4K is the next generation of television. It makes you feel like you’re right there in the middle of the movie theater.
If you’ve already got a 4K TV, then you’ve got the biggest piece of the puzzle.
If you don’t, prices have been dropping over the past few years. It’s now possible to get a great quality, 55 inch to 65 inch 4K UHD TV from Samsung, Sony or LG for between $500 and $800.
But 4K streaming is still a puzzle.
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A 4K TV will only get you one part of that “movie theater experience.”
Most 4K TV’s have some sort of upscaling features which will make any content look better, even if it’s in 720p or 1080p. But to get the best possible picture, you’ll need to make sure that all of your equipment is 4K compatible.
I hate to use the “weakest link” analogy, but it’s true here. One sub-par piece of equipment will cripple your movie experience and you won’t be getting the picture quality that you paid for. What’s more, is there even any 4K content available yet?
We’ll take a look at all of this, and more.
4K features: What do they mean?
First, let’s get some basic vocabulary out of the way. Televisions have a lot of terminology that can trip you up, so let’s make sure we’re all on the same starting page.
UHD vs 4K: What’s the difference?
Chalk this one up to “marketing hype.”
In practice, 4K and Ultra-High Definition (UHD) are the same thing. Both are talking about a resolution of about 4000 by 2160. The “about” is the key point in that sentence.
At the risk of being too specific, true 4K resolution is a movie industry standard that uses a resolution of 4096 x 2160 and a 1.9:1 aspect ratio. By contrast, UHD is a television standard that uses a resolution of 3840 x 2160. For more details, check out Planar.com’s article on the topic.
Here’s why I call it marketing hype: Most television manufacturers will use the terms interchangeably, – even the ones that are part of the UHD Alliance who came up with the standard.
What this means for you is that you can essentially ignore the difference between UHD and 4K when shopping for your next 4K TV.
How many pixels are in 4K?
No matter what you call it, 4K TV is all about the resolution.
8 MILLION PIXELS of resolution.
That’s about 4 times as many as your 1080p TV had. That means you can get closer to the TV and still see that amazing picture that you paid for.
You know those video loops that look so great in the store? They’re always showing closeup shots of food or flowers. The resolution of 4K TV’s let you get closer to the image and still lets you see a stunning level of detail.
Don’t believe me? The next time you go to your local TV store, take a look at the difference between a 1080p TV running their video loop and the 4K video loop running on the latest TV’s. You’ll see a lot more closeup shots on the 4K video loop and a lot more wide-angle, long-shot images on the 1080p loop.
If you want to be closer to the action, you need higher resolution.
What is HDCP?
You’ll hear a lot of acronyms thrown about. We’re going to talk about two of them right now: HDCP and HDR.
It’s important that you understand both of them, because they’re a big deal.
High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) is a form of digital copy protection that was developed by Intel to help prevent piracy. As I’m writing this, the current standard for HDCP is HDCP 2.2.
The important thing to remember about HDCP is that if one device in your system uses it, then every link in your system has to be compliant with that standard.
This is an especially big deal for those of you using the Amazon Fire TV. You’re going to need to be careful of what devices you hook up to it, otherwise they just won’t work.
What is 4K HDR?
If you only take away one thing from this post, make it this: If 4K gives you more pixels on your TV screen, HDR makes all of those pixels look better.
Have you ever been watching a movie where the hero is walking down a dimly lit cave and all of the details are lost in a sea of black? How about when you’re supposed to be seeing candlelight flickering, but you end up with more lens-flare than a J.J. Abrams movie?
In a nutshell, HDR affects the contrast levels of the picture to get a better balance between light and dark. You don’t just get an enhanced contrast level like you would if you just jack up the settings on your TV. You get multiple levels of contrast which reveals a whole new level of detail in the images.
4K frames per second
One of the most overlooked things on the spec sheet is how many frames per second the device can run 4K video.
Think back to the old movies. No, I mean the REALLY OLD movies. The black and white silent films when the industry was just getting started.
Remember how jerky the motion was. You could tell that the film was just still images hobbled together to give the illusion of movement, but they still had a long way to go. They were shot at anywhere between 12 to 40 frames per second.
When you see that many devices will display 60 4K frames per second, those old movies sound pitiful. But are they really?
100fps has a great synopsis of the differences between refresh rate, frame rate and how they both affect the human eye. It’s pretty technical, so there’s your advance warning. The human eye only needs about 24 frames per second to see motion as “fluid.”
Basically if you’re going to be specifically looking for the minute details in the image, the higher the frame rate, the better. Think about those cool nature videos or tourist videos for planning your next vacation. If you’re watching a movie, you’re able to get by with a lower frame rate, as long as we can still see it as fluid motion.
