Tuesday, July 15, 2014

To UHD or not to UHD? That is the question...

One of the most frustrating experiences of today in UHD and xK video, whereby x equals 2.5, 4, 5, 6 and 8 (as far as I know) is that there is no content available yet. Not even as a joke. Even if you find some obscure UHD content online, it's not a given that it will play on your brand new UHD TV, if you happen to have bought one. Too early for this. The best proof of this argument is the footage they demo in TV shops to show-off their goodies. All purpose made to play in mysterious ways on the TV set in question. It's the same problem we had with HDTV sets years ago. Even to this day, most, if not all, of the commercial TV programming is broadcasted in 720p. Anything beyond that is likely the result of a lame upscaling... Only Bluray disks and computer video files provisioned via externally attached hard disks or SSDs (via USB) can be used to show-off the entire FHD resolutions!

There's been a myriad articles about why eventually we are all going to the next wave of TV experience, the so-called UHD (Ultra High Definition) being everything above the infamous FHD (aka 1080p). Here's one of the best I read. Just to feel what this is about, consider this. The so called 4K (not the 4K Cinematic... this is even larger) is 3840 pixels across by 2160 pixels vertical. This is exactly four times larger than your regular 1080p FHD TV you are so proud of... It's like you'd stacked four FHD TV monitors in a matrix of 2 by 2! However, the physical size of the UHD monitor itself isn't very much different than what we are used to now with our normal TVs... 40 inches diagonal and up sort of thing. In other words, your regular FHD TV has about 2 million pixels spread over the entire surface of a, say, 42 inch monitor (92.5 cm horizontal by 52.5 cm vertical, that is). However, the equivalent 4K UHD TV of the same diagonal 42 inches will squeeze four times as many pixels over the same surface! It's like you split one of your old pixels to make four new ones!

You may still wonder what all this means in practice. Let me give you an example that I worked out recently. I bought me two pieces of equipment first. A brand new Lumix GH4 camera that can record internally and also output 4K signals at its micro HDMI interface (4.2.2 compressed at 10 bit color subsampling per RGB channel), and a Philips 42PUS7809/12 UHD TV of 42 inches diagonal size. My previous set was a Samsung FHD, which was OK but it's native resolution was simply the good ol' 2 megapixels of the FHD resolution. No way possible to demo the GH4 4K goodies on it. To show anything at a native FHD monitor you first have to down convert the HDMI signal into 1080p, which actually defeats the purpose, right?

Long story short, after some online chatting with a Philips Helpline kid I managed to display a full fledged 4K GH4 Live signal (!!!) via one of the Philips HDMI inputs. The GH4 was looking at my 27" iMac and it's extended second Apple display, at their native resolution of 2560x1440 pixels each. I am saying this because the iMac too isn't able to drive the Philips monitor at 4K either. All it can do is mirror itself and just display 2560 horizontal pixels by 1440 vertical max. In itself this is also UHD, but not the native 4K Philips boasted and I needed to experience. As long as I didn't have a source of genuine 4K to feed the Philips HDMI ports I couldn't possibly see and feel what it was like to own a UHD TV and enjoy genuine UHD content on it. Of course, my iMac was a way to experience resolutions above FHD on the new TV for the first time, even if it was less than the full Monty... I had managed to create a few clips in 4K that I shot with the GH4 and edited in FCP. When I opened them with Quicktime 1:1 on the iMac they extended beyond the visible limits of the monitor. Wow! So, playing them in full screen via mirroring on the Philips TV screen, as I explained earlier, couldn't get to more than the 2560x1440 the Mac could manage. It was 2.5K, not 4K! Apparently only the latest Retina Macbooks, and of course the Mac Pro can manage monitors up to 4K, several of them presumably for the Mac Pro and its stunning 7 something Teraflops! So, unless I upgrade my Mac Hardware there ain't gonna be a way to drive the Philips from my Mac into its native 4K. Tough shit, pardon my French. Maybe a good excuse to own eventually the black marvel...

Anyways, the moment the GH4 was capable of displaying its live view on the Philips monitor I almost fainted. It was the moment I realised what a resolution of 3840 pixels across with 2160 pixels vertical really MEANS!!! This is far too much for aged dudes like myself. This 4K resolution is far too big to be true. Unless you see it with your bare eyes and goggles you won't be able to tell. Words are not enough.

Nevertheless, to taste a thin slice of my experience, take a good look at the shots hereunder (click for larger view).

This first shot above shows the Philips monitor in all its glory, and all 42 inches of it. In front, the Lumix GH4 shooting the other side of the room, connected to the Philips HDMI 3 input (you can see the black cable). In other words, the Philips monitor shows what the GH4 sees. That's mainly two Apple monitors, one is the iMac itself and the second another external Apple display, 27" as well. On the latter, I have opened a PDF document from Philips itself, showing in a table the codecs, frame rates, AV containers, and resolutions supported in all their TVs. Needless to say, nothing above 1080p. Makes you wonder... why sell UHD TVs if you don't even support playback of video files at that resolution... let alone that the Bluray consortium is still struggling with Standards to reach agreement on the support of UHD resolutions on optical disks... no remedy short term from there either. Anyways...

Next point... I referred to the PDF on display on the second monitor for a reason... right? That's because the following shot hereunder shows the actual goodies UHD TVs have to offer. I thus took an extreme closeup shot of the Philips monitor of a few rows of the aforementioned PDF table to show-off the level of detail that is possible thru native UHD. The size of the type in terms of Philips monitor pixels is between 6 and 7 tall (count them if you don't believe me). If you wondered what the 6-30 numbers mean, it's simply the frame rates... irrelevant for the purpose of this discussion. Take a look on the table now... (click for larger view).

Does this make any sense to you? I won't go any further. A picture is worth a thousand words... Literally.

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