4K Content: A Status Report
March is here, and that means college basketball (March Madness), the end of snow (not here in the Northeast, sadly) and, yes, St. Patrick’s Day for those who celebrate that. It also means the new 2014 UHDTVs and HDTVs are due to arrive soon. While this is great news for those seeking to spend their tax refund on a new set packed with the latest and greatest technology, a big question that dogged UHDTV buyers in 2013 still remains: Where’s the 4K content at?
To address that issue, we’ve gathered details on all available, soon-to-be-available and even one rumored source of 4K content. The list appears after the break.
The main conduit that most folks will tap to feed 4K to their new UHDTVs in 2014 is likely to be Netflix. While we’re not sure what programs and movies the service has in its queue, we do know that the Netflix-produced series House of Cards will be among the first shows on offer, followed later in the year by Breaking Bad.
It’s great that everyone’s favorite movie-streaming service will be making content available in 4K, but being able to stream it at that resolution could prove to be a problem for many. Viewing Netflix 4K streams (the company apparently plans to label them as “Ultra HD 4K”) will require a 15 Mbps connection. If your Internet link doesn’t support that speed, resolution drops down to 1080p by default. So if you’re in the market for a new UHDTV, this might be a good time to upgrade to whatever Turbo-type offering your ISP provides, because there’s a chance that your standard high-speed connection simply isn’t going to cut it for Netflix Ultra HD 4K.
What’s also interesting about next-gen Netflix is that it’s supposedly not just about extra pixels—the company has stated that it will eventually support 60 fps streams along with 10-bit color. However, getting UHD content via the company’s TV app will require that you have a set with built-in HEVC (H.265) decoding. Sony, Samsung, LG and Vizio all announced 4K streaming “partnerships” with Netflix at CES 2014, so we know that their sets will be compatible. Panasonic and Toshiba have also listed HEVC decoding in the specs for their 2014 UHDTVs, so we can assume (for now) that they’ll work as well.
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Samsung UHD Video Pack
All buyers of Samsung’s 2014 UHDTVs get to take home can also purchase the company’s UHD Video Pack ($ TBD), a proprietary (it only works with Samsung sets) 1-TB hard drive containing 8 titles, including 4 movies and 4 documentaries. The company expects to have 50 titles total available for purchase (no rentals) by the end of 2014. Access to the films is via download through the company’s Smart Hub GUI.
Along with Netflix Ultra HD 4K and Samsung’s own UHD movie download service, Samsung UHDTV owners will be able to stream 4K using the Amazon Instant Video app. Amazon 4K titles are forthcoming from the following studios: Lionsgate, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., and the Discovery Channel. Amazon also announced that the original programming it currently has in the works will be produced and delivered in 4K. Like Netflix, Amazon’s service will use HEVC/H.265 encoding to compress 4K content, and it’s also likely to require the same 15 Mbps pipeline for delivery to your home.
Yet another service that will be streaming 4K movies and TV shows directly to Samsung HDTVs is M-GO, a joint venture of Technicolor and Dreamworks Animation. M-GO will apparently have 100 4K titles available through its Samsung Smart Hub TV app when it comes online this spring. It also plans to offer numerous regular HD titles that have been upconverted to 4K using a Technicolor-optimized process.
Satellite program provider DirecTV, too, will be making 4K content available through an app on Samsung 4K TVs. No word yet on the program mix, which should require a DirecTV subscription to access. Along with streaming, the company has announced a plan to offer 4K programming via its satellite TV service. As with the company’s previous tech upgrades, a new set-top receiver will be required to access those higher-rez channels.
Like DirecTV, cable provider Comcast plans to stream 4K programming to Samsung UHDTVs, in this case through its subscriber-only Xfinity app. Comcast has recently been active in showing off the 4K capabilities of its cable system as well, holding various events to display HEVC-encoded 4K footage shot at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics by NBC Sports. In addition, the company has stated that subscribers will be able to get 4K programming—most likely a mix provided by NBC Universal—via its new X1 set-top boxes “later this year.”
Sony Video Unlimited 4K Service
Sony’s 4K movie download service launched in 2013 and now stocks 50-plus titles ranging from Lawrence of Arabia to Captain Phillips that are available for purchase ($30) or rental ($8). All six seasons of Breaking Bad are also on the menu. The service only works with the company’s FMP-X1 media player ($699), which in turn only works with Sony UHDTVs.
YouTube videos shot in 4K have been available to view on PCs for some time, but the Google-owned company now has plans to make 4K content available via its streaming app for UHDTVs. It should come as no surprise that YouTube is using Google’s VP9 codec, which it says takes up less bandwidth than HEVC. Sony, Panasonic and LG all demo’d new Ultra HDTVs that were streaming 4K via YouTube at CES 2014. Samsung, Sharp and Toshiba are also said to be onboard with VP9 streaming support.
It had been widely anticipated that a 4K version of Blu-ray would arrive in 2014, but that no longer appears to be the case. Asked recently about the timeline for releasing a 4K Blu-ray specification—a prerequisite for creating both players and discs—a Blu-ray Disc Association spokesman emphasized that the organization was still engaged in sorting out the technical details. The good news here is that, instead of simply upping Blu-ray’s 1920 x 1080 pixel count to Ultra HD’s 3840 x 2160, other factors such as increased color bit-depth, extended color gamut, and high dynamic range encoding are all being considered. So, while it now looks like there’s no chance of seeing a 4K Blu-ray format arrive in 2014, what does eventually turn up may exceed our wildest picture-quality expectations.
—Al Griffin/ Email
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