Are you an Ultra HD (UHD) TV owner clamoring for 4K content? Go check out Netflix, which is currently testing a few 4K video streams, and says it intends to launch a 4K movie service in the first half of 2014.
If you do a search for "4K" on Netflix.com, you'll come up with several versions of the short film "El Fuente" offered at different quality levels, ranging from "24MP" to "5,994MP." Typically, video quality is described in frames-per-second, so I'm not sure if MP stands for megapixel or something else. I've asked Netflix to describe the differences in the quality of the test videos being offered, but apparently the 4K content is really a test for Netflix, not consumer content.
Netflix did tell me that it intends to start streaming 4K content in the first half of 2014; to that end, the first and second seasons of its original show "House of Cards" were shot in 4K or higher resolution. The company also said that, like its recent decision to offer its Super HD format to all Internet service providers (ISPs) and not just those that have signed up to Open Connect (which caches video locally), 4K will not be restricted just to Open Connect ISPs.
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Netflix said that it expects to offer its 4K videos using the new, more efficient HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) codec, also known as H.265. Due to its better compression (I've been told it's about 35 percent more efficient than the current H.264 video), HEVC allows ISPs to deliver either the same quality video using less bandwidth, or better quality video—including 4K content—using the same bandwidth. Netflix said it expects to be able to stream 4K video at 15Mbps or perhaps lower, well within the reach of many homes, although the company didn't specify the video frame rate at that speed.
Of course, the quality of the video you'll receive depends on the available bandwidth of your home network. Netflix, like other video streaming services, employs adaptive video streaming, which dynamically adjusts the streaming quality up or down based on how fast your connection is operating. It will lower the quality of the video to prevent it from macroblocking (pixelating) or freezing.
Right now, the lack of native 4K content is a major obstacle that needs to be addressed if Ultra HD TVs are to become mainstream. Netflix could certainly be one possible solution. Since we have several Ultra HD TVs in our labs, we're hoping to take a look at Netflix's 4K streams over the next few days, and let you know what we find. Stay tuned for more details.
—James K. Willcox
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