Overcoming the Challenges of 4K Resolution

Overcoming the Challenges of 4K Resolution

If you’ve thought about upgrading your video system in the past year, or even just considered buying a new TV, chances are you’ve stumbled across the term “4K resolution.” Previously, 1080p resolution was known as “Full HD,” so the name 4K immediately begs the enticing question: is it really possible to have a resolution four times greater than full HD? The answer is yes – but it isn’t quite so simple. 4K is in its infancy, and there is plenty to wrestle with when considering implementing this resolution into your AV system. Here’s what you need to know.

What is 4K? A Tale of Two Resolutions

Off the bat, 4K is a little trickier to understand than the previous standards of 720p (high definition) and 1080p (full HD). 720p has a pixel count of 1280 x 720, and 1080p is 1920 x 1080. Each resolution has an aspect ratio of 16:9, which is the standard for televisions and most displays. A common aspect ratio makes system designs for AV professionals as well as purchasing decisions for consumers easier – pretty much everything is compatible with everything else. 4K, on the other hand, is the common vernacular for two different resolutions. The first, 4096 x 2160, is the resolution that was adopted by Digital Cinema Initiatives in 2005 as “4K.” This resolution has an aspect ratio of 17:9. More recently, 4K has made its way to the consumer TV market. TV’s version of 4K is a slightly different resolution – 3840 x 2160 – making 4K a bit of a misnomer, technically. This resolution is technically called Ultra HD. UHD simply doubles both the vertical and horizontal pixel count of 1920 x 1080 and thus maintains the standard aspect ratio of 16:9.

Though the fact that the name refers to two different resolutions is confusing, it’s really only something for AV designers to worry about. Professionals like PPI will specify the right equipment to handle whichever version of 4K is right for you, and more likely than not, this is 3840 x 2160. Only in special cases – and in movie theaters – would you want to introduce a 17:9 aspect ratio into your system. Henceforth, when we refer to 4k, we will be referring to 3840 x 2160.


Does it Really Make a Difference?

4K is four times the resolution – twice the pixels in height and twice the pixels in width – of 1080p. So what does that actually look like? In many cases, the difference is less stark than you’d think. In order for the human eye to actually notice all those pixels, it needs to be quite close to the screen. See the chart below. Even on a 90” TV, you can only begin to notice the difference of 4K vs. 1080p at around 12 feet away, and you need to be within 6 feet of the screen in order to perceive the full effects of the higher resolution. A 4K display puts a much greater emphasis on a proper screen size specification – otherwise, you quite literally will not see the benefits of your purchase.

The Challenge of 4K: High Bandwidth

4K is four times the resolution of 1080p, which means four times the number of pixels in each frame. Not surprisingly, significant bandwidth is required to accommodate such large amounts of data. Here’s where it gets tricky. There are four factors that affect bandwidth for a video signal: resolution, frame rate, color bit depth, and chroma subsampling. We already know our resolution: 3840 x 2160. 60 frames per second is the frame rate we’ve grown accustomed to today – anything less can start to look choppy. Color bit depth and chroma subsampling are less referenced metrics, but still important: both reference the level of detail and intensity for color and brightness. An optimal 4K video signal would feature a 60 frames per second (fps) frame rate, 10-bit color depth, and 4:4:4 chroma subsampling. This combination would require 22.28 Gbps of bandwidth. Most common HD cables, including HDMI 1.4, HDMI 2.0, DisplayPort 1.1, HD-SDI, and 3G-SDI, cannot accommodate this much bandwidth over a single cable.

So, how do you make it work? Do you reduce your frame rate to 30 fps? Your color depth to 8-bit? Your chroma subsampling to 4:2:2? Or do you use more than one cable? The answer is… bring in an integrator to do this work for you. Even systems as simple as hanging a 4K TV on the wall are easy to mess up. If you’re going to spend the money, make sure you do it right.

