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Does anybody really want Sony's new 4K TV?

Sony's ultra-HD television is amazing, but also not very practical—and $25,000.

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For the world of television sets, it’s the best of times and the worst of times. For the consumer—you and me—the first of those applies. Competition between manufacturers has brought prices on LCD and plasma TVs down so low that some of us are contemplating putting one in our bathroom. I am, at least.

But it may be the worst of times for the manufacturers. Sure, a few years ago they were swimming in sales, but those days are over. Flat panel sales are flattening and expected to drop precariously over the next few years. For the Asian companies that make them, it’s becoming a bloodbath.

Not surprisingly, they keep trying to think of something new to get those sales moving upward again. A few years ago, they hoped it would be 3D. After that, they pushed Internet connectivity. Neither caught on with the buying public, mainly because most of that public had already just bought an expensive, new flat panel, and TVs aren’t like phones—you expect them to last a long time.

Sony is now leading the charge on something called 4K television. The 4K refers to the 4,000-odd pixels that the TV displays along its width, which gives it twice the resolution of a typical high-definition TV. It’s ultra-HD.

The company showed off the new technology to media here in Toronto the other day and of course it was flabbergasting. For several reasons.

The picture quality is astounding. It truly is slobber-inducing, hyper-realistic ultra-HD. As an extra bonus, Sony’s 4K TV also has a beefed up version of 3D that uses passive glasses, or the kind you get in theatres as opposed to the bulky, expensive active shutter glasses sold with many 3D TVs. The problem with many existing 3D TVs is that they effectively split the picture in two so that each eye can see a different image, thereby creating the three-dimensional illusion. Unfortunately, according to Sony, that also splits the quality of the picture as well, so the recombined image does not actually qualify as high-definition.

The 4K image effectively overkills the picture resolution so that when it’s split in two, each eye is still getting full HD. Indeed, the 3D trailer for this summer’s Amazing Spider-Man that Sony representatives showed us actually looked better on the TV than it did in the theatre.

So, to wit: Like Spider-Man himself, 4K television is amazing. But, as Geoffrey Morrison pointed out over on CNET earlier this year, it might also be “stupid, stupid, stupid.”

For one thing, Sony is only selling the TV at one size: 84 inches. Worse still is the price tag—$25,000—which means that only rich tech geeks who absolutely must have the latest thing will be buying it.

That’s actually not that stupid. With the mass market being out of reach on account of everyone already being set with a recently purchased TV, it makes sense to go after the people who are looking for bigger and better screens, as small a niche as that may be.

What makes 4K confounding is, as CNET’s Morrison suggests, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. When I asked why Sony was only selling an 84-inch version and not anything smaller, a representative said that you only get the full benefit of 4K when viewing it up close. The optimal viewing distance for the company’s 84-inch TV is therefore about six feet away. Anything further and the extra resolution really isn’t noticeable.

Not too many people sit that close to their TV. If you were to do it, your mother would probably scream at you.

Still, it didn’t feel entirely unnatural. Sitting six feet away from the 84-inch TV—which doesn’t actually need a stand, since its legs sit on the floor—felt perfectly fine.

But the problem occurs when you start to get smaller. As the Sony representative told me, if the screen gets smaller, you need to sit closer. So just how close do you have to sit if you’ve got a 50-inch 4K TV? Right in front of it? Nobody is going to do that.

If that’s indeed the case, the only possible road map for 4K is that those ultra-big sizes have to get cheaper. Mass market buyers might consider an 84-inch television if it comes down under $3,000, but until then, 4K looks like it’s just technology for technology’s sake.

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