One of the things that stands out to me about the “iMac with Retina display” (the RiMac as I heard Casey Liss say on ATP) is that people are talking about how applications, and text look on it. How smooth the scrolling is. Do you hear the fan? The questions I have are about the images displayed on the screen.
4K video (part of the UHD specification) is the next phase in display evolution. Walk in to an electronics store and you will see several models advertising that they are 4K. That’s a lot of K! (Every kiss begins with Kay. (Shut up, no one will get that joke. (Sorry.))) HD resolution is either 720, or 1080, vertical lines of pixels. Most films are in 2K (basically 2048 wide, but there are a variety of sizes). 4K video, according to UHD, is 3840 pixels wide, by 2160 tall, which is 4 times the size of HD, instead of being 4,000+ pixels high, as the name might imply. There are 4K videos that are in the 4,000s, but if you see “4K Video” they mean it in the UHD way, not the 4,000+ way. The formating of this is seperate from the aspect ratio which is another thing I’ll move past here.
That sounds complicated, huh! Why can’t it just be one thing? Well, because reasons. Some historical reasons involve movies, and television shows. Remember that TV was a teeny-tiny 4:3 rectangle for almost all of its life? Film oscillated between the panoramic, and the intimate. Modern stuff is mostly just trying to fill 16:9 home television sets.
There are a few problems with 4K:
There’s almost no content mastered in the format.
There’s no medium, DVD or Blu-Ray, for transporting it, it’s only available with digital, streaming services.
Only a handful of TV shows are shooting new things in UHD.
Only a handful of films are shot, and fully mastered in anything other than 2K.
When Jason Snell (of Six Colors fame) took receipt of his new, Retina iMac this week, he solicited questions. I asked how it handled streaming 4K content from Netflix. Unfortunately, that was kind of a dumb question because Netflix only streams to select UHD television sets, directly. There is no option to stream to a computer at all, the Retina iMac can only get the normal HD stream that your Apple TV, or internet-enabled refrigerator, can receive.
Let’s do some math (Do we have to? (Yes!)): The RiMac has a resolution of 5120 pixels wide by 2880 pixels high. UHD 4k is 3840 pixels wide by 2160 high. That’s an area of 14,745,600 pixels vs. 8,294,400 pixels. That’s a 6,451,200 pixel difference. If Netflix let you watch one of the House of Cards episodes, or Smurfs 2, 4k streams, then your computer is still interpolating over 6 million pixels per each frame. That’s scaling something up by an extra 56%. That’s a lot!
It gets even more depressing when you consider HD streams. That’s 1280x720, or 921,600 pixels in area, or 1920x1080 for 2,073,600. Remember that there isn’t any way to get 4K video from Tinsel Town to RiMac in 4k, so you’re going to be blowing up something 7x if you want to watch it full screen.
People will point out that the human eye isn’t necessarily going to care, as long as you’re sitting a normal distance away from the display. Many people can’t tell the difference between a 720p and 1080p display from a few feet away. People will be sitting really close to their iMacs though. They’ll also be browsing for videos on the web. YouTube offers the ability to upload 2160p content (UHD 4K). That doesn’t mean a lot of it exists.
No phones shoot 4k (UPDATE: Anze Tomic points out that the wildly popular Xperia™ Z3 from Sony shoots in 4k), no consumer DSLR’s shoot it as video, no consumer tier cameras shoot it. You’re looking at moving up to a very high level to be able to shoot things like that right now.
Even in Apple’s keynote, they demonstrated it as a tool for a photographer to use. He editing photos with the unreleased Photos app and, he also edited video of his daughter (in 4k?) in Final Cut Pro X. Well, that’s a good, aspirational product. I always wanted to be a photographer from the future — It makes learning a lot easier.
Naturally, as time marches on, more things will be shot, and mastered, in 4k. It is inevitable. It is its destiny.
However, there is a lot of legacy HD content that will be available for streaming for years. Even though many films are mastered in a higher resolution than HD, those masters are not available for purchase or streaming. Even if they were, those masters still aren’t the size of UHD, unless they’re from 4K cinema projection systems, in which case they’d be scaled down to UHD. Let us just say that you are a person paying for visual effects in a film, and let’s say you’re the kind of person that forces the work out of the country to get subsidies to pay for it, might you also be the kind of person that only pays for 2KDCI/2KFA work? Maybe? Just a hypothetical. Wouldn’t all those visual effects need to be scaled up to fit UHD? What if it was a modern superhero movie with 2,500-3,000 VFX shots? What might be more likely: Paying to scale up all the shots to UHD and then sending those interpolated pixels on to the customer.