Other Challenges

4K presents a change in cable distance requirements as well. Gone are the days of 50-foot HDMI cables – with 4K, any cable run greater than 10-15 feet brings about the possibility of signal loss. Twisted pair signal extenders, already extremely prevalent in the professional video world, become necessary in almost every 4K setup, making the successful “do-it-yourself” solution of hanging a TV and plugging in an HDMI cable all the more rare.

Another obvious challenge was hinted at earlier in this article – 4K is not just one resolution. This is more of a challenge for integrators and manufacturers than for end users, but 4K systems now must manage multiple resolutions. Beyond just the two referred to earlier, “tweener” resolutions like 2048 x 1080 (2K DCI), 2560 x 1600 (Apple’s Retina) and more must be accounted for. Some 4K-compatible products can switch between these resolutions, and some cannot. In either case, it falls on the integrator – whether it be the technician in the field programming the device to the correct setting or the designer in the office specifying the device with the correct resolution – to get it right.

4K Content

So, you’ve decided on a 4K TV as part of your professional AV system. You’ve contracted your integrator, and you’ve got your screen size specified. Great! But what can you actually show on it? On a consumer level, the answer is… as of now, not very much. Netflix and Amazon Instant Video offer select shows in 4K, and YouTube actually has a few 4K videos as well. 4K players, which offer a bit more 4K content than any online service, are becoming more prevalent as well. Other than these options, though, there isn’t much else out there for 4K content as of yet.

What about on a professional level? It’s important to remember that if you want a system that can handle 4K, everything in the chain – from sources, to processors, to displays – must be 4K ready. We know that the TVs are there, and sources, as mentioned above, exist in limited capacity. Processors and infrastructure, thankfully, are now available from companies like Crestron and Extron – switchers, extenders, and many other components necessary for fully featured AV systems now support 4K. So a fully functional professional 4K AV system is possible today. Additionally, 4K video cameras are readily available, so live event systems can be good to go exclusively in 4K today. 4K capture cards are also available for recording and streaming. And of course, if your company creates its own content, having a system that can accommodate a higher resolution is a no brainer.

Still, almost any logically implemented 4K system in today’s world is more focused on being equipped for the future than for the present. The vast majority of 4K content is yet to come – Blu-ray players will be coming soon, and laptops and computers, while not to 4K yet, are already beyond 1080p. Resolutions have evolved over time – in the last ten years, we’ve seen standards shift from 640 x 480 to 720 x 576, from 1024 x 768 to 1280 x 700 and most recently to 1920 x 1080. It’s only logical to expect the standards to continue to shift as they have, and it’s more than evident that 4K is next up.

Moving Forward

So what does all this mean? All this information can be reduced to two simple takeaways.

First – if you’ve implemented a new AV system in the last couple years, don’t upgrade to a 4K system just to have it. In most cases, going from 1080p to 4K shouldn’t be the main reason for the upgrade, because there isn’t enough content to display yet. But, if you were planning on upgrading already, then go for a 4K ready system. Prices are falling rapidly, and more and more 4K content is becoming available by the day. Simply put – why purchase a new system that is already behind the times?

Second – consult an AV integrator like PPI before making any decisions about 4K. Though cost is indeed decreasing, anything 4K-related is still expensive. So if you’re going to do it, do it right. PPI can make sure you do  – contact an Account Manager today.

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An Analysis and Comparison of Software-Based Codecs Against the Landscape of Video Conferencing

An Analysis and Comparison of Software-Based Codecs Against the Landscape of Video Conferencing

An Evolving Video World

These days, video collaboration in the workplace isn’t a luxury, a rarity, or a perk. It’s simply expected. An array of evolving phenomena has cemented this reality: the workforce is more globalized than ever; working from home is increasingly common; the necessary technology is more readily available and less expensive than ever; workers are more and more tech-savvy and use video in personal capacities regularly. These trends are confirmed in a 2014 study by Wainhouse Research, a research firm specializing in Unified Communications: now only 54% of employees in small-medium businesses and 56% in mid-large work out of headquarters. Because of these developments, the case for the importance of video collaboration no longer needs to be made: it is now common knowledge. Along with this common knowledge, however, comes a cascade of questions and decisions the answers to which are anything but common knowledge.

