At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, the tech press oohed and ahhed at the beautiful 4K displays (those with about four times the resolution of a 1080p HDTV) from Sony, LG, and Samsung, then gulped when we saw the $20,000-plus prices. It's a familiar story in the world of technology—an interesting product category gets introduced in the pricing stratosphere, but if you give it a few years, costs come down to where mere mortals live. So imagine my surprise when the relatively unknown Chinese brand Seiki announced a 50-inch 4K set at one-tenth the proposed costs of the big-brand sets, available today, and invited me to come see it for myself.
It looks pretty darned good. Seiki representatives showed me 3840 x
2160–resolution footage piped from a media server through an HDMI 1.4
cable (which is necessary for resolutions over 1080p, and included with
the set). I saw overhead footage of Tokyo with tiny cars and pedestrians
clearly identifiable, an animated short film with remarkable detail
("shows you what high-resolution gaming could look like," said Frank
Kendzora, Seiki's executive vice president for the U.S. market). I also
saw a clip from a 1080p Blu-ray copy of The Dark Knight Rises
upscaled to 4K. All of them looked remarkable, though the color
saturation of skin tones in the Batman flick was a little on the rosy
I had to ask the obvious question: Why is it you can sell a 4K set so
cheaply so soon? The answer I got was twofold. First, Seiki keeps its
sets simple to keep costs down. That means no Wi-Fi, smart TV, 3D,
elegant industrial design, or crazy-fast refresh rates—just three HDMI
ports and a simple remote. The second answer was "That's how much it
costs to produce these sets profitably," representative Sung Choi said.
"You should be asking the other manufacturers why their sets are so
Now that I've seen what you can get for $1500, I'm guessing those other
manufacturers won't be able to keep their prices so high for long; 4K is
tumbling down the price chain in a hurry. That said, I'm not sure you
should break out your credit card just yet. Seiki's demo was remarkable,
and its price point is compelling, but I saw only a few minutes of
footage and in controlled circumstances. Plus, today there's still
pretty much zero 4K content available and nothing to play it on.
That may change before the year is out. Sony has already announced that the PlayStation 4
it plans to launch this year will support a 4K movie service—although,
mysteriously, not 4K games. And, at least in Japan, broadcasters are
planning to start limited over-the-air 4K transmission as soon as 2014.
None of this makes a compelling case for buying into 4K right now, but
Seiki has definitely changed my mind about how quickly the technology is