When viewed on a 4K television, movies and TV shows that were originally filmed in 4K look amazing. There is stunning detail and clarity, especially if you’re sitting close or if it’s a big screen.
The problem is that there isn’t much video that’s been filmed in 4K. The world is rapidly rolling toward an all-4K future — most upcoming movies, TV shows, and sports events are being filmed in 4K — and there’s already some stuff to watch. We’re just not quite done yet.
Watch: I Test Three 4K TVs
Here’s the central problem: A full 4K video signal requires four times as much data as regular HD video — and the world’s data “pipes” weren’t designed to carry that much signal. Your cable, satellite, and DSL TV signal is already compressed — it doesn’t look as good as it could because of that compression. Do you really expect content carriers to sacrifice the bandwidth of four full channels to bring you a single new 4K channel?
No. So for at least the next couple of years, you’ll be playing your 4K video off a hard drive or disc, or you’ll get it from the Internet or your cable company in a heavily compressed form (that is, it will use less data to describe each frame of the picture, with some sacrifice in quality).
Getting a 4K set soon? Here’s what there is to watch right now:
• Cable. Mostly nothing, although all of the cable companies are working on it.
One notable exception is Comcast — if you have a Samsung 4K TV. Starting now, you can download the Xfinity in UHD app from the Samsung app store on your TV. It lets you watch full seasons of certain NBC and USA Network shows in 4K, on demand, for free. Comcast will offer a set-top box later this year that lets you do the same thing even if you don’t have a Samsung TV.
• DirecTV. For $6 a month, you can rent a Genie 4K set-top box that gives you access to a limited number of 4K TV shows and movies — if you have a Samsung 4K TV. (Why does Samsung seem to have all these exclusive deals with cable and satellite companies?) You’ll have to download in advance any 4K show you want to watch –– but there will always be two 4K movies pre-downloaded and ready for viewing ($4 to $16).
The Dish satellite network has nothing yet. But this summer it will offer a set-top box called the 4K Joey. Satellite is too slow to deliver streaming 4K video, so you’ll have to choose a show that you want and wait for the Joey to download it.
• Netflix. For $12 a month, you can watch all of Netflix’s 4K movies and TV shows, streaming over the Internet, right now. (If you’re already on the $8-a-month plan, you’re grandfathered in for two years at that price.)
Right now, there’s only a smattering of 4K shows. Full seasons of Breaking Bad and House of Cards. Four lovely nature reels with gentle music. And five movies: Philadelphia, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Smurfs 2, Jerry Maguire, and Ghostbusters.
You need a very fast Internet connection to accommodate streaming 4K. Netflix, for example, recommends at least a 25-megabits-per-second plan. You may have to ask your Internet provider what you’ve got, or try Speed Test.
• Amazon. If you’re an Amazon Prime member ($100 a year for a wide range of discounts and perks from Amazon), you can stream 4K shows at no extra charge. At the moment, there are 33 movies available, plus Amazon’s original TV series. Again, a fast Internet connection is required (15 Mb/second or better).
You can also buy some bigger-name movies in 4K for $20 each.
• Sony FMP-X10. This is a $700 set-top box containing a hard drive and access to Sony’s Unlimited 4K service, which is actually very limited. It lets you download any of 75 movies and 125 TV episodes and free clips, most from Sony Pictures. (Examples: Amazing Spider-Man, Moneyball, Godzilla (1998), Hancock.)
Most are $30 each to buy, $8 to rent. A typical movie takes eight hours to download before viewing, but at least it plays in full 4K resolution — not compressed, like the streaming options.
• M-Go is another streaming movie service, a joint venture between Technicolor and DreamWorks Animation. It offers 100 4K movies and TV shows, both streaming (requires 10 Mb/second Internet or faster) and for download; $7 for rental, $25 to buy.
Mgo 4K is available only (surprise!) on Samsung 4K televisions.
• YouTube. Already, YouTube offers more than 4 million video clips in 4K. Many were shot with a GoPro Hero 4 (which can shoot in 4K). Many don’t look very good, even though they’re technically in 4K.
• DVD, Blu-ray. Nothing yet — 4K video requires too much data to fit a standard movie on a Blu-ray disc, let alone a DVD.
The electronics industry is hard at work on a 4K Blu-ray format, but it will require a new player and all-new discs, and it won’t be ready until the end of 2015.
Don’t miss: I Test Three 4K TVs