What the heck is 4K? How might it affect mobile devices in the future?

June 21, 2013
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    I’m sure by now you’ve at least heard a little about 4K technology, and you likely pieced together that it has something to do with the resolution of displays. The real question is what exactly 4K means for consumer devices going forward, and how it differs from common resolutions like 720p and 1080p.

    Basically “4K” is marketing-speak, and refers to two high definition resolutions: 3840 x 2160 or 4096 x 2160. The term comes from the idea that it is roughly four times the definition of FullHD or 1080p (1920 x 1080). You might also know 4K devices and technology under the name-badge “UltraHD”.

    In a nutshell, ultraHD is considered a huge leap over 1080p and looks posed to eventually dethrone 1080p as the de facto standard for high-quality HD content, though other formats like 8K could get in the way of this vision.

    It’s very likely that you own a 1080p device by now, whether its a tablet, TV or even your smartphone. Should you care about 4k? Your current equipment does the job and looks great after all.

    The answer to that question is honestly at least partially subjective, but let’s take a look at just some of the benefits to 4K.

    What 4K means for the future

    The real advantages to UltraHD are most obvious with large screen TVs, monitors and projectors.

    With 1080p, you start to see some pretty awful images with displays above 80-inches in size. With 4K you get much more detail, and less pixel visible images. This creates almost life-like content that make 1080p look like childsplay.

    Another major improvement for 4K has to do with 3D technology.

    Right now 3D TVs using passive polarized glasses are able to do this by putting out a 540p resolution for each eye. With 4K, each eye would see true 1080p images.

    4K also brings us a step closer to true, glasses-free 3D as 4K can delivery nearly enough depth as current 3D methods – ditching the glasses.

    How does 4K change the mobile world?

    We see that 4K means better image quality and 3D for big-screen devices, but what’s the benefit when it comes to the mobile world – is there any?

    While Panasonic has already shown off a 4K tablet running Windows 8, 4K resolution displays on tablets and smartphones are still a long ways off.

    Does that mean that 4K won’t have an immediate influence on the mobile world? Not at all. As you might already know, the Snapdragon 800 chipset supports 4K output. We’ve also seen camera sensors that are capable of capturing 4K video.

    What this means is that the immediate relationship between 4K (UltraHD) and mobile devices will surround video capture and pushing 4K signals out to televisions and monitors. An example of an Android device that can already do this is the Transformer Pad Infinity.

    At MWC we also saw LG show off a tech demo for its new system that takes HD video feeds, upscales them to 4K and then pushes them out to 4K televisions and monitors.


    When can we expect 4K-friendly mobile devices?

    Keep in mind that the first 4K-capable tablets and smartphones will NOT have 4K displays. Instead, they will merely be able to push out 4K signals to other devices, either through a cable or even wirelessly. As mentioned above, this has already happened with Asus’ latest Transformer.

    As for 4K video capture? It might not be perfectly smooth, but odds are that we will see the first mobile devices with 4K capture abilities anytime between late summer and the holiday 2013 season.

    Speculating even further, it doesn’t seem completely crazy to think that the upcoming LG G2 might feature both LG’s own 4K upscaling technology and even maybe 4K video capture support.

    If you really have your heart set on a tablet or smartphone with a 4K display, you are going to be disappointed. While it isn’t impossible for a manufacturer to release a 4K tablet later this year or early next year, such a device would be very expensive and would have serious battery draining issues.

    Until we finally manage to improve battery technology in a meaningful way, and up processor power further – 4K displays on mobile devices will likely not catch on in any big way.

    Do we even NEED UltraHD resolutions on a tablet or smartphone? Would we be able to tell the difference? That’s hard to say, but let’s not forget that there were (and still are) folks that felt 1080p on a smartphone was crazy and unnecessary.

    What do you think of 4K technology, is it the future or will another format usurp it before it becomes truly popular? How long do you think it will be before mobile devices start embracing UltraHD?


    • Ryan Andes

      I still don’t notice the difference between 720p and 1080p on my 55″ Bravia, noticing it on mobile isn’t even a question for me. I don’t understand the push for this.

      • APai

        well, 3dtv failed, they’ve gotta sell SOMETHING ?
        why don’t you consumers get it ????!!!


        • stucrmnx120fshwf

          30% of all new TVs, down to $ 270, that’s failure?

