Resolution Revolution: 4K TV Sales Expected to Soar

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Chances are, you are not one of the 1.9 million people who bought a 4K TV in 2013. This cutting-edge consumer technology has yet to reach most people's living rooms — largely due to high prices and a dearth of native content. But according to market research company NPD, the 4K revolution is just a few years away.

The name 4K refers to a resolution of roughly 4000 pixels across. The standard 4K resolution for movies is 4096 x 2160 pixels, far higher than the HD standards of 1280 x 720 and 1920 x 1080 pixels. In home products, however, what many call "4K" actually has a slightly lower resolution of  3840 x 2160 pixels, technically known as Ultra HD.

MORE: What is a 4K TV?

To get the full benefit of a 4K or Ultra HD screen, you'll need to watch something on it that was also filmed in 4K. Right now, there aren't many options. YouTube hosts some 4K content already, and some limited download and streaming services are available. Both Netflix and Amazon Studios have announced plans to film some or all of their upcoming original content using 4K cameras, and Netflix has announced plans to stream in 4K sometime in 2014. (Amazon has not yet revealed its 4K streaming plans.) 

The new video game consoles — Sony's PlayStation 4 and Microsoft's Xbox One — do not support 4K games, though Sony says the format is "under consideration." Microsoft says the Xbox One will eventually support 4K via a software upgrade.

Commercially available 4K/Ultra HD TVs are currently very expensive — Sony's 55-inch Ultra-HD screen costs $4,999.99. However, NPD says that the price is projected to drop rapidly while the amount of content increases. The average price of a 4K TV will drop to about $2,000 in North America in 2014, and will fall to as low as the equivalent of $1,000 in China, according to NDP, which didn't specify screen size for these price estimates.

That kind of pricing makes 4K/Ultra HD TVs a much more compelling deal than they currently are. Exorbitant price aside, given the general lack of 4K content, the clearest benefits of a 4K TV are the way it scales up lower-resolution video and interpolates extra detail.

NPD predicts that by the end of 2013, the number of commercial 4K TVs shipped globally that year will be approximately 1.9 million. In 2014, the number is expected to skyrocket to 12.7 million that year. Shipments doesn't necessarily equal sales, but it is a good indication of the demand that both analysts and manufacturers predict in the coming year.

Panel makers have an even more optimistic estimate, planning to manufacture almost 27 million 4K screens in 2014, according to Paul Gagnon, NDP's director for global TV research.

Who is buying all these 4K TVs? Most buyers are in China; the country accounts for 87 percent of 4K TV purchases in 2013. NPD predicts that by 2014, sales in China will make up 78 percent as other countries start buying as well, but through 2016, China is expected to buy more 4K TVs than the rest of the world combined.

Meanwhile, plasma TVs and CRT-TVs (those old tube TVs — yes, they still exist) are on the decline and are expected to disappear entirely from the market by 2016. LCD TV shipments are projected to grow steadily through 2017, and will dominate the majority of TV sales. Overall, total TV shipments are expected to grow by about 1 percent in 2014, to a total of 229 million units worldwide.

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