Since it was first introduced, 4K Ultra HD (UHD) TV has garnered somewhat mixed reactions. Most people agreed that the extra image resolution was fantastic, but the usual caveats were made: There’s too little content available to watch; there are a limited number of devices to use for playback of the content that’s available; some of the important details and specifications remain to be fully agreed upon; and it’s too expensive. Thanks to new introductions and innovations, however, 2016 looks like it may be 4K UHD TV’s big breakout year.
The first thing that likely comes to mind when you think about 4K UHD technology (also known as 2160p) is the resolution–twice the number of horizontal and vertical pixels (3840 x 2160) as that of standard 1080p HDTV. For most home theaters, though, this ultra-high definition is a noticeable benefit that’s limited to the larger screen sizes of 4K UHD TVs. A much more stunningly obvious improvement in picture quality, regardless of the image size, comes from HDR (high dynamic range) technology, which is now being incorporated by many 4K UHD TVs. That’s because a 4K UHD TV with HDR is capable of reproducing a much wider range of colors and displays and subtle shading details that are normally lost on a TV without HDR. Of course, for HDR technology to perform at its best, the original source material should incorporate HDR technology, as well. Fortunately, Amazon and Netflix plan to provide a selection of HDR titles, and the majority of the new 4K UHD Blu-ray discs coming this year (spoiler alert–4K UHD Blu-ray discs and players are coming!) will have HDR. Many of the new 4K UHD TVs with HDR will include processing to enhance non-HDR material.
In order to help reduce confusion among consumers, the UHD Alliance (an industry group of manufacturers, studios, content distributors, and technology companies) recently announced a set of “premium” specifications for resolution, HDR, peak luminance, black levels, color accuracy, wide color gamut, and more, along with recommendations for immersive audio. The UHD Alliance labels 4K UHD devices that meet these specs as “UHD Premium” and has produced a special Ultra HD Premium logo to identify products that meet the criteria. You can expect to begin seeing this logo later this year.
On the hardware side, Samsung has further refined the quantum dot display technology used in its SUHD TVs–a move that fosters increased brightness and eliminates the use of cadmium (a toxic metal). LG, meanwhile, continues to capitalize with its beautiful OLED displays. While the high-end 4K UHD TVs continue to gain momentum, other TV manufacturers, most notably TCL (with new 4K UHD Roku TV models), Hisense, and Vizio, are pushing the 4K UHD price envelope of a 50-inch 4K UHD TV down to well under $600. On the video projector side, 4K UHD continues to be relatively expensive, although Texas Instruments recently announced that the company is working on a 4K UHD version of the company’s DLP chip, a development which should bring less-expensive projectors to market.
If you remember the transition from analog TV broadcasts to our current DTV broadcast standard, you might be interested to hear that Sinclair Broadcasting presented live 4K UHD “over the air” broadcast test transmissions of the newly developed ATSC 3.0 technology at the International Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year. (And, yes, you’ll need a new OTA tuner to receive those future ATSC 3.0 signals.)
While the amount of professional 4K UHD content available to buy, rent, or stream is still minuscule in comparison to the amount of 1080p HD video on the market, the situation is changing dramatically. Netflix and Amazon are expanding their selection of titles, as is Kaleidescape, which now has over 100 4K UHD titles available in the Kaleidescape Movie Store for download to the company’s in-home Strato Movie Player. UltraFlix recently announced it has over 600 hours of 4K UHD content for rental plus hundreds of hours of free content, making it one of the largest libraries of currently available 4K UHD content. Determined to keep up with YouTube’s 4K UHD offerings, Vimeo announced it will provide access to user-uploaded 4K UHD videos early this year, too. Of course, you don’t have to be a “professional” when it comes to 4K UHD content, either. Several new action cameras, such as the GoPro HERO4 Black, and a variety of newer smartphones and digital cameras are capable of recording in 4K UHD.
Some of the most exciting news concerning content availability is that Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, and Shout! Factory (an indie-film studio) will be offering movies on 4K UHD Blu-ray discs in early 2016. In addition to the increase in image resolution, the new discs will benefit from high dynamic range technology, and many will include Dolby Atmos soundtracks. If you’re wondering why a new disc format is so interesting in this era of streaming and downloading, remember that streaming 4K UHD content typically requires an internet connection speed of 15—20 Mbps. Unfortunately, according to Akamai’s 2015 rankings, only 24 percent of users in the U.S. have average connection speeds at or greater than 15 Mbps.
Samsung, Panasonic, and Philips are expected to have 4K UHD Blu-ray Disc (BD) players available later this year, while LG and Sony have mentioned plans for 4K UHD BD players, as well. Although expensive compared to typical BD players, thankfully the new 4K UHD BD players won’t be stupidly expensive. One of the first models, Samsung’s UBD-K8500, for example, will retail for less than $400. Like other players announced so far, it will be backwards-compatible with current BDs, DVDs, and upscale lower-resolution media to 4K UHD.
Early in 2016, DISH will release the Hopper 3, the company’s first whole-home DVR with 4K UHD support, along with the 4K Joey for viewing in secondary rooms. When launched, DISH will offer rentals of 4K movies from Sony Pictures, The Orchard, and Mance Media, as well as TV shows and movies streamed in 4K UHD from Netflix. The Hopper 3 will also include a “Sports Bar Mode,” which divides a 4K UHD TV screen into quadrants for displaying four different 1080p HD feeds simultaneously.
The previously mentioned and soon-to-be-released Kaleidescape Strato Movie Player can store up to 100 4K UHD movies downloaded from the Kaleidescape Movie Store on its internal 6 TB hard drive. When used in a whole-home system, Kaleidescape’s master Terra Movie Server can simultaneously stream different 4K UHD movies to up to seven Strato Movie Players. PRIMA Cinema, the movie service offering viewings of new Hollywood titles on or after the official release date, says it will release its second-generation 4K UHD PRIMA Movie Player later this year, as well.
There are now several quite affordable streaming media set-top boxes that support 4K UHD, including the latest version of Amazon’s Fire TV, the new Roku 4 streaming media player, and the TiVo BOLT, among others. Unfortunately, not every streaming 4K UHD set-top box supports every 4K UHD streaming service. So if you like the content that UltraFlix, for example, has to offer, you’ll need to make sure that the set-top box or 4K UHD TV supports that service before you plunk down your money.
On the Horizon
We’re still in the early days of 4K UHD TV technology, and there will certainly be changes and improvements made in future 4K UHD displays, devices, and service providers. But if you’ve been hanging on to your old TV, waiting until the time is right to make the step up to 4K UHD, 2016 is beginning to look like it’s the year to take the Ultra HD plunge.