Better Image Quality" Actually Make a Difference?

If 4K displays actually are in use by as much as 10 percent of the U.S. population, by 2021, it is reasonable to ask what is the “driver” of adoption. “Better image quality” is the standard, but possibly facile, answer.

Consider a 4K display on a smartphone. As any TV engineer will tell you, unless you are very close to the screen, the human eye cannot discern the difference between a picture at HDTV and 4K coding.

But eyes are close to smartphone screens, so we ought to be able to “see” the difference, yes? Maybe not. Some would argue that human eye cannot tell the difference, much of the time, between HDTV and 4K content, even when viewed up close on a smartphone.

The same problem exists for 4K when used on larger TV displays. One has to sit closer than perhaps seven to eight feet from a 65-inch display to have any chance of perceiving the difference between HDTV and 4K picture quality. Few of us will do so.

So if consumers really cannot “see” the difference, where is the value driver? It really is not “picture quality,” since small devices and large TV displays will not be able to show those picture quality improvements.

There are, of course, other drivers of value. For some people, having a big 4K TV is a status symbol. There, the value is the perceived status, not the quality of the picture.

Historically, one can argue, there always has been a tension between image quality and content richness as drivers of consumer spending on entertainment video.

Consider streaming video services consumed on mobile and other small screen devices: image quality, per se, is not the driver. Content access “anywhere” is the adoption driver, since image quality on a mobile is limited, compared to what is available on a TV screen.

Even in a standard TV screen experience, much streaming content is consumed in standard, rather than high definition format. So it is not “image quality,” in and of itself, that is the adoption driver.

The same might be true for 4K and future 8K TV services. They will be touted as “better” because of image quality, even when not all deployment scenarios can people actually see the quality differences.

Juniper Research predicts that revenues from subscription video on demand services, such as Netflix and Amazon, are set to more than double from $14.6 billion in 2016, to $34.6 billion in 2021.  

Netflix already has U.S. subscriber numbers level with leading network providers DirecTV & Comcast (47 million and 47.7 million respectively).

In the end, 4K image quality is not just hype. You can tell the difference, on some content, on some devices, some of the time, if you are close enough to the screen. But few large-screen apps will allow people to “see the difference,” because they will not be sitting close enough.

Occasionally, smartphone users with 4K displays might discern some quality improvement, but “better image quality” will not be consistent. Most people are not going to notice.

So consumer beware, if you are paying significantly more money for 4K.
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