The Coming 1K/2K to 4K Upconversion Disconnect

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A couple of months back I received a distressed email from a reader. It seems he bought a new 4K TV and eagerly hooked up his DVD player, believing his new UHD would make his old DVDs look lovely.

You can guess the inevitable: disastrous results. Imagine blowing up a postage stamp-sized photo to billboard size. Well, maybe not that extreme, but you get the idea. Then, I had to be the bearer of the bad upscaling news that 4K UHDs have to upconvert all content that isn’t natively 4K, and sometimes the results aren’t good.

Just as in the old days when newspapers were king and one handwritten letter to the editor was thought to equal hundreds, if not thousands, of other similar but unexpressed opinions, this seemingly lonely lamentation could augur the coming of a creepingly relevant issue that 4K TV makers have yet to address. But they may soon have to.

As growing sales of 4K TVs begin to seep beyond early adopters to the wider market, upconverting complaints are sure to become more common. After all, according to the U.S-based Consumer Technology Association (CTA), DVD players can still be found in 83% of U.S. homes—around 96 million abodes—as opposed to more 4K-friendly Blu-ray, which has only reached 35% of households. DVD and Blu-ray penetration rates in other developed countries which sell 4K TVs are likely similar.

UHD TV-buying DVD player owners have likely collected substantial numbers of favorite discs, and they are about to have their 4K expectations exasperatingly dashed just as surely as my incensed correspondent. That’s because consumers aren’t getting much warning or advice about upconverting consequences.

4K TV reviewers expound primarily on the advanced picture characteristics from varying 4K and 1080p sources. They give only token attention—if any—to discussing the quality of upconverted material folks watch nearly hundred percent of the time: 480p, 720p and 1080i DVD, streaming and cable fare. (Let’s not even discuss what VHS tape viewed on a 4K TV would look like. Yikes!)

Also, mostly unsaid and unexplained in the popular media is the wide variety of upscaling video processing techniques. As much art as science, these techniques produce a range of results that differ widely not only from manufacturer to manufacturer, but model to model. As long as buyers stick to 55-inch 4K sets, upconverting issues may be minimized. But as 4K TV prices continue to drop, more consumers will opt for larger size UHD TVs, which obviously will magnify upconverting failings.

And retail sales folks are unlikely to raise any issues that might compromise a purchase, even if they understood the upconverting technical issues. There is every likelihood that a buyer of a 65-inch or larger UHD will not only not see picture quality improvement on CNN or ESPN or HBO or CBS, but a degradation compared to their previous 2K TV. And to whom will the customer complain? From whom they bought the 4K TV set, naturally.

Until anything below a native 2K programming no longer exists in households, 4K TV makers are going to encounter a multiplying number of unhappy DVD-playing 4K TV customers. After conversations with some 4K TV makers, I’ve concluded that that my correspondent is unlikely to have a solution to his DVD problem any time soon. These are encounters for which I don’t believe marketers or retailers are prepared.

To minimize post-purchase gripes, TV makers need to devote more resources to improving and including more efficient 1K and 2K to 4K upscaling. And, at the same time, TV retailers need to better prepare their customers. Instead of a drawback, perhaps marketers and sales people can eventually promote a set’s improved upscaling capabilities as a competitive benefit, rather than avoiding the topic and awaiting the inevitable onslaught of consumer complaints.

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