CES 2013: 4K is the way forward in TV

High definition is shaping up to be a thing of the past. Say hello to 4K television, also known as UHDTV or ultra high definition television (both UHD and 4K are acceptable and interchangeable terms). At 3,840 x 2,160 pixels, 4K screens have four times the resolution of 1080p HDTVs, and at CES, every HDTV manufacturer showed that they're working on 4K/UHD screens.

I looked at 4K HDTVs from everyone from Sony to Vizio, and while we're months from getting our hands on these babies to test them, I can say that the screens do indeed look sharp. While the 4K screens on display were mostly larger than all but the biggest 1080p HDTVs on the market, the difference between the two types was comparable to the difference between the iPad 2 and an iPad with Retina display. Sony's booth showed newspapers on a 4K and a 1080p screen, and the tiny text was not only legible but crisp on the 4K screen.

Sony and LG stand at the forefront of UHD, with screens closest to the market. Both companies have been offering UHDTVs for several months, albeit with special orders at very high price tags. Sony's 84in 4K HDTV costs £25,000, and comes with a media server filled with ten UHD movies. This is important, because there isn't a standard UHD media yet; everything shown on the multiple UHDTVs at CES was either upscaled or streamed from a computer with special 4K content. LG's 84in UHDTV is a little cheaper at £23,000, but could still be described as a wee bit on the pricey side.

The media issue is something several companies are trying to work out. Samsung had several UHDTVs on display at its booth, including one that demonstrated 4K content streamed over Netflix. This content is very bandwidth-intensive, but between Netflix working on the technology and YouTube offering limited 4K media, digital distribution of such massive video could be the main method of accessing it.

My tour of Vizio's showroom showed similar possibilities. The representative demonstrated 4K footage played from a local media server, but he noted that compression techniques are being developed to help ease the pressure on Internet connections streaming ultra high definition video.

Sharp showed off two different UHD technologies at its booth. Its ICC-Purios 4K screens are the first to receive THX 4K Certification, and its Moth Eye 4K screens use a special screen treatment to combine the best effects of glossy and matt screen finishes. They're separate screens, and according to the representative who showed me around the booth they’ll be available by the summer. Sharp also demonstrated an 8K panel that boasts fifteen times the resolution of 1080p, but it had already showed off that screen at the last CES. 8K is even more experimental than 4K.

Panasonic unveiled its first 4K and OLED screen at the CES keynote. This screen is notable for being both 4K and OLED, and also for being made by "printing" the colour elements directly on the panel. The screen on display was just a prototype, and while it looked pretty, it won't be coming to stores in the next year.

For the "world's largest UHDTV" category, Hisense and TCL stole the show from bigger names. Both companies claimed they had the world's largest 4K HDTVs, and at 110in each, they were both right. TCL noted that its 4K HDTV will be featured in Iron Man 3.

UHD is coming, and you can get a UHDTV within the next few months if you're willing to drop five digits to do so. The technology is shaping up to be a remarkable upgrade, but it still needs to sort out content distribution before it can be ready for consumers. UHDTV's condition is very similar to that of HDTV in the early days, when there were few sources, little consistency, and high prices. UHDTVs might seem like an absurd luxury which is only for early adopters now, but expect to see a 4K screen in your home within three to five years.