From our experience, Ultra HD can look incredible, delivering impressive detail and clarity. But when it comes to 4K video content, for a long time we struggled to find much other than promotional videos of flowers and cityscapes. That’s finally started to change…Video-on-demand streaming services such as YouTube, Netflix and Amazon Instant Video all offer films and TV shows, some free, some paid-for. But the biggest news is that Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and players are here.
Read also: top 4K movie sites, where to get 4K movies,
While they were promised before the end of 2015, we had to wait until March 2016 to see the Panasonic DMP-UB900 in our test rooms. The good news is we’ll eventually see more and more discs appear on sale in the UK and it’s not just the very latest releases that will be given the high-resolution treatment.
As for 4K broadcasts, BT was the first out the blocks with its BT Sport Ultra HD channel, but Sky plans to take things further by offering a range of 4K channels with its Sky Q platform. Sports will be the obvious place to start for ultra high-def pictures, and Sky has confirmed the entire 2017 F1 season will be broadcast in 4K, but it’s expected Sky will be showing plenty more besides.
But until then, allow us to round up the different ways you can watch 4K content right now…
How to watch 4K video on Netflix
Netflix was one of the first video-on-demand services to announce it would be supporting 4K streaming. It stuck to its promise, and in April 2014, it went live in the UK. But in order to access the content, you need to have the right kit.
To watch Netflix 4K online your 4K TV will need to support the HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding)/H.265 compression standard. The first generation of 4K TVs didn’t support this, instead coming with the H.264 codec, which doesn’t support most of the 4K content now available.
You’ll also need to make sure your 4K TV (or other necessary kit) has an HDMI 2.0 connection that is HDCP 2.2 compliant. This ensures copy protection compliance for 4K content.
If you have a non-compatible 4K TV, all is not lost – manufacturers can release software updates. Panasonic, for example, has released a software update for its AX802 series (you can read the What Hi-Fi? review of the 58in version) which means it can now stream Netflix in 4K.
The simplest way to see if your set is compatible is to check it against this full list of Netflix 4K compatible TVs.
You will also need to sign up to Netflix’s 4K Ultra HD plan, which costs £8.99/month. This subscription plan comes with the added benefit of the user(s) being able to watch content on up to four screens at any one time, all from the one account.
And finally, you need a solid Internet connection. Netflix recommends a speed of at least 25Mbps, but ideally higher, for streaming 4K video.
Once you’ve ticked all those boxes, you’re ready to start watching – but what content is out there? It’s low on 4K movies but high(er) on 4K TV shows.
At the time of writing Netflix has 4K shows including: House of Cards Season 2, Breaking Bad and Netflix-original series Marco Polo along with some lovely scenic footage, called Oceans, Forests, Deserts and Flowers. Not a huge amount yet, then.
How to watch 4K on Amazon
Amazon is also offering 4K content through its Prime Instant Video streaming service. For those with Prime memberships, this service is available at no extra cost.
You can watch 4K video through the Amazon Instant Video app on compatible TVs and the latest 4K Fire TV box. You can see a full list of Amazon Instant Video devices here – note this is a list of devices that are compatible with the movie streaming app as a whole and not necessarily 4K content.
The Amazon 4K service was initially available only on Sony 4K TVs, but the very latest models from most of the major manufacturers should come with the app pre-installed. If you have an older set you may need to perform a software update.
Amazon’s service offers a good selection of 4K films and TV shows. You’ll find TV, including many Amazon Originals shows such as Alpha House Season 2, Mad Dogs and Transparent, all available in 4K and all included in the Prime price.
Films available to stream include The Amazing Spider-Man 2 , Moneyball and The Da Vinci Code. But these are on a pay-as-you-go basis. The rental price is £6.99 (not all films can be rented) while the price to buy ranges from £14.99 to £22.99.
How to watch 4K on YouTube
YouTube also offers 4K video, but as with the previous two services, there are requirements. YouTube Ultra HD videos don’t use H.265 compression, instead, it uses another codec called VP9. The VP9 codec is royalty-free, meaning its adoption rate could potentially be higher, and it’s said by some to be more efficient when it comes to streaming Ultra HD video over the Internet.
So how do you watch 4K YouTube videos online? Google implemented the VP9 codec into its Chrome browser and YouTube back in 2013, so both have been able to support 4K streams for some time. If you search 4K content within YouTube right now, you’ll be able to select 4K as a quality option on each video.
But, as with HEVC/H.265, VP9 needs compatible hardware, i.e. a 4K screen, to watch. LG, Panasonic and Sony were initial partners in the technology, with Samsung, ARM and Intel all poised to release hardware in the future.
