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

We are sure you've heard of 4K (UltraHD) before, but what exactly is it and how will it affect consumer devices in the future? Read on to learn more!
June 21, 2013

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?