In a market increasingly saturated with high-definition displays, display makers are pinning their hopes on 4K or ultra-high-definition (UHD) technology to achieve differentiation and entice consumers into buying new devices that deliver sharper images.
Featuring 3840 x 2160-pixel resolution, UHD—also known as UHD-1—is among the two standards for higher-resolution viewing that extend the current 1920 x 1080 pixel format of 2K full high-definition (FHD). The other standard, known as UHD-2 or 8K, increases resolution even further, to 7680 x 4320 pixels.
While 8K for all practical purposes remains out of reach at the moment, UHD is expected to make significant inroads. Approximately 50.6 million UHD-equipped units including TVs, mobile phones, mobile PCs, desktop monitors and public displays are expected to ship this year, up from 20.7 million last year, 3.1 million in 2013 and just 100,000 in 2012, the starting year for the UHD market. By 2021, shipments will soar to 346.3 million units.
UHD’s most prominent application is in TVs, a mature market where brands and display makers alike hope to win new customers. While 3-D failed to take off and organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology has stalled, the market is betting that UHD will capture the imagination of the public—clearly enamored of big-screen TVs and sharply detailed images—in a way that previous gambits have not been able to do.
Taiwanese LCD TV makers helped spur the UHD market. In 2013, the Taiwanese swiftly adopted UHD for flat-panel TVs in order to compete with the leading LCD TV producers in South Korea. As a result, the Taiwanese claimed 90 percent of the UHD market that year. In response, Korean makers including Samsung and LG fought back in 2014 with a new focus on UHD, reclaiming some of the market they had lost. The global market then took notice, responding with heightened UHD TV production.
The 4K market is not without its challenges. With 4K content requiring much greater bandwidth than regular 1080p, a way has yet to be found to distribute content more cheaply and efficiently. There is evidence, however, that consumers will invest in higher-resolution content: the wildly successful transition from 540p standard definition to 1080p high definition is proof, with both hardware and content ecosystems attaining strong positions by 2013.
Aside from TVs, UHD is also projected to find its way to smartphones, the second largest market for the standard. UHD will even be present in digital signage applications as LED-based boards achieve 4K resolutions.
Yoonsung Chung is director, analysis & research, IHS Technology