Netflix has begun streaming a test clip demonstrating the latest 4K video standard. 4K, also known as Ultra High Definition or UHD, is the latest upgrade in video resolution, promising to outmode 1080p as well as antiquate the flatscreen in your living room.
The current 1080p HDTV has a resolution of 1920-pixels wide by 1080-pixels tall. 4K doubles this horizontal and vertical resolution, translating to four times the total number of pixels. What this means is a picture quality of greater detail and clarity, unparalleled by current mainstream televisions. This allows the viewer to utilize a larger screen—and sit closer to it—before the image appears broken up or pixelated. In addition to greater resolution, 4K also delivers a much wider color palette and contrast level, portraying a more natural and lifelike image.
4K is still in its early stages and faces multiple barriers to a quick and widespread consumer adoption, the most apparent being the current lack of available content. The prospect of seeing 4K resolution movies on Blu-ray discs remains an affair of patience. The current offerings in Blu-ray format consist mainly of upscaled and remastered versions of older movies that were originally shot with cameras only capable of 1080p resolutions, or worse. While many current movies and TV shows are shot with 4K in mind, their consumer availability is still mostly limited to 1080p.
Right now it seems that streaming may be the future of 4K.
“We want to be one of the big suppliers of 4k next year,” Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said in a Q3 earnings call. However, “next year” is a very long time in the world of consumer electronics, and only recently has Netflix begun to experiment with streaming 4K video.
Competing options are currently available in Sony’s Ultra HD Media Player, a standalone device that can download and play content through Sony’s proprietary Video Unlimited service. Sony’s offering has significant disadvantages compared to Netflix, however, including the device’s near-$700 price tag and a limited library of around 70 4K titles.
Internet download speeds are a major concern with streaming, as 4K video is a tremendously data-heavy format with most movies weighing in at 40GB. In a recent interview with Multichannel News, Hastings stated that 4K movies require a minimum 15 Mbps download speed to stream properly. Meanwhile, according to the most recent Akami “State of the Internet” report, the average U.S. download speed is a mere 7.4 Mbps. A possible solution to the disparity in bandwidth is in the new High Efficiency Video Codec, or HEVC, a video compression tool that allows for faster video transmission. According to CNET, HEVC promises to double the efficiency of current codecs. Additionally, researchers at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Lausanne, Switzerland have stated that “… [HEVC] seems to be one of the key elements towards a wide deployment of 4K.”
Another significant issue for early adopters is the substantial cost of upgrading to a 4K TV. As of now, manufacturers like Sony, Samsung, and LG offer large screens around 65-inches in the $4,000 to $5,000 range, a substantial difference compared with the ever-increasing affordability of traditional 1080p TVs. While the high cost of early adoption is to be expected, offerings from lesser-known manufacturers like Seiki are promising more affordable, but smaller and less feature-rich, 4K TVs for under $1,000.
While some early adopters are daringly upgrading their home theaters to 4K, it seems apparent that issues still encompass the technology, making the switch somewhat less appealing to the average consumer.