While making UHD and “UHD” content available will start to pick up steam, we’ll continue our lovely battle over net neutrality. You see, a bajillion more pixels requires an itty-bitty-bit more internet bandwidth. Netflix recommends that you have a connection capable of 25 Mbps. Participants in Ookla’s internet speed testing service provide aggregate data about download speeds. While I am blessed with fast internet download speeds, not everyone is. Many regions have an average below the recommendation Neflix provides. That’s not super great because there’s no way to download, or buffer film content from Netflix.
Sony offers a 4K Ultra HD Media Player. It recommends 10 Mbps for HD streams, or UHD downloads. (Storage of personal, you-shot-it, 4K video is not available until winter of 2014. Guess that requires special licensing or bandwidth… cough.) 24-hour 4K rentals start at $7.99, and purchases start at THIRTY DOLLARS.
Apple, creators of the world’s first 5K, integrated computer, have no storefront, or service, capable of delivering a UHD movie. None. iTunes can’t do it, Netflix doesn’t support it, and Sony requires a box made of ridiculous middle-management ideas. It goes without saying that Apple should be showing off UHD content in iTunes, and a streaming deal penned with Netflix. Currently, you can download UHD pirated content, UHD YouTube videos of experimental art, or make your own 4K movies in Final Cut Pro X.
A veritable cornucopia of unsatisfying options!
Well since you can’t let me buy the ridiculous stuff, why not let me make it? I don’t mean with Final Cut Pro X, which is $299.99. Aren’t we doing Apple a favor by making 4K internet content so there’s more demand for RiMacs? Aren’t we? Aren’t we saints? Give us the tools to make YouTube videos, at the bare minimum. (Psst. Tim Cook, hey, don’t tell anyone, but this is a really good time to take back some ownership of the video streaming market from Google. Just a thought.)
Continuing that parenthetical: What’s the best way to own something? To make it. They ceded making things to the very internet services they battle and cajole with.
I know, stop laughing. I mean serious business here. Another complaint that is common with the MacBook Pro with Retina Display (RiMBP?) is that the internet looks very blurry. Why shouldn’t it? Not a lot of the internet is being designed for desktop-class Retina devices. The reason? It’s kind of a pain. Images need to be properly sized for displays with high pixels-per-inch (ppi). However, delivering high ppi images to antediluvian devices is a waste of bandwidth. The page needs to be properly coded so that the correct elements are requested from the server, or the server needs to know the device and send the appropriate materials. It’s no fun. Go sit there and roll your own web page that will be perfect on mobile, high-ppi mobile, desktop, high-ppi desktop, etc. I’ll just sit over here with some chilled beaujolais. Go on.
Apple is uniquely positioned to at least offer a way for customers to take these ridiculous photos, and videos, and set up proper galleries for them. They are even more uniquely positioned if they create a product that utilizes iCloud to serve gallery sites. There’s really a whole lot that Apple could do in this space to encourage customers to make media that validates, and promotes, purchasing expensive computers. Apple is no stranger to doing this, they’ve just grown apart from Creativity over the years.
(Yes, I realize this seems to contradict my earlier posts about Apple making new, half-baked things. Obviously, my suggestion here is for these things to exist and to also not be half-baked.)
There are no 4K eBooks. Sure, it’s easy to show razor-sharp text, but that was never Apple’s goal with iBooks Author. There was a huge focus on embedded video, and graphics. A really hamstrung HyperCard. If they make the tools for video, and the tools for delivering the appropriate graphics, then there’s no reason to believe they shouldn’t roll those in to the books they are trying to sell in ePub format.
My real issue here has been the lack of pixels in the media we consume, and make; to raise awareness that almost everything you will see on a RiMac will be scaled up. To also encourage customers to demand better from studios providing films they’ve scaled up to UHD as UHD so it just consumes additional bandwidth, instead of actually being UHD. Apple doesn’t seem concerned about this with their movements in the UHD space. Like many television manufacturers, they are more excited to tell you about hardware numbers than what you can do with those hardware numbers.