4K Ultra HD TVs are taking off and, fortunately, the native content available to support them — and even newer premium content with high dynamic range and a wide color gamut — is finally beginning to hit critical mass.
By the end of 2016, Ultra HD saw a steady flow of titles available over multiple distribution paths. Movies and television programs supporting contrast-enhancing HDR are now hot, and the interest generated in HDR-supporting displays has studios swiftly ramping up catalogs.
Related distribution announcements were expected to emerge at CES 2017, but a fair amount is available today.
The following is an overview of the 4K UHD and 4K/HDR content situation, showing what’s available so far:
Ultra HD Blu-ray: The first Ultra HD Blu-ray players were introduced early last spring stronger-than-expected success, according to the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA). Consumers with new 4K UHD TVs were quick to snap up the new source devices that can deliver realistic-looking 4K with both a wider color gamut and a longer range of contrast from deep black to bright white.
Ultra HD Blu-ray players were available in the U.S. market at the end of 2016 from Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, and Microsoft Xbox (a total of eight players/recorders were available worldwide). Sony, Oppo and LG Electronics have also announced plans to market Ultra HD players in the U.S. in 2017, including some of the first to support the Dolby Vision HDR format. By November 2016, 80,000 stand-alone Ultra HD Blu-ray players had sold in the U.S.
Ultra HD Blu-ray players are now available from Samsung, Philips, and Panasonic, and players from LG, Sony, Oppo and others are coming soon. In 2017, the rollout will accelerate, including the addition of the first hardware and software supporting the Dolby Vision HDR format along with HDR 10. Dolby Vision offers dynamic metadata that changes parameters scene to scene instead remaining static throughout a movie, like HDR 10.
Studios including Fox, Lionsgate, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warner Bros. produced nearly 100 Ultra HD Blu-ray titles in 2016, selling for between $24.95 and $29.95. The BDA reported 1 million discs sold between March and November, accounting for $25 million in consumer spending. Output is expected to ramp up significantly in 2017.
Ultra HD Blu-ray represents the best picture quality in 4K Ultra HD viewing right now, with bit rates of 100 Mbps compared to 15 Mbps for most streaming services. The physical medium delivers fewer artifacts than highly-compressed 4K streams, and offers HDR metadata on most titles.
Streaming Services: Before the entry of Ultra HD Blu-ray, streaming services had been fueling the 4K content pipeline with a slow and steady addition of titles, including some of the first to support HDR (both Dolby Vision and HDR 10).
The following 4K and 4K/HDR services are some of the most popular currently available ones prior to CES 2017:
Netflix launched 4K UHD streaming via its popular original series “House of Cards” in 2014, with the library slowly and steadily growing since. For a $12 per month subscription, Netflix provides a collection of 4K original TV series and movies through smart TVs and 4K media adapters from most brands.
Content is ramping up this year, as all the service’s original series are now shot in 4K, and many now add HDR 10 and Dolby Vision metadata.
Amazon was one of the first to announce plans to support 4K content through its Instant Video service, which is included with a $99 per year Prime Membership. In addition to free titles available through Prime, select 4K/HDR titles are available for rental or to purchase at average prices of between $20 to $30.
Apps for the service are available on most (but not all) smart TVs. It is also carried on most 4K-capable media adapters, especially the latest Amazon Fire TV box.
Vudu is Walmart’s on-demand service streaming standard and high-def (called HDX) movies and television programs. The service was the first to offer 4K Ultra HD content with Dolby Vision HDR support. It will be adding HDR 10 support. 4K UHD movies are available to rent at about $10 and can be purchased for between $25-$30. Vudu is part of the UltraViolet program, which offers free digital copies of movies for the purchase of select 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray discs.
YouTube provides free 4K Ultra HD streaming content over broadband connections. Most major TV brands and 4K media adapters support the app for 4K. YouTube uses Google’s VP9 compression codec instead of HEVC to stream 4K video. TVs or adapters must support the codec for 4K use. 4K programming includes mostly documentaries, and high quality science and nature imagery.
UltraFlix has a library of 4K Ultra HD streaming content comprised largely of 4K nature documentaries, concert videos and movies available for free-view, purchase or in 48-hour rental windows running about $10. The service is now available on many of the leading 4K TV brands and Ultra HD-ready media adapters.
Ultra 4K Movies and Video is Sony’s newer 4K UHD streaming service, which offers movies for purchase only, at an average price of $30. The service is available on 2015 or 2016 Sony 4K Ultra HD TVs running the Android TV system and on the Play- Station 4 Pro console. Many titles available through Ultra support HDR. The service is part of the UltraViolet program offering streaming versions of Ultra HD Blu-rays on the service.
Fandango Now is the new name for the M-Go VOD service, which launched a 4K app and library exclusively on select Samsung UHD TVs in November of 2014. The streaming service is now available on multiple smart TV brands or via downloads to Vidity-enabled storage devices. 4K rental prices start at $7, or can be purchased for between $20-$25. UltraViolet libraries are supported.
Google Play will offer 4K and HDR movies through the Google Play Store, which can be accessed by the new Chromecast Ultra adapter and certain Android TVs.
Pay-TV: In addition to streaming and downloads, 4K content is increasingly becoming available from leading pay-TV providers including DirecTV, Dish and Comcast.
DirecTV offers several 4K channels for subscribers of its Ultimate or Premier packages, including its first live 4K channel carrying various specials and sporting events. The company also offers on-demand movie rentals in 4K running between $4-$16. No HDR is available yet.
Dish offers subscribers with its Hopper 3 DVR and 4K Joey box both live and on demand 4K content. The service offers a handful of live 4K channels and on-demand 4K movies at an average price of $8.
Comcast’s Xfinity has promised both 4K Ultra HD channels and HDR, though little has materialized to date. The service offers a 4K streaming VOD service exclusively on select Samsung 4K TVs. Content includes mostly selections from the NBCUniversal catalog. The company has also promised an Xi4 and Xi5 (with HDR) boxes for the X1 cable platform, but it neither has arrived.