The Problem with 4K is the Same Problem with HD

If we can’t do HD right, what makes us think we can even come close to doing 4K right?

Commentary By Michael Silbergleid

There are two issues that have plagued HD since its inception as a distribution format. They are both still problematic today. And if 4K is four times the resolution of HD, with those problems also multiple by four?

First problem: The Postage Stamp

You know what I’m talking about, 16×9 video (usually a commercial) playing in HD, but with black borders at the top, bottom, and sides. It’s 16×9, but looks like a postage stamp in an HD display. How does this happen. Consider a letterboxed 4×3 commercial upscaled to HD’s 16×9.

Today, I see this most often on WGN’s HD feed. Sixteen years after I edited the first edition of “The Guide to Digital Television,” we still have postage stamps. These will look fantastic on 4K HDTVs and even better when placed in 4K video.

Second problem: Compression

Specifically, broadcast/distribution compression. MPEG-2, while it made broadcasting HD possible, also makes some people cringe. The fade to black, fast action scenes, complex scenes. Maybe we’ve all become accustomed to macroblocking, but it looks like crap. 4K distribution won’t use MPEG-2 (shudder to think). But consider the following rough estimates: AVC is twice as efficient as MPEG-2. HEVC is twice as efficient as AVC. Therefore HEVC is four times as efficient as MPEG-2. That’s great because 4K is four times the resolution of HD. Both the data and the compression efficiency are quadrupled. Does that mean that what looks like crap after today’s HD/MPEG-2 compression will still look like crap in tomorrow’s 4K/HEVC compression?

And don’t forget, the greater resolution of 4K production and displays will be better at showing every little imperfection (just ask any news anchor that went through the SD to HD transition).

While I understand the driving force behind 4K from the consumer electronics side and from the professional equipment manufacturers’ side, we might want to consider getting HD right before quadrupling our problems.

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