If you don’t have a compatible display, the video will be downsampled to the maximum output of your display.
Where else can you stream 4K video?
UltraFlix, the 4K streaming network from NanoTech, is currently available on a selection of 4K UHD Sony TVs. The 4K UltraFlix Network App claims to have over 600 hours of 4K content, which NanoTech describes as “the world’s largest library of 4K VOD content”.
Content includes movies, concerts, documentaries, special events and even 40 made-for-IMAX theatrical titles.
It’s been reported that the UltraFlix app should be available on Samsung UHD TVs in both the US and Europe, however, at the time of writing we weren’t able to find the app on our Samsung TV.
What about 4K on PlayStation Video?
Sony launched its own 4K Video On Demand service in the form of Video Unlimited 4K, which sat alongside its Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited services. The service has since been rebranded as PlayStation Video.
The service includes 4K content, but only in the US. To access 4K content you need one of Sony’s 4K Media Players, such as the FMP-X1, or one of selected US Sony 4K TVs. Costs for the films from Sony’s service ranged from $7.99 for a 24-hour rental to $30 to buy. Sony says it has “no plans” to bring the 4K Media Player to the UK.
For now, you can’t watch 4K video or 4K games on the PlayStation (nor indeed on the Xbox).
Sony is also due to be launching a new Ultra app, which will bring 4K video to selected Android 4K TVs. Again, only in the US for now.
How to watch 4K Blu-ray
For many, getting a broadband connection that’s fast enough to support 4K streaming (realistically at the very least 30 Mbps) isn’t possible right now. Therefore a better way to get 4K content into the home would be on a disc format.
The good news is Ultra HD Blu-ray is here. Discs that can handle resolutions up to 3840 x 2160 and up to 60fps can be classed as Ultra HD and the format also supports high dynamic range (HDR), higher frame rates (up to 60 frames per second) and object-based immersive sound, such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.
HDR pictures can be delivered in one of two ways: either using the BDA-developed “BD HDR” section of the new specification, or via compatible HDR formats such as Dolby Vision. Video is encoded under the High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) standard, and uses 10-bit colour depth and the Rec. 2020 colour space.
You will of course need a new Ultra HD Blu-ray player to play the discs. We’ve already seen the Panasonic DMP-UB900 and awarded it the full five stars, but we’ve still yet to see Samsung’s UBD-K8500. And there are now 4K discs on sale in the UK.
The good news for disc lovers? There’s a strong argument that 4K Blu-ray beats 4K streaming…
What about watching 4K TV broadcasts?
BT became the first broadcaster to bring an Ultra HD channel to the UK, with the launch of BT Sport Ultra HD. The new channel launched in August 2015 and promises to show around one live Ultra HD event per week.
The focus will primarily be on football, but other events including the MotoGP, NBA basketball and Aviva Premiership rugby will also be shown throughout the year.
The channel will be supported by the majority of 4K TVs released in 2014/15, but you will need to subscribe to the Ultra HD package at £15/month, have an Infinity Fibre broadband connection and get the new BT Ultra HD box fitted.
Sky is claiming it will offer the “UK’s most comprehensive Ultra High Definition service” through its Sky Q platform, which is set to add 4K content in summer 2016, and has confirmed the 2017 F1 season will be broadcast in 4K.
What about 4K on the BBC or ITV? Don’t hold your breath – even if the BBC did say it would aim to broadcast 4K as standard by 2016.
Make your own 4K video
Still not satisfied? There’s always the option of creating your own 4K Ultra HD content.
An increasing number of phones are now able to record 4K video, including the new iPhone SE, meaning you can be making your own 4K movies in no time. And of course there are also plenty of 4K cameras.
It’s one easy and cost-effective way to fill the 4K gap, though we’re guessing your masterpieces may not match the quality of House of Cards…
The 4K verdict
The amount of available 4K content is finally making taking the 4K plunge a worthwhile proposition.
The amount of content available to stream is increasing all the time and while it may rely on a high-speed internet connection, it offers the most extensive catalogue.
4K Blu-ray discs are now here too, and from what we’ve seen offer a superior performance to streaming. While there may only be a few titles available at the moment, it should start to increase now that the hardware is here.
As for 4K live TV, we’re still waiting to reach critical mass, even if it’s clearly on the radar for the key broadcasters. Bringing 4K to the masses will clearly take time.
With the prices of 4K TVs coming down (rapidly), and the level of choice increasing – see our 4K TV review section – it’s more viable than ever to put a 4K TV in your home. And there is finally something to watch…
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