Are 4K Displays Worth It?

Posted on: April 11, 2016

4K displays have gone mainstream because they do 1080p so well. Most notably, 4K displays offer great opportunities in visual clarity, but place equal challenges on the ecosystem surrounding them – from content production, through playback/rendering, to actually getting the 4K signal to displays.

Today, retailers, corporations, educational / health institutions, and transportation hub operators looking to deploy a signage network are all interested in the 4K opportunity but as many know (or find out), there is more to “4K” than pixel counts on a display. One needs to generate and distribute 4K content – preferably at 60 frames/second and high color depth through compatible signal distribution & cabling to (of course) a display that is optimized for or at least supports the format. Getting THAT to happen can sometimes be more complicated than it appears:

Connectivity – display manufacturers already offer 4K displays but most still rely on HDMI 1.4 to receive 4K at 30 frames per second (“2160p/30” or “4K/30”). This taxes motion, especially in larger displays and video walls showing fast, moving content.

Distribution and extension of 4K/60fps is still in its infancy. Commercially viable signal distribution is finally catching up and is in many ways still limited to 30Hz and 4:2:0 color encoding, further challenging early adopters. Recent and upcoming IP and point-to-point offerings are finally catching up but rely on modern network & cabling infrastructure.

Content – perhaps the greatest challenge which causes many 4K installations to never see 4K content is worth elaborating on:

  • HD broadcasting systems are limited to 1080i (half the row count of 1080p). As a result, even though 4K, 6K (and soon 8K) cameras become available the production tools, editing software, and hardware don’t support 4K or at best support 4K/30. Additionally, most set top boxes in viewers’ homes can only support 1080i or 1080p which can be costly to replace.
  • Uncompressed 4K occupies roughly four times the storage. A suitable end-to-end 4K production pipeline requires greater resources and might produce content more slowly, thus increasing costs.
  • New Codecs optimized for 4K are CPU intensive and thus may not be compatible with older playback hardware.

At this point some readers might be thinking “If this is so difficult, why bother? Are there any benefits to using 4K in digital signage?” The short answer is most definitely yes and here’s why:

  • Enhanced resolution –  4K makes it easy to display and examine fine content on these large displays, making reviewing documents, drawings and other “fine print” in collaborative or teaching environments a reality.
  • Smaller A/V “footprint” – as signal distribution and extension options become available, a single cable can replace what previously required four (4) cables. This can significantly reduce cabling and signal distribution costs for large video walls, “clean up” equipment racks and speed up installation. Couple that with reduction in the number of “appliance” type players needed to drive video walls (1 player can drive a 2x2x1080p display array), the resulting smaller racks and lower power consumption and voila! – things start looking up for those deploying high resolution video walls.
  • Lower bandwidth requirement – codecs optimized for 4K can reduce file sizes by 60% (compared with 4x1080p encoded in H.264), which in turn reduces the bandwidth needed to distribute those files – a major benefit for digital signage networks with multiple high-resolution video walls.

And this is just a few of the benefits of opting for a 4K digital signage solution, there are many more.  Tell us about your challenges and benefits to implementing 4K in the Digital Signage space below!

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