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I Go to See 4K TV — Again!

The high-definition TV revolution resulted in tens and tens of millions of you buying new sets. As advertised, they delivered often superb widescreen pictures, assuming you fed it HD content. That was a good thing, for customers at any rate. But for manufacturers, it meant that these customers were off the market for five to ten years, unless they perhaps needed more sets for other rooms.

Once that market became saturated, TV makers needed a second or third act to move product, but what could they do? Well, the James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster film, “Avatar,” made 3D, an essentially dead technology, relevant again. With the great success of the film, TV makers trotted out their own 3D variations, and tried hard to convince you to buy the more expensive and higher-profit gear.

3D came in two versions. One, “passive,” used the same polarized glasses as the 3D system at your local movieplex, and hence extra glasses were really cheap. The second technology, “active,” put decoding circuitry in the glasses, making them very expensive and sometimes a little on the heavy side. Either way, however, you had to use the glasses and put up with diminished picture quality, dimmer and not as sharp. The novelty quickly wore off.

These days, manufacturers are cutting back on 3D models. Even though the prices have dropped to the point where the additional technology is only slightly more expensive than regular sets, customers aren’t lining up to buy them. Although major movies that were filmed — or modified — in 3D format are available in Blu-ray 3D, it doesn’t seem customers are willing to pay $10 or more extra to buy them. So the technology has become essentially stillborn, and it’s certainly not increasing TV sales.

The latest technology scheme is 4K, also known as Ultra HD, which means four times as many pixels on the screen; twice as many horizontally, twice as many vertically. In theory, this means a much sharper picture, assuming you have the source material to go with it — and don’t sit too far from the set. The new models also do upscaling, so traditional high definition fare, up to 1080p in resolution, theoretically looks noticeably better. For the most part, the new sets are much more expensive, and thus offer the opportunity for much higher profits in an industry where profits are traditionally slim because of cutthroat competition.

The TV industry is making huge bets on 4K. Netflix has announced plans to stream 4K content, although the actual advantage in picture quality is debatable. There is no 4K Blu-ray format yet, but there will be, and perhaps TV networks will jump into the fray, assuming the cable and satellite companies have the bandwidth, and modified set-top boxes can decode the high resolution broadcasts.

So if you go to your favorite consumer electronics store, you’ll find a few 4K sets with such brand names as Samsung and Sony. Some months back I even had a brief chance to look at a first-generation Samsung 4K set, with a 55-inch display, at a local Sam’s Club. But all it was doing was looping some still photos. Everything was sharp all right, too sharp, almost artificial. I wasn’t pleased.

But this week, having a little time on my hands, I journeyed into a nearby Best Buy store to give it another go. I got a chance to spend some face time with two sets, one from Sony, the other from Samsung. The screen size of both was 65 inches, a sweet spot for 4K. The Samsung had a curved display, which seems to favor a limited viewing angle to get a decent picture. I couldn’t get into it, and thus I concentrated on the Sony that sported a traditional flat panel design.

With a sales person next to me, I stood about eight feet from the set, which was sufficient to actually see the supposed Ultra HD advantage. Again, the demonstration consisted of, first, a set of still pictures, and I could see the inner details of a stone outcropping and plant life in a way that a standard HD set couldn’t resolve. But the difference was at best subtle. A brief clip of a football game also seemed a tad sharper, but nothing I’d care about even if I cared about the ins and outs of the game, which I do not.

Alas, there were no film trailers or clips to see how it delivered the sort of content I’d normally watch on TV, which was unfortunate. But the few minutes I spent essentially confirmed the problem with 4K in the home.

You see, unless you or your family sit real close to a set, you will see little if any difference in picture quality on a set with a screen below 60 inches. Beyond eight for ten feet, the 4K advantage will essentially vanish. Consider the Retina display on your iPhone, iPad, or a MacBook Pro with Retina display. If you’re using them at a normal viewing distance, the quality improvement is amazing. You go farther away, there’s no visible difference at all.

So the larger question is whether customers will understand this distinction, and will buy up those huge sets in abundance, and the answer is probably not. Well, at least until prices come down to reasonable levels, which is below $2,000.

Sure, there are cheap 4K sets, but they generally offer subpar pictures. However, VIZIO, a huge player in the TV market for value-priced sets, announced the affordable “P” series of 4K sets at the CES in January. There is the promise of state-of-the-art picture quality, and when they ship later this year, the 60-inch VIZIO P602ui-B3 will retail for $1,799.99. The 50-inch version is $999.99, although that size is a little too small to feel the full impact of 4K.

Will it take off? Well, VIZIO has offered me the chance to review a “P” series set once they ship, which is expected sometime this fall, so we’ll see how such gear fares in a real world setup. And by the way, the preliminary specs apparently do not mention 3D.