Shipments of ultra-high-definition displays are picking up, although viewing options are limited. The progression to higher resolution displays is technologically inevitable, but there is still some debate over when it will become mainstream, or even what actually constitutes ultra-high-definition.

Ultra-high-definition displays are already selling in shops and online, driven by falling prices and discount deals, despite limited programming available.

Around 3 million UHD televisions were shipped in the third quarter of 2014, taking total shipments over the first three quarters to 6.4 million, IHS DisplaySearch reports. Samsung had 36% market share worldwide, while LG had 15%, Hisense had 10%, just ahead of Sony with 9%, followed by Changhong with 6%.

China accounted for more than 60% of shipments worldwide, accounting for 13% of sets, compared to 6% in Western Europe.

To put the numbers in context, DisplaySearch expects almost a quarter of a billion LCD televisions to be shipped in 2014, a 5% increase on the previous year. Television panel shipments reached a record 65 million units in the third quarter.

Sales of televisions are picking up generally, according to Paul Gagnon, director of global television research at DisplaySearch. “Consumption for primary TVs is entering a renewed replacement cycle in some key regions, while adoption of larger screens and 4K and other higher resolutions will keep consumers upgrading.”

However, there is limited programming available in ultra-high-definition. “With a scarcity of content and streaming options, much of the early success for 4K will rely on education campaigns from brands and price compression that will make it more affordable.”

The lack of definition of terminology does not help. Many manufacturers, and it appears analysts, use the generic term 4K, while others in the industry would prefer to use UltraHD or UHD. There are various logos in use but consumers are either being confused or misled.

There is a risk that early adopters will buy screens that are technically capable of displaying 3840×2160 pixels, which is four times the resolution of high-definition television, so sometimes referred to has quad HDTV, or simply marketed as 4K. Other parameters that affect quality include the number of bits per pixel and the number of frames per second.

Although international specifications exist for production, while broadcasters are conducting trials, there is still no consensus on transmission standards.

At conferences there is now general agreement that ‘better pixels’ and ‘faster pixels’ are as important as the number of pixels, if not more so. Ideally, more bits per pixel allow better reproduction of colour and brightness, while higher frame rates improve the representation of fast action scenes.

The problem is that current technology struggles to deliver the necessary combination of high spatial, colour and temporal resolution.

This will no doubt be addressed, but in the meantime there is a real risk of selling consumers short without delivering a real step change in quality. Yet without wider availability of ultra-high-definition programming, there will be little for viewers to appreciate on their new screens.

The DVB Project has proposed a phased introduction, with the first phase limited to 60 frames per second, with a second phase that could reach 120 frames per second.

That echoes the unfortunate compromise presented with ‘HD Ready’ sets, followed by ‘Full HD’ sets a few years later. However, it is not clear what current generation displays would do when presented with a picture encoded at 120 frames per second.

Many have been critical of early examples of ultra-high-definition delivered over broadband, largely because the level of compression is such that it actually reduces picture quality.

The same could be said for many existing high-definition television services. The BBC still appears unwilling or unable to deliver its primary channel in true high-definition and drops back to a spinning symbol during the regional news.

Furthermore, just about every high-definition television channel is still broadcast with interlaced pictures, rather than in full 1080p.

Most viewers are still none the wiser, and if they have any complaints about television it is rarely about the resolution or frame rate, although the picture quality of many standard definition channels is often terrible.

One suggested interim measure is for an enhanced high-definition standard, based on 1080p pictures with higher dynamic range, higher frame rate and advanced audio.

As yet there is no agreement on this and it seems unlikely to sell more televisions.

The advance of technology is inexorable and inevitable. Display resolutions will rise, irrespective of broadcasters.

The challenge for channels is when to commit to ultra-high-definition, given that the number of addressable screens will be low initially.

For pay-television operators there is still a strong drive to be perceived as pioneering with a premium product, particularly as a counter to online services, where limited capacity will remain a problem for many.

For other broadcasters the business case for improving pictures may be difficult to justify, but ultimately they are in the business of providing pictures and they need to adapt to their environment.

The Quarterly Advanced Global TV Shipment and Forecast Report is available from DisplaySearch, now part of IHS.