Which video provider makes the most sense for which type of business? What are the differences between the various options? What are the differences between hardware-based and software-based systems? Can different systems communicate with one another? What do the various solutions actually cost? These are all extremely important questions that those responsible for the deployment of these systems are asking every day. This article won’t examine them all in detail – a book would be a more appropriate length for that. Plus, hardware-based codecs like the SX80 have been around for a long time and examined in detail already. Rather, the article will give a basic overview of different video solutions and will delve deeper into a newer and increasingly relevant subset of the world of video: software-based codecs.

The Traditional Solution

To establish context, let’s start by taking a quick look at the traditional video solution for businesses: standards-based, H.323 video conferencing hardware codecs. Short for “coder-decoder,” a codec is the video processor behind any video conferencing system. Codecs can be pieces of hardware (hard codecs) or software (soft codecs). Traditional hardware codecs are generally made by one of only a few companies (with Cisco and Polycom at the fore) and live in a rack in a conference room (or an “endpoint”). These processors allow high-definition, point-to-point video calls with any other endpoint following the same standards. The advantages of this type of solution are plentiful: the quality is very high and very reliable; the hardware is purchased in full upfront as opposed to an indefinite monthly fee pricing structure; and you can communicate with any other business that owns a similar endpoint (and many do). So, this solution has made and continues to make sense for conference rooms that communicate primarily with other conference rooms of partner companies. It also makes sense for large organizations in enterprise-wide deployments across many conference rooms (although a significant investment in both hardware and software infrastructure is necessary to support such a deployment – more on that later). When installed inside of a company firewall, these units also offer a high degree of security. Depending on their features, codecs can cost around $10-$20K or more per unit, but for companies using video in a traditional, conference-room-to-conference-room format, they often make a lot of sense.

Traditional, standards-based video conferencing starts to become less cost effective when it is brought outside of the conference room. In order to allow desktop and mobile users to interface with a conference room endpoint or with each other, the same infrastructure investment mentioned above would need to be made. This is typically a six-figure investment – see the section at the bottom of this article for details. Even with such an infrastructure investment, it is expensive and challenging to integrate an H.323 system with Microsoft Lync. and it is not currently possible to integrate with an H.323 system with Skype, Google Hangouts, and other less formal platforms.

A Newer Perspective

Over the last decade, video has permeated the personal, consumer landscape in a big way.  Platforms like Skype, Google Hangouts, and Apple’s FaceTime have become woven into the fabric of the new millennium. In the last few years, these types of platforms have found themselves relevant in the business world as well. Each one uses a soft codec, meaning no hardware – other than a computer, tablet, or phone – is necessary. The major advantage of a soft codec lies in its price tag, which is usually either inexpensive (made-for-business platforms like Cisco WebEx, Lync, Citrix GoToMeeting), or entirely free (Skype, Hangouts, FaceTime). Some soft codecs now accommodate for multi-point conferencing out of the box, which can be an expensive add-on in hardware-based systems. Enterprise-focused products like WebEx and Lync also provide additional features such as content sharing, annotation, call moderation, and other features designed for training and collaboration. Most soft codecs have apps for tablets and phones as well, making mobile connectivity extremely easy. These advantages make soft codec platforms an extremely common choice for small-to-medium businesses and start-ups, particularly those connecting with users at home, in the field, or on the road.

Soft codecs, however, have a number of disadvantages as well. As anyone who has ever used Skype can likely tell you, it is not always entirely reliable. Loss of quality and dropped calls, particularly for the free services, can be major issues and can reduce productivity. Security is another concern – Skype claims to use encryption, but its security has been called into question a number of times. Due to these reliability and security concerns, soft codec systems are not usually deemed appropriate for formal presentations with sensitive information. Additionally, they are designed for use with a computer or a phone, not a conference room with TVs, mics, and speakers, which means extra integration is necessary in order rely on them in a conference room (see design considerations section below). Soft codecs are usually proprietary, which means unlike the standards-based H.323 family, they cannot communicate with one another. This creates the “walled garden” effect, which sends a company down a narrow path with an increasing reliability on one manufacturer/service and an inability to communicate with any company that does not use the same product. Lastly, a reliance on free soft codecs creates a situation many businesspeople are familiar with: some employees use Skype, some Google Hangouts, some use FaceTime, everyone has all three installed, one has better video, one has better screen-sharing, and some employees use nothing at all.

