Ever since moving to 1080p HD displays, the TV industry has been struggling to find its next great sales pitch. Picture quality hasn't improved dramatically, OLED TVs remain mostly a mirage, and the repeated attempts to make consumers care about obvious gimmicks like 3D have fallen flat. In the absence of a real advantage to distinguish the latest TV model from the trusty high-def screen you might have bought a few years back, companies have had to enter a debilitating price war. But now there's hope.
Sony, Toshiba and LG all turned up to this year's IFA convention with a new weapon in hand: 84-inch 4K TVs. The "4K" refers to the increased resolution, which, at 3840 x 2160, is four times that of 1080p. In Toshiba's parlance, that makes these new TVs Quad Full HD, in LG's language, they're Ultra-Definition, and to Sony they're just the XBR-84X900, but whatever you call them, they're a reason to be excited for the future.
The simplest way to think of an 84-inch 4K TV is to imagine four 42-inch 1080p panels aligned in a square formation
Not the immediate future, perhaps, as 4K video content is still a rare commodity, but there's certainly cause for optimism once the entertainment industry gets on board. 4K resolution allows people to finally consider truly large-screen TVs as a somewhat rational purchasing decision. Whereas previous efforts in the 60-inch-plus range have been attractive from a distance but pixelated up close, a nice 4K display will let you get right up next to the image without sacrificing its clarity.
The simplest way to think of an 84-inch 4K TV is to imagine four 42-inch 1080p panels aligned in a square formation — you get the same pixel density, only without the annoying bezels getting in your way. In the time I spent eyeing all three of the new 84-inch TVs here at IFA, I was seriously impressed by the sheer amount of detail on show. At that scale and resolution, there's so much information before your eyes that you could have a different experience watching the same video depending on where you choose to look. It's as stunning an experience as the first time you see a gigapixel photo.
As with any incoming new technology worth owning, first-adopter pricing for these super-large 4K TVs is prohibitive, being led by LG's eye-watering $22,000 price for the 84LM9600 (which has sold roughly 50 units in Korea so far). Nonetheless, the move to lowering the cost barrier has already begun, with LG itself promising to slash at least a couple of thousand dollars off the price before taking its 84-inch behemoth to the US and Europe. Sony and Toshiba's competitive instincts should also ensure there's a healthy bit of price competition going forward.
If this isn't the future of TV, then TV has no future
The other big hurdle to widespread adoption, the scarcity of compatible content, looks sure to be resolved over time as well. Sony has long been a proponent of higher resolution with its 4K cameras and projectors, while Hollywood studios have also taken to mastering content in 4K over the past few years. Once the delivery mechanism has been figured out — and where there's profit to be made, these things do get figured out — there will be material for people to enjoy.
It's difficult to witness one of these 84-inch 4K TVs in person and not think that that's where the next great leap in home entertainment will be happening. They may look outlandish and present logistical nightmares, but these large-panel displays are the closest thing to realizing the long-held dream of a home cinema I've yet seen. If this isn't the future of TV, then TV has no future.