Ultra HD: minmum viewing distance isn’t the same as optimal viewing distance

There’s something I’ve been saying for years, but I now don’t believe it’s true. It isn’t just me, there are plenty of other experts who are still saying that if you don’t sit pretty close enough to a display, you can’t appreciate the higher resolution — this was  big debate in the 720p vs 1080p days. But now I believe that the distance between you and a 50-inch Ultra HD TV, before you would be just as well off with a 1080p, is so far that your living room probably isn’t big enough to ever worry about it — if you have a huge living room, you probably have room for an 84-inch TV anyways.

The first chink came way back around the time Blu-ray won the format war. Panasonic had a in-dash 720p 7-inch display at the BDA’s CES booth. It was right next to a typical standard definition display, and I still remember being surprised how much better the HD display looked, even on such a small screen from so far away. Then, Apple released the iPhone 4 with retina display and again, you didn’t have to be right on top of it to instantly notice the difference. But then CES 2013 brought a bunch of Ultra HD TVs and a number of side-by-side upconversion demos. In the Toshiba booth, I was trying to capture a picture with my 50mm prime and had to step way back to get the two 84-inch TVs into the shot and noticed how dramatic the difference between the two TVs was, even from over 10-feet away — and this wasn’t even native 4K content!

All of these firsthand impressions started stacking up and then we had a representative from Sharp on the Engadget HD podcast and he indicated that displays have a minimal viewing distance, but this isn’t necessarily the optimal viewing distance. And then it hit me, seeing the pixels is a bad thing. Duh. The rules for sitting too close to a TV are to avoid being able to distinguished the pixels, and thus ruining the experience. And while it is true that if you step back far enough, you won’t be able to tell the difference, that distance is far from the same as the minimal viewing distance. So before you post that I’m out of my mind, please go and grab two displays (one high resolution and one low) and keep stepping back and see how far you have to move back before they start to look the same. I think you’ll be amazed at how far back you can get.

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