Soft Codec Comparison

With so many soft codec options out there, it’s tough to know which one, if any, is right for your business. In such a rapidly changing landscape, there are very few places to go for an overall comparison of the popular options. The chart below outlines four of the most popular soft codecs – Skype, Hangouts, Lync, WebEx, and BlueJeans – and how they fare against some of the most important features for video conferencing (see the last section in this article for more details on BlueJeans). A few notes on the chart:

  • Video quality is not just about resolution. It’s hard to quantify based on available information, but the quality of free services tends to struggle adapting to variable available bandwidth.
  • The Lync offering referenced here is Lync Online Plan 2. Lync has three offerings: Lync Server, Lync Online Plan 1, and Lync Online Plan 2. Lync Server is recommended for enterprise-wide deployments: it’s the most robust, feature-rich platform, requiring a dedicated server and a third party partner to integrate it. Online Plan 2 is the more extensive offering of the two online editions, which are both cloud-hosted. See a comparison between the three here.
  • Since Microsoft Lync purchased Skype, an initiative has been ongoing to make them compatible. Video compatibility is not yet there, but according to Microsoft, it will be.
  • These are not the only four options: Adobe Connect, Citrix GoToMeeting, Fuze, and many other software-based codecs are available and widely used.
  • These are also not the only categories worth examining. Read the full specifications and features list of any platform you’re considering.
Skype Google


Lync Online (Plan 2) WebEx BlueJeans
Video quality Up to 720p Up to 720p Up to 1080p Up to 720p Up to 1080p
Multi-point Host-plus-9 (host-plus-4 recommended for best quality) Host-plus-9 Host-plus-5 (up to 250 can still be in the meeting, most recent 5 talkers shown on video) Host-plus-7 Host-plus-9 (up to 100 can still be in the meeting, most recent 9 talkers shown on video)
Mobile Integration Yes (point-to-point only) Yes Yes Yes (point-to-point only) Yes
Data-sharing Document, desktop Desktop, remote control Document, application, desktop, remote control Document, application, desktop, remote control Document, application, desktop, remote control, video
Annotation No No Full whiteboarding Annotation over shared documents No
Recording No No Yes Yes Yes, and online storage
Compatible with Standard Phone Lines Yes Yes (must have Google Voice for inbound) Server version only (requires purchase and integration) Yes Yes
Extra Integration Audio, chat, and presence with Lync None Audio, chat, and presence with Skype Video with Cisco hardware systems (requires infrastructure) Compatible with almost every major platform
Pre-Configured Room System No Chromebox SMART, Crestron, and Polycom Lync Room Systems No No (but compatible with pre-configured systems)
Price Free Free $5.50/user/month $24/host license/month (more hosts and larger meetings increase price) Starts at $12,000/year

Bringing It Into The Conference Room

Let’s say your company decides to go with Skype. It’s free, and it works – in many cases, those are reasons enough to go for it. All your desktop and mobile users are set, but how do you communicate with a conference room? Integrating hardware systems into conference rooms has been done for years. Integrating software-based systems, however, is a much newer practice. Let’s take a closer look.

Integrating a software system into a conference room generally means using a computer, rather than a video conferencing unit, as your processor. Thus, USB becomes your primary connection. USB cameras replace HDMI or HD-SDI units. Audio digital signal processors, which are still necessary because of their acoustic echo cancellation, must have a USB terminal. Thankfully, because of the increase in popularity of soft codecs in recent years, many new units available to AV integration companies do feature these accommodations. Your AV integrator can help you down this path.

