CES 2015: The mainstreaming of 4K TVs

January 6, 2015, 12:00 PM UTC
Inside The 2015 Consumer Electronics Show
Members of the media photograph the Samsung Electronics Co. SUHD 4K television during the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Monday, Jan. 5, 2015. This year's CES will be packed with a wide array of gadgets such as drones,connected cars, a range of smart home technology designed to make everyday life more convenient and quantum dot televisions, which promise better color and lower electricity use in giant screens. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Patrick T. Fallon — Bloomberg via Getty Images

There are a lot of next big things in the television industry. In 2010, it was 3D, which promptly flopped.

Two years later, the talk began to focus on 4K/ Ultra High Definition (UHD) sets – and it quickly began to look like history was about to repeat itself.

But a funny thing happened in 2014. 4K/UHD began to carve a foothold. And now experts say the technology may, in fact, live up to the hype.

“4K is the emerging standard for TVs,” says Paul O’Donovan, principal analyst of consumer electronics at Gartner. “I think it will take some years for the annual number of 4K TVs manufactured to outnumber the total of full HD models, but I would expect that to happen within the next 7 to 10 years.”

SandlerResearch agrees, estimating 4K sets will have an annual growth rate of 106.84 percent through 2018.

Bill Lee, vice president of television product marketing at Samsung, says the television industry shipped 800,000 4K/UHD sets last year – and Samsung expects to see a four-fold increase to that number in 2015.

The sets, which boast four times the visual resolution of today’s high definition sets, certainly boast an incredible image. The problem up until now, though, was the high cost (with a whopping $7,851 price point in 2012) and the lack of 4K content for people willing to spend that amount.

Both of those problems began to resolve themselves last year. And the trend looks to continue in 2015.

Vizio launched its P-series of 4K sets in September for under $1,000, bringing the sets much closer to the flat-panel average of $450. Competitors quickly cut the prices of their own sets– and at this year’s CES, many manufacturers are expected to introduce lower-cost versions of their own 4K sets alongside their new premium models.

Watch more about this year’s CES from Fortune:

Meanwhile, Netflix (NFLX) and Amazon (AMZN) began streaming 4K content to customers, with Netflix offering ultra high definition versions of hits like “House of Cards” and “Breaking Bad” and Amazon adding 4K streaming to its Amazon Instant Video service, including films like “Godzilla” and “American Hustle.”

Comcast, meanwhile, has partnered with Samsung (SSNLF) to delivery 4K content to its sets – and plans to expand the offering to all 4K sets in the coming months.

The increasing success of 4K/UHD sets may be tied, ironically, to a device that’s better known for drawing people’s attentions away from their TVs – the smartphone.

“Mobile phone cameras have higher resolution capability than … full HD TVs,” says O’Donovan. “Nobody would go out today and by a 2 megapixel camera, yet that is the highest resolution available in current full HD TVs. It’s like when we moved from standard definition TVs to HD TVs, lots of folks said ‘who needs HD?’ Well we wouldn’t go back to SD now, and so we will move on from HD to UHD, because it is a natural progression if only to keep up with the resolution of cameras in our phones.”

Meanwhile, 4K/UHD TV manufacturers and content creators, including Disney (DIS) and Netflix, have established a new coalition called the UHD Alliance that plans to set standards for 4K content and delivery.

“This is a game changer – most importantly, for consumers,” said H.S. Kim, executive vice president of Samsung’s displays business, in announcing the alliance.

In real world terms, that could mean better looking 4K/UHD content – which could, in turn, lure more consumers to the technology. It could also be an opportunity for satellite companies to increase subscribers, notes O’Donovan, since they’re less constricted by bandwidth availability. (Dish Network seems ready to capitalize on this, announcing at CES a 4K set-top box that will become available later this year.)

“The industry is rallying behind UHD,” says Samsung’s Lee. “I think now is the time, more than ever, to make sure the quality of UHD is refined.”