For anyone who has purchased a 4K TV and is still waiting for compelling content to arrive, the recent announcement that the Blu-ray Disc Association has finalized the specification for Ultra HD Blu-ray is certainly good news. Now that the licensing phase has begun, industry analysts predict that the first crop of Ultra HD Blu-ray disc players should be on the market by the holiday shopping season.
While some may bemoan the emergence of yet another disc format, proclaiming that the disc is already dead, many enthusiasts are excited for the arrival of a higher-quality 4K video and audio experience. Of course, we don't yet know what these players will cost, nor do we know how many Ultra HD Blu-ray titles will be launched alongside that first group of players. Time will tell.
In the meantime, 4K streaming and download services remain your only option for viewing theatrical film and TV releases in 4K. Here is an overview of the major 4K services that are available right now. Most of these services require that you own a smart TV or media player with built-in HEVC decoding in order to access the Ultra HD 4K content.
If you subscribe to Netflix's top-tier $11.99/month plan, you can access the Ultra HD options from this streaming video service. Since I first wrote about the Netflix Ultra HD service last August, the company has doubled the number of Ultra HD titles. Unfortunately, that's not saying much, since it only had 10 titles back then and now has 20. Netflix has added more of its original TV series, including Daredevil, Grace and Frankie, and Marco Polo. In terms of theatrical film releases, though, I counted a grand total of six...none of which would qualify as a new release.
Amazon Ultra HD Instant Video
The Amazon Ultra HD Instant Video streaming service includes some titles--mostly, Amazon's original TV series--that are available free to Amazon Prime subscribers ($99/year). However, the majority of its theatrical film content is offered on a pay-per-use basis. I described the complete content lineup in my review a few months back. Amazon's lineup is more extensive than Netflix's; the problem is that virtually all of those pay-per-use titles are not available for rent. They must be purchased, usually for $25.99 to $29.99. That can become an awfully pricey proposition for titles that you only have access to in a compressed streamed format. It's worth noting that, last week, Amazon became the first provider to offer streamed HDR 4K content.
M-GO is a pay-per-use service that's available on a variety of smart devices, but its 4K offerings are currently limited to Samsung UHD TVs. You can stream titles or, if you own the newest version of the $399 Samsung UHD Video Pack USB dongle, download them. As I write this, 4K Ultra HD content includes 36 movies and two TV series. The movies are available for rent or purchase for a reasonable price, but the titles are hardly the newest, hottest offerings; in fact, I had never heard of most of them.
Samsung UHD Video Pack
This $399 USB dongle is only compatible with Samsung UHD TVs and comes preloaded with 10 films and 30 documentaries, and you can load new titles exclusively via the M-GO service described above. Pre-loaded films include G.I. Joe: Retaliation, World War Z, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Counselor, Star Trek: The Future Begins, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and Life of Pi.
One of the more compelling yet perhaps least known options is UltraFlix, a dedicated 4K pay-per-use service that's available on compatible Samsung, Vizio, and Sony TVs, as well as the Nanotech Nuvola NP-1 player (Nanotech owns the UltraFlix service). Titles are available for rent for reasonable prices (often $9.99 or less); once again, there's not much in the way of big-ticket theatrical film releases (although UltraFlix was the only 4K service at the time of this writing to offer Interstellar in 4K), but there are some interesting 4K concert videos, as well as lots of free documentaries and shorts.
Sony 4K Video Unlimited
An in-depth review of Sony's FMP-X10 4K media player is coming next week, which is currently the only way to access the Sony 4K Video Unlimited service, a download service that includes film and TV titles for rent and/or purchase. A downloaded 4K film doesn't have to be compressed quite as much as a streamed film, so the picture quality is a slight step up. The FMP-X10 was previously locked to Sony TVs but will now work with any UHD TV that has HDCP 2.2 copy protection. Sony's film selection is better than the services above but is hardly spectacular; one positive is that many titles that are only available for purchase through Amazon are available for rent here.
Owners of a DirecTV Genie whole-house DVR and a compatible RVU-equipped Samsung TV can choose from a small selection of on-demand UHD titles each week. (DirecTV's rival, Dish Network, showed off a 4K Joey client at CES that's supposed to arrive this year, but we haven't heard anything further.)
Comcast currently offers the Xfinity Ultra HD sampler app available for its subscribers who own compatible Samsung smart TVs. As of this writing, the app offers on-demand access to seasons of Chicago Fire, Covert Affairs, and Suits (one of my personal favorites, by the way).
YouTube and Vimeo
These sites offer an assortment of user-generated 4K options but no major theatrical or TV releases. YouTube uses the VP9 codec for its 4K content, so your smart TV or player needs to have that decoding capability. This year's TVs probably have it, but older models may not.
VUDU is teasing the arrival of UHD content on its website, with support for both Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. However, an official launch date has not yet been announced.
Finally, many of the major smart-TV manufacturers offer a dedicated 4K app where you can view an assortment of free 4K clips, just to highlight the technology.
• No Love for Next-Gen AV Technologies? at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• High Hopes for High Dynamic Range (HDR) Video at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• What Quantum Dots Mean to Your Next UHD TV at HomeTheaterReview.com.