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Ultra HD and 4K explained: Everything you need to know & what you can watch

Sky Q 4K David Attenborough

Find out everything you need to know about 4K, Ultra HD and UHD Blu-ray


What do I need to watch Ultra HD content?

This one’s an easy question to answer. First, you need a TV or projector with the correct Ultra HD resolution (3,840×2,160), so that you’ve got something to watch the content on at the correct resolution. I’ve been using the Panasonic AX802 to test Ultra HD in the UK. Make sure that you buy a display with an HDMI 2.0 input (see below for more details). If you use a home cinema amplifier or surround-sound system, it too needs to support HDMI 2.0 and Ultra HD.

Next, you need a method of getting Ultra HD into your display of choice. Since the start of the year, the amount of 4K content has grown massively in the UK and it’s just going to get better. Keep reading below to find out more.

Ultra HD and 4K: HDMI 2.0 is very important

HDMI 2.0 is the updated cable standard, designed specifically for Ultra HD. It’s important that you buy a TV, projector and, if you use one, AV amplifier, that has an HDMI 2.0 port (there’ll usually be only one). You might take that as read that all Ultra HD TVs have this as standard, but the early models didn’t and used HDMI 1.4 instead. This is bad for two reasons. First, it limited Ultra HD to a maximum of 30fps (30Hz refresh rate), so you can’t benefit from the standard’s higher frame rates.

Secondly, TVs without HDMI 2.0 don’t support HDCP 2.2, the new copy protection standard. This is really bad, as newer Ultra HD kit, such as set-top boxes and Blu-ray players will not work.

Don’t get ripped off by HDMI cables and don’t listen to anyone that tries to sell you an Ultra HD cable. Provided the cables you buy are HDMI High Speed (most are), they’ll work just as well with Ultra HD as they do with Full HD.

why expensive HDMI cables make no difference.

Where can I get Ultra HD content?

We’ve had the TVs and projectors for a while, but the content has been slow to come in the UK. That is starting to improve, and there’s now a range of decent content available for you to watch. We’ll take you through all of the options available now and coming soon.

best video streaming services 2015

Ultra HD and 4K: Blu-ray

Ultra HD Blu-ray is the 4K standard for movies on discs that we’ve all been waiting for and we’re now getting closer to launch, with the Blu-ray Disc Association having agreed upon a specification. This includes discs with 66GB or 100GB capacities, support for Ultra HD resolution obviously, frame rates up to 60fps for smoother motion and HDR technology to provide greater colour depth and contrast. 

Samsung demonstrated its first Ultra HD player (the UBD-K8500) a while ago costing a fairly reasonable $400 with hardware available showing up from March 2016. Panasonic also has its Ultra HD Blu-ray player, the DMP-UB900, which is also designed to provide high-end audio thanks to dual HDMI outputs.

Apart from the players being fairly expensive, the catalogue of Ultra HD discs available is pretty good. Traditionally, when a new format is launched, film studios first release a back-catalogue of mediocre films as a way to make cash back on them from early adopters. Thankfully this time around it looks like there’s some pretty strong recent titles getting the Ultra HD treatment.

The Martian, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Wild, Life of Pi, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Mad Max: Fury Road, Chappie and The Lego Movie looking like highlights. There’s some average fare as well of course, but they might appeal to some: Pan, San Andreas, Ender’s Game, Expendables 3 and a handful more. 

Unlike with Blu-ray, where releases often had to be scanned digitally from the original prints and then remastered to get them ready for transfer to the format, Ultra HD Blu-ray had a much smoother launch, as practically every film made in the last few years was mastered and distributed digitally, making it a comparably easy task (compared to Blu-ray at least) to transfer these films from cinema 4K to Ultra HD Blu-ray.

Ultra HD and 4K: Netflix

Netflix was one of the first adopters of Ultra HD, delivering its content over the internet. It’s home-grown shows, such as Daredevil, are all shot and delivered in 4K, but it’s also starting to make other content available, such as The Avengers. To get Ultra HD Netflix you, first of all, need a TV with the supported player built-in (you can’t get 4K content through media players or computers at the moment), need to have an internet connection that can deliver a constant 25Mbit/s download speeds and you have to upgrade your plan to the £8.99 a month version, which also lets you have four streams. Quality is excellent, far outstripping that of Full HD and with more titles coming online every month, the catalogue is steadily growing.

Netflix Ultra HD

Ultra HD and 4K: Amazon Prime Instant Video

Amazon Prime Instant Video has also started to stream in Ultra HD in the UK. As with Netflix, you also need a TV with a built-in app that supports the higher resolution video. Most new TVs do, but it’s worth checking specs before you buy. Amazon’s home-grown content is largely shot and is available in Ultra HD, but there’s a growing catalogue of films available, too. If you’ve got a Prime account, you’ll get a lot of this content included as part of your overall bundle; if you haven’t, some of the films are available to buy or rent in Ultra HD.

Interestingly, Amazon is the first service in the UK to support HDR, with content now available. However, you also need a TV that supports the HDR standard, which currently is just a few Samsung sets. There’s also not a huge amount of HDR content, with only a handful of TV shows, such as its own Mozart in the Jungle, supporting it.

Mozart in the Jungle

Ultra HD and 4K: YouTube

YouTube has supported Ultra HD for a while now, but I don’t really see it as a primary source for content, as it’s largely user generated. YouTube’s content may be useful for testing purposes, but if you want professional films and TV shows, it’s not the place to watch.

Ultra HD and 4K: TV

The obvious way to get Ultra HD footage is via a regular broadcast system. The DVD-UHD broadcast standard has been approved, but no Ultra HD TV has a compatible tuner, we don’t have any compatible set-top boxes and not one UK broadcaster has committed to using the standard or launching a channel as of yet. The same goes for Sky, which has not committed to launching an Ultra HD service via satellite at the moment.

There are a few barriers to launch, including bandwidth limitations. While the broadcast Ultra HD standards use the HEVC standard, this only currently doubles the compression rate. As Ultra HD uses four times the pixels as Full HD, this means that you still need at least double the bandwidth to deliver Ultra HD. In reality, it’s likely to be more than double, as HD is broadcast at a lower frame rate and is interlaced (every frame gets half the number of lines); Ultra HD has a higher frame rate and every frame is progressive.

Bandwidth pressure could be eased if broadcasters could switch compression to use HEVC on all channels (an HD channel would require half the bandwidth), rather than H.264, but that would require every household to upgrade their existing equipment, so it seems unlikely. A more realistic scenario is that we’ll start slowly, getting one or two Ultra HD channels, with additional content available to stream online. The BBC has already run several trials, as has Sky, so it doesn’t feel as though we’re too far away from a proper launch – I’ll keep you posted.

Ultra HD and 4K: Download services

Being able to download content in Ultra HD makes a lot of sense, as you don’t need the same bandwidth as for streaming: you effectively get rid of buffering as you need to download the entire film or TV show straight away. Sony has the FMP-X10 media player in the US, which lets you download films from the Sony catalogue in Ultra HD; Samsung’s own service, available through MGO, is also only available in the US.

Download services will most likely come to the UK eventually and there are rumours that Sky is working on its own platform that will combine live TV with a download service. I’ll keep you up-to-date with the latest information.

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