You don’t have to be a tech obsessive to know that as soon as you’ve bought a piece of hardware, it’s already on its way to becoming outmoded. We may have only recently got used to 1080p as the state of the art when it comes to image quality, but anyone who’s watched TV, browsed the internet or opened a magazine recently can’t have missed the reminders that we’re behind the times. “Four times the detail of Full HD” is Sony’s simple but undeniably effective tagline for its new Ultra-HD TV sets – why put up with just two million pixels when you can have over eight million?
A fairly good reason why – at least for the time being – is the cost. Even low-cost 4K sets cost well north of £1000, and you’re looking at a five-figure sum for top-of-the-range displays. And in truth, you’ll struggle to notice a great deal of difference from the distance most people sit from their tellies. It’s only when sitting fairly close that your average punter will notice the improvements.
But the world of technology moves fast, and you only need to look at the diminishing cost of 4K PC monitors to see where we’re headed. Just last year, for example, Asus launched a 32-inch 4K display for a staggering £3000. The PQ321Q may have been an excellent piece of kit, but its price tag put it well out of the range of all but the most affluent gaming enthusiasts. One year on, the same manufacturer has released a 28-inch display for a comparatively bargainous £650. The quality might not quite match that of the earlier model, but this kind of price puts it within the range of many more players. Even so, many will still view a 4K display as a luxury item, but with prices falling this quickly, adoption will quickly increase, encouraging more and more companies to enter the fray. And as we all know, competition among manufacturers means better prices for consumers.
GPU giant Nvidia gave us all a tantalising glimpse of the future on its booth at January’s Consumer Entertainments Show, running Slightly Mad Studios’ forthcoming Project Cars on three 4K Ultra HD monitors positioned side by side. The results were stunning, but the display was only half of the equation. To push all those pixels, it needed a monster rig built by Origin PC, containing 64GB of RAM and no fewer than four GeForce Titan graphics cards.
"With prices falling this quickly, adoption will quickly increase, encouraging more and more companies to enter the fray"
To accommodate 4K gaming, in other words, you’re not just looking at shelling out for a display, but for a PC capable of running games at a reasonable frame-rate. Currently, for most players, it’s a trade-off between visual quality and performance. Few even high-end setups will be able to produce a 4K image at a consistent 60 frames per second. That said, most 4K displays should be able to upscale lower-resolution images, allowing for a compromise for those whose pockets aren’t quite deep enough to cover a top-of-the-line rig and a 4K display. The same will apply to TV sets, meaning that console owners will be able to see their games upscaled to Ultra HD. However, native 4K gaming on console hardware may be another generation away. Both Xbox One and PlayStation 4 feature HDMI 1.4 output, which would mean a maximum of 30HZ for 4K gaming. As Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida admitted: “The PS4 supports 4K output, but only for photos and videos; not games. PS4 games do not work on 4K.”
And yet its multimedia capabilities may be one of the reasons why 4K takes off sooner than many are predicting. Sure, while Blu-Ray discs are ‘only’ 1080p, and while 4K downloads will be enormous – even on new generation consoles, you’d struggle to fit more than four movies on PS4 or Xbox One - the rising popularity of streaming services like Netflix is a crucial factor to consider. Around three months ago, the on-demand service began streaming Ultra HD content, including nature documentaries and the popular drama series House of Cards. Again, however, the hardware required to take advantage of this is comfortably out of the range of the mass market. Even early adopters of 4K displays were left disappointed, as the decoder required for 4K streaming is only present in more recent models, while only those with consistent broadband speeds of around 15MB per second would be able to stream Netflix content.
An interesting aside to this is the battle between Nvidia and AMD, and the role they could play in the future of 4K gaming. The latter’s FreeSync tech varies the refresh rate on the GPU, while Nvidia’s alternative, G-Sync, is said to eliminate screen tearing. Whichever approach proves favourable to gaming enthusiasts could go a long way to determining the tech used in future 4K hardware.
"The allure of such pin-sharp imagery makes it difficult to return to 1080p"
Either way, as the tech becomes more prevalent, the harder it’s going to be to resist. Already YouTube and Vimeo are supporting uploads at 4K resolution, and it’s becoming more commonly used for digital cinema and video recording. Again, in each of these fields, the high price of investment means it’s the exception rather than the norm, but the allure of such pin-sharp imagery makes it difficult to return to 1080p once you’ve seen the future – or at least not to notice the decrease in pixel density when you do go back. Think of the first time you clapped eyes on a retina display: a high dot-per-inch (DPI) screen gives everything – games, apps, video, photos - a startling clarity. On larger monitors and TV sets, the effect is multiplied, especially for native 4K images, whether static or in motion.
4K may be the tech of two to three years hence rather than the present, and perhaps that’s part of what makes it so enticing. It’s a tantalising glimpse of what’s to come. The future is within touching distance, in other words, and it’s sharper and more beautiful than ever.