          • APai

            well, nobody’s buying “3DTV” for sure, they are buying TVs as per their needs – which might explain the low cost along with cost of production. what I’m saying is that these are marketing gimmicks that they need to create a buzz, everyone wants to be at the center of consumer action / attention and be the next “big thing”

            • stucrmnx120fshwf

              They don’t realise how cheap they are, or 80% would be buying 3D, folks have no idea where to buy $1,200 UD TVs, or they’d be buying them too. I love 3D and just can’t for the life of me, see what the disadvantage could be, or for UD. The difference in cost of production, with economies of scale is negligible, led pixels verses the same surface area of LEDs.

      • mjolnirxz

        Well… I notice it very clearly on my 39″ TV… Mobile? I agree can’t really tell.

      • Larkhillv

        Sorry to say this, but that probably just means your eyes aren’t doing so hot any more, or you just aren’t paying enough attention to detail–of course, it could also depend on your video source, such as 720/1080p on YouTube vs 720/1080p on blu-ray. Another thing to consider is the device you are playing back from, quality of HDMI cable, etc. Anyway, it can be hard to see the difference on my 36″ TV, but I can definitely see it’s there sometimes, so I imagine it should definitely be there on a 55″. On the other hand, if you don’t notice, then there’s no need to upgrade, at least for you. As for mobile, I can definitely see the difference between my 720p display on my GNex and the new 1080p displays. There are people out there who notice the difference :)

        • Ryan Andes

          Yeah I dunno, I can’t tell the difference between DVD and blue-ray on my Ps3/Bravia. I suppose that makes me lucky? I can see a small difference between say, my old GNex and my Xperia ZL and N4, but it’s nowhere near enough of one to consider it a reason to spend money. Same goes for refresh rate and sound, stereo and 7.1 seem the same, as do 30fps and 60fps. None of them have anything on me when it comes to buying a new device. Lucky me!

          • stucrmnx120fshwf

            Oh I can definitely tell the difference between DVD and Blue Ray, unless it’s dirt cheap, I won’t buy, or rent standard definition, it’s hard to go back, to not seeing skin, or hair, after a while you compensate, but it ain’t the same. Also I use reading glasses with my mobile devices, 7″ seems too big, I don’t know why you’d want 10″, many of you, may need glasses close up, I’d like 6″ UD 3D, in 2018 there’ll be 4 billion of them. UD capable mobile chips, cameras, faster and faster RAM, more and more flash memory, $1,200 UD TVs, games consoles, way more capable than UD. By the by, I love 3D, my 3D monitor only cost $ 270, my 3D BD plyr only $100, I had a 3D phone, but HTCs lousy skin, ate the RAM alive, so I changed to G Nex, expect 14 nm, GDDR5, in mobile, Samsungs 13″ Android / Win 8 tablet is only 360p off already. The pixel doubling every year isn’t about to stop anytime soon, it’s all about economies of scale and good content, 1 TB Green Ray, 1 PB/s fiber to the node,1 GB/s 5G, 1 GB/s WiFi ac, 1GB/s power line home networks, UD is going to be ubiquitous.Just to amuse, a PS4 can crunch 2 million, million floating point operations per second ie. 2 T flops/s.

          • weeded

            Wow, you are in a terrible condition, farsighted, tone deaf, and the last part about FPS shows that you are a big liar as well. The human eye can detect single frames at 220 fps, and you are maxed out at 30. Vegetable or liar.

            • Ryan Andes

              Or perhaps the difference is so negligible that I don’t notice it. There have been plenty of studies showing many people don’t see a difference between 30 and 60 fps. I don’t believe for a second that 220 is noticeable. Go troll somewhere else, or at least be polite.

      • Ryan Lounsbury

        I generally didn’t notice the difference on 720p vs. 1080p on LCD vs. Plasma. However, when the LED sets started coming out I could see a major difference in clarity. I suspect the new 4K stuff will really kick it up.

    • Nathan Borup

      4K on a 55″ tv makes sense… but on a 5″ phone? that is overkill. I do understand that it would be nice to have a device that can push 4K to a tv, but we really don’t need the device screen to be over 1080p

      • APai

        frankly 720p is plenty for a 5inch phone. I’d much rather have 720p and have double the battery life + use all the power of the gpu to have double the refresh rate to 60fps, etc, than have 1080p and struggle to make the phone last all day.