The short answer to that long discussion is that, depending on what you’re watching, the maximum frame rate of the best streaming devices may not matter that much.
Better sound from 4K audio
They call it a home theatre for a reason.
Imagine if you went to the movies and sitting next to that huge screen was a pair of little bookshelf speakers. I’m going to bet that even Rogue One would be a disappointment.
I’m just going to come out and say it. Any self-respecting person should have at least a soundbar hooked up to their streaming device and TV. If you want to go all-out and get a home theatre receiver, tower speakers or in-wall speakers then go for it.
But a soundbar and subwoofer are the bare minimum.
Think about it this way: almost every major TV manufacturer also makes home theatre speakers. Why? Because it’s an easy way to get that movie theatre experience in your living room.
Is 4K content available?
Yes, but I’ll be the first to admit that 4K streaming content is pretty limited.
That’s because content providers, you know, the television stations and producers, experienced the same sticker shock that consumers did when the industry tried to roll out the 4K standard.
“But we just upgraded everything to HD a few years ago…”
If you think that a good 4K TV is expensive, try outfitting entire film crews with 4K cameras.
Still, some of the best streaming services will have 4K content available – usually at a premium. Here are some of my favourites:
4K movies on Netflix
If you’re a fan of Netflix‘s original content, you’ll want to get the upgraded subscription that enables 4K streaming. Most of their shows are shot in 4K HDR, so you’ll be able to binge watch Daredevil and Luke Cage in all their glory.
A side benefit is of Netflix’s 4K subscription level is that it also lets you stream content simultaneously to 4 devices.
One of the first things I binge watched when I got my new 4K HDR Sony television is The Grand Tour on Amazon Prime Video. There’s nothing quite like million-dollar cars in stunning detail.
There’s more 4K content available on Amazon Prime Video though. Like Netflix, most of their original content is shot in 4K HDR. If you’re already a Prime member, you’ve got access to their streaming video service as part of your subscription. If not, Amazon is offering a 30-day free trial.
YouTube 4K Video
YouTube has a growing library of amateur and professionally produced 4K streaming content. Actually, they’ve been hosting 4K content since 2014.
Best of all…it’s free.
It’s up to the individual content creators whether they shoot their videos in 4K or not. But with the cost of 4K capable cameras and camcorders coming down, more and more YouTube creators are taking the plunge.
Ultraflix has both free and paid content available to stream in 4K. That makes it worth a look, even if you just want a quick demo to see how good your 4K TV looks.
Currently there is more than 100 hours of free 4K content and 600 hours of paid 4K content available.
One word of caution though: According to their FAQ section, all content is only available in stereo sound.
Vudu is one of the best movie rental services that I’ve found. If I just can’t wait until the Blu-ray comes out or the show I want hits Netflix’s catalog, it’s nice to know that there are still rental options.
Because Wal-Mart owns VUDU, you might see cheaper prices here than on some of the other services on this list. Movies are generally between $3.99 and $5.99 to rent and there are options for SD and HD in addition to 4K. Keep in mind, this is a movie rental service, not a streaming service like Netflix or Hulu.
Sony Ultra 4K
Confession time: The first time I’d heard about Sony’s Ultra 4K movie service is when I was seeing what apps came installed by default on my Sony 4K TV.
Sony Ultra 4K is the 4K HDR specific arm of their Ultraviolet movie service. It lets you rent or buy movies or individual television episodes. Each movie is optimized for their Bravia line of televisions. Not to say that they won’t work on other devices though.
Not so fast: What about 4K Streaming bandwidth?
Here’s the bad news.
4K streaming takes up a lot of bandwidth.
Chances are pretty good that it’ll max out your internet speeds unless you’ve got an upgraded plan through your internet provider.
Requirements vary, depending on the service, but expect to be using around 15 Mbps for each 4K stream that you’re playing.
For example: I have a 60 Mbps connection into my home, which has been tested at just above 50 Mbps at any of my devices. Because there are a lot of devices in my home competing for that bandwidth, I take another 10 Mbps off the top, assuming that something is going to be using it at any given moment.
That means that I can safely stream 4K video to two of my televisions, but the third would probably hit my cap and slow things down for everyone.
You don’t need for the math to be exact here. Ballpark figures are usually good enough, but you’ll definitely want to think about that before you start trying 4K streaming to all your devices.
Should you run out and buy a 4K TV just so you can stream everything in beautiful 8-million-pixel HDR goodness?
No. It doesn’t work that way…yet.
But if you’ve already got a 4K TV, or if you need to buy a new TV anyway, then you might as well use it to it’s full potential, right?
What do you think Is 4K streaming here to stay, or is it just another expensive upgrade. Leave a comment down below!