Soft codecs have also furthered the “bring your own device” – or BYOD – trend that has risen so drastically in the last few years. Many integrators are designing conference rooms featuring laptop inputs at the conference table that allow users to walk in, plug in their laptop, and host a room-based videoconference. “Huddle rooms,” or small, 3-6 person conference rooms, are becoming popular places for room-based soft codec systems as supplements for large conference rooms with hardware. Manufacturers are producing small pre-made systems, including a camera, a microphone, speakers, and a controller, in order to facilitate style this as well – these are fine for smaller, informal rooms, but quickly break down in larger, non-standard, or acoustically challenging spaces.

Manufacturers are also producing larger, pre-made systems that are entirely self-sufficient based around Microsoft Lync. These Lync Room Systems, made by SMART, Crestron, and Polycom, include a touch-screen display (or two displays, depending on the model), a codec (making them technically not soft codec systems, though really this is just a product-specific PC), a camera, microphones, speakers, a control unit, and cabling. These units are ready-to-go from the hardware side, though they still require the IT configuration any Lync deployment would, and are designed to bring Lync to the conference room with little integration required. Such a product-specific offering is a rarity in the AV world, and it highlights the consensus that Microsoft Lync is here to stay.


For all the pros that have been mentioned for both hardware- and software-based codecs in this article, we’ve covered a good number of drawbacks as well. So what if nothing described so far sounds robust enough for your business? Thankfully, there are a few alternatives to committing to solely software-based or hardware-based systems:

Video Conferencing Infrastructure

The video conference infrastructure mentioned earlier in conjunction with hardware-based systems was described as being an expensive, six-figure investment requiring a lot of coordination with the IT department. But what if your business can afford it? In a number of ways, the investment certainly makes sense. According to Fortune, 75% of its top-500 uses Cisco video conferencing with infrastructure. A successfully deployed video conferencing ecosystem with infrastructure can include both conference room endpoints as well as corresponding desktop and mobile software licenses (like Cisco Jabber and Polycom RealPresence), creating a robust solution. Video quality is high, content is secure, interoperability with other standards-based systems is there, and your business has a standard, unified communications platform for video, data sharing, and messaging. Multi-point calls and recording are options as well. The only thing missing is interoperability with proprietary, software-based codecs: as stated before, no matter how successful an infrastructure deployment, your Cisco codec will not be able to talk to someone using Google Hangouts on a computer.

Another option is a hosted version of the same infrastructure. Many companies offer to store and configure all the hardware for you, and will charge a monthly fee rather than an outright purchase. This option offers something different in terms of financing, location, and management, but the hardware, software, and end-user experience are exactly as described above.

The Best of Both Worlds?

Over the last few years, a new type of system has risen to prominence as well. Cloud-hosted services are now available that aim for the “best of both worlds:” H.323 quality video, the collaboration features and convenience of a soft codec, and transcoding – or bridging across platforms. With these services, true “any-to-any” video conferencing, unlike anything mentioned in this article so far, is possible. Users from almost any popular platform, be it hardware-based or software-based,  join a hosted meeting that can bridge them together. In addition to the bridging and 1080p video, these services also offer collaborative features including high-count multipoint calls, data sharing, and recording. All this allows unprecedented collaboration  for small-medium businesses.  For larger companies that have already made the H.323 system investment, it adds functionality and interoperability, greatly increasing return on past investments and furthering video adoption.

BlueJeans is the leading provider of cloud-based video conferencing services. BlueJeans provides bridging between H.323 systems, Hangouts, Lync, and many more popular systems. It also has its own browser-based and mobile video conferencing platform, making it a comprehensive, unified offering. As any product does, it has its challenges – it requires an annual subscription, for one. But with its combination of features and its unparalleled ability to unify the entire landscape of video conferencing, its no wonder that the BlueJeans customer list looks like it does. Read more about BlueJeans in our post here.


The world of video collaboration is changing rapidly. This article provides a solid start, but no decisions like the ones covered today should be made without the help of a professional. Contact a PPI Account Manager to take the conversation about your business’s video solution to the next level today.