Remember when you shopped for your first HDTV and how you struggled to understand those confusing new terms like 720p, 1080i, 1080p and Full HD?
Well, get ready to get confused again.
Now that most of us have finally made the transition to HD, the companies that make the TVs are about to unleash yet another new variation that promises to be better and, you guessed it, more expensive.
Say hello to 4K, or Quad HD, or 4X 1080p -- or maybe another name altogether. That hasn't been fully sorted out yet. What seems certain, however, is the HDTVs of the future will have at least four times the resolution of the one you watch today.
I know what you are thinking. Why do I need more resolution when current generation 1080p sets - currently the highest resolution TVs available in the US - already are razor- sharp? It's a valid question and may not have a good answer in the short term, unless you are big into 3D.
That process reduces the effective resolution on some of today's 3D sets because two sets of images must be produced at virtually the same time (for each eye) and each uses part of the set's resolution. Since the new TVs have four times the resolution, they can, in theory at least, deliver full HD in to each eye.
Some manufacturers, including Toshiba, also are using the new ultra-resolution HDTVs (my term, not theirs) to deliver 3D content without any glasses at all, which sounds good, if it actually works. Early reviews from Europe, where the one Toshiba quad HD set is already available, are not exactly glowing. Those who have seen the sets in person complain of fuzzy backgrounds in 3D mode and problems keeping the picture in focus if the viewer moves more than a few inches. Not what you expect from a $10,000 TV. One would hope they would improve over time.
If you believe the hype, 4K and/or quad HD sets will go sale in the U.S. before Christmas, but take that with a grain of salt. We have heard similar promises for several years now and so far, none have materialized.
The good news for consumers is there won't be a pressing need to buy one of these super-expensive sets in the near future - except having bragging rights. There is no native 4K content yet except in the movie theaters, many of which already use 4K projectors. So you will gain little by buying a 4K set.
It's a little like the early days of 1080p HD sets, also known generically as "full HD." Standard HDTV broadcasts fall short of that mark - then and now, all programming is either 720p or 1080i. So the only native 1080p content was coming from the very early Blu-ray and (now obsolete) HD-DVD players, which almost no one had. Higher resolution HDTVs will upconvert content that was produced at a lower resolution, but it's done through some electronic trickery so the resulting image is not as sharp as native 1080p content.
Even when 4K content does become widely available and affordable, there may not be much reason to upgrade because the improvement in resolution will likely be unnoticeable on all but largest HDTVs. Again, think of the difference between today's 720p and 1080p sets. It's often hard to tell the difference on screens smaller than 50 inches.
Of course, I am writing this in an era when few homes have sets bigger than 60 inches. You may have noticed ever-larger sets making their way into your friendly neighborhood electronics store, at ever- lower prices. Sets with diagonal measurements of 70 and 80 inches are commonplace now in the big box stores. Some even have the mammoth new 90-inch sets that Sharp began selling in June. (Only $11,000!) A 100-inch model can't be far behind. (Larger ones have already been produced, but not for the broad home market.)
When lots more folks have one of these giant screen TVs in their homes, perhaps 4K will make more sense. That may seem crazy given the stratospheric prices, but recall the first 50-inch plasma HDTVs once cost somewhere around $10,000 and now sell for as little as $500.
Be aware that moving this new 4K format will eventually involve replacing more than your TV. You will probably need a new 4K or Quad HD-capable Blu-ray player too (as it was with the introduction of 3D) and probably a new audio receiver if you use one in your home theater setup.
As for regular broadcast and cable TV, don't expect any native 4K content anytime soon. Changing TV standards can take decades, given the bureaucracy and costs involved. And since 4K won't bring that much to the party in terms of improved picture quality, there won't likely be much of a demand for it in the near future.
Tony Briggs has been writing about technology issues in the Daytona Beach area for more than 20 years.