Why it’s worth getting excited about 4K video on smartphones

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Sony’s been putting out some pretty nice smartphone and tablet hardware this year, getting an early start with the Xperia Z/ZL, releasing the very attractive Xperia Tablet Z, and most recently, debuting the Xperia Z Ultra. What’s coming next, though, could be the company’s biggest Android model to arrive in all of 2013, the model codenamed Honami, which looks like it could launch as the Xperia i1.

Honami’s big hook should end up being its imaging capabilities, like we’ve been seeing elevated to the forefront of recent phone designs from a growing number of manufacturers. The latest rumor about Honami’s 20-megapixel camera arrived late last week, with the claim that the phone would be capable of recording 4K video.

A lot of dismissive comments followed that rumor, talking about the impracticality of it all and worrying about quality issues. There are some very good points to be made there, but I ultimately I think that’s all doing this rumor a grave disservice; if true, 4K video on the Honami is still going to be a big deal, and all the nay-saying in the world won’t stop the growing popularity of this new format.

4kresLet’s start by looking at the technical aspects of 4K video. Though there’s no one hard definition of what constitutes a 4K resolution, we’re generally talking about images with four times as many pixels per frame as 1080p, with a horizontal resolution approaching 4,000 (hence, the name – 2160p just doesn’t sound as impressive). That’s a fantastic amount of pixels to push dozens of times per second, but that’s where Qualcomm comes in.

You see, the new Snapdragon 800 chip we expect to see in the Honami has full 4K support, designed to be able to not just play back, but also encode such video itself. And since 4K video works out to about 8-megapixel frames, the Honami’s 20MP sensor will have resolution to spare; hardware’s all set, right?

Well, sort of. Even if we’re looking at a decently-sized image sensor, that’s still a heck of a lot of pixels that need to be getting enough light if we want this video quality to be halfway decent. A high-quality lens might help, but video noise could still be a very real issue.

And once you film that 4K video, you need to store it somewhere; while file sizes won’t be straight-up four times the size of 1080p clips, we’re still looking at some serious ballooning, and phones will simply need more internal storage to take full advantage of any 4K video recording capabilities.

But here’s where I think that everyone is losing sight of why Honami shooting 4K video would be so cool: it’s not to give consumers a cheap, convenient 4K camera. It’s not because there’s anything wrong with 1080p video. It’s not even to pressure them to go get a new 4K-capable set. It’s so that if and when they do pick up that new 4K TV – if that’s a year from now or even later – they have fresh content for it.

There’s this awful tendency in tech circles to criticize new developments with a chicken-or-the-egg mentality. “Mobile payments aren’t more widespread because not enough retailer systems support NFC.” “Retailers aren’t upgrading to NFC systems because not enough shoppers have phones supporting mobile payments.” Eventually someone has to take the lead, or – very much like with NFC – things end up going nowhere.

So when I hear someone categorically dismiss the utility of 4K-shooting smartphones due to a perceived lack of 4K-capable displays, I just want to slap them in the face. “YOU’RE the reason we can’t have nice things.”

It doesn’t need to be the best 4K camera around; all Sony needs to do is to dangle that carrot. In time, we’ll be seeing more and more commercially sourced media available in 4K (and to be fair, there is some commercially available 4K content out there now, but just like in the early days of HD, it’s severely limited), but it’s hard to sell a TV solely on the promise of what’s coming later. Even if it’s just to watch super-high-res videos of the grandkids, that could be enough to give 4K sets a leg up over 1080p models.

3d-evoAll that said, I get the apprehension so many people seem to have. We’ve all seen 3D tank, and phones capable of shooting 3D video disappear from OEMs’ lineups. How is this any different?

Maybe 3D will find its footing someday, but it introduces so many problems (shooting, editing, those damn glasses), and is just so fundamentally different from 2D video, that the transition is likely to continue being slow and awkward.

4K, on the other hand, is solely about resolution, and resolution always wins. A year ago, we were all saying how no one needed 1080p on smartphones – that we wouldn’t be able to see any difference – yet look where we are now. Unlike 3D, higher resolutions deliver more of exactly what we already love from our media, but better-looking.

Complaining that 4K is unnecessary, whether on TVs or smartphones, is like trying to extinguish a fire by arguing with it. Talk all you want, but it’s not going away. Really, the best thing for everyone is going to be making the 4K experience as rich as possible, and if that means selling some smartphones early in the format’s life that may not do the job nearly as well as stand-alone 4K cameras, but still manage to give early adopters something worthwhile to view on their sets, so be it.

It’s a step that needs to happen, and a step that’s going to happen, so why not Sony, and why not Honami? 4K video on smartphones is only going to get more important and produce higher quality output as time goes on, but somebody’s gotta be first.

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!