        • Barry J

          But phones are exceeding 5 inches, the market is now Asia where the demand for bigger phones is now creeping into 6 inch territory. 720p will not be enough as evidenced on the Mega 6.3 and Ascend Mate, especially those with vision greater than 20/20, 1080p should be the max out resolution for anything from 5.3-8 inch devices.

          • Nathan Borup

            phones bigger than 5 inches cannot legitimately be called phones… anything bigger than 5 inches it too big for my pocket anyway

            • David RT

              Ow you dirty dog…I see that lol

          • Nathan Borup

            i will admit that my nexus 10 resolution is awesome, but sometimes i wish the gpu could push those pixels a little bit better

            • stucrmnx120fshwf

              Like the iPad 3 the graphics weren’t good enough for the screen, by iPad 4 the graphics were good enough, exynos 5 dual is too weak, exynos 5 octo, or Snapdragon 800, or Tegra 4 needed.

          • APai

            6.3 is still a niche, less than 10% of the market, imho.
            the category you are speaking about is a sub-niche of people wanting large phones, but for less.

            • stucrmnx120fshwf

              I love my Nexus 7, but it’s an inch too big and the bezel is way too big, repeat, reading glasses, then you can see in 3D UD.

    • CiMO

      1080p on a phone, 2k on a tablet should be more than enough. On the other hand I would love an 80″ TV with 4k or even 8k. Yet, we will have to wait years before cable channels upgrade to UltraHD to fully enjoy it. Also, we will need some sort of “Dark or Navy blu-ray” to go with it.

      • Rockwell mellow

        I think 720 p on a phone and 1080 on a tablet I more than enough…

        • weeder

          Get reading glasses, why should the farsighted people decide what’s enough, when it’s already proven that people below 30 and nearsighted people can tell the difference between 500 and 600 ppi? Overkill would be to have the rest of us conform to your shortcomings.

          Maybe you are impotent and therefore think sex is waste of time for everyone else also?

          • Rockwell mellow

            What the… All i was doing was giving my opinion never do i say anything about what others should do, if you want a 1080 p phone get one. And your comparison to sex is rediculous…

      • Quark Gluon

        2K is basically a little wider Full HD. They have the same vertical resolution of 1080 px.

      • stucrmnx120fshwf

        That’s 1TB Green Ray and you guys need reading glasses, I want 6″ 3D UD.

    • Keith Jack

      4K actually gets the name from having 4096 (4K) samples horizontally. With 4K and the upcoming 8K, the horizontal value instead of the vertical value is used for the naming convention. The CE industry decided to adopt their resolution (3840 x 2160) instead of the ones used for Digital Cinema, but still call it 4K.

      • stucrmnx120fshwf

        Good to know, I always thought using the lower figure, was really dumb.

    • mjolnirxz

      I think 4k would be used for 3D without glasses on mobile. Or else there is very little reason to switch

    • catslap

      1st world problem, my phone isn’t 4k resolution

      • stucrmnx120fshwf

        In 2018, it’ll very much be an emerging economies ‘problem’, remember your economies, are now worth more than the developed worlds economies, your success and their failure, means you’ll have to deal with these ‘problems’, more than they will.

    • Rockwell mellow

      I don’t think we have enough indium for this…

      • stucrmnx120fshwf


    • Steve

      It is absurd that they want to change the naming convetion from vertical 360p, 480p, 720p, 1080p to horizontal: 4K Sure sounds like marketing-weasals in charge, sort of like when AMD tried to change from GHz to something they made up…

      • Quark Gluon

        I agree. It should stick to UHD instead.

    • Keith Jack

      4K can also convey more accurate color due to larger color range and more accurate color processing. This is what has many people excited. There is also a push to broadcast it using 10 bits per sample instead of 8 bits.

    • spade

      i still haven’t noticed any difference between 720p(4.6″ my own phone) with 1080p(5″ phone of my friend), 4K display on smartphone? OVERKILL!!

      • weeder

        Get reading glasses, why should the farsighted people decide what’s enough, when it’s already proven that people below 30 and nearsighted people can tell the difference between 500 and 600 ppi? Overkill would be to let the rest of us conform to your shortcomings.

        Maybe you are impotent and therefore think sex is waste of time for everyone else also?

        • spade

          4K display smartphones will be made for u, just be patient.