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The State of 4K at CES 2014

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Ultra HD, or 4K, has faced a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem to this point, in that there hasn’t been much in the way of actual UHD content to drive the new 3840 x 2160 making their way to market over the past year or so to their fullest potential. Sure, there is the Sony FMP-X1 4K Ultra HD Media Player (which only works with Sony UHD TVs), as well as RED’s $1750 REDRAY player, which holds up to 100 hours of UHD content. But for the most part, access to 4K video has been far from mainstream.

This year’s International CES in Las Vegas marked a turnaround in that trend, though, as virtually every major TV manufacturer touted easier access to Ultra HD Content. Samsung, for example, announced its new UHD Video Pack, a hard drive containing popular movies and documentaries from the likes of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and Paramount Pictures, which can be added to via the Samsung Smart Hub interface on new UHD TVs. The company promises a total of 50 UHD films by the end of this year.

Perhaps more interesting is the fact that Samsung announced partnerships with Amazon, M-GO, Netflix, Comcast, and DirecTV to provide Ultra HD video directly to its displays. And of all those, the one that stands out to me as the potentially most important is Netflix, not only for the fact that it’s the dominant source of video content these days, but also for the fact that, unlike Sony and Samsung’s proprietary solutions, it isn’t limited to movies from a handful of studios.

We also know for sure that 4K Netflix is coming to Samsung, Sony, and LG TVs, and it’s reasonable to expect that partnerships with Sharp and Panasonic aren’t far behind. As for the content we’ll see, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings announced at Sony’s press conference that its original series House of Cards is coming soon in 4K, and that the streaming service will also be serving up Breaking Bad in 4K. Hastings also revealed that a modest 15mpbs internet connection is all that’s required to stream Ultra HD.

But even though the emphasis on 4K video deliver has been primarily streaming or server based thus far, don’t count out those shiny five-inch discs just yet. In an interview with TWICE last week, Blu-ray Disc Association spokesperson Andy Parsons revealed that 4K Blu-ray (also known as BD4K) is definitely on its way. “The BDA recently approved the addition of 4K/UHD to the Blu-ray Disc specifications, and the effort to get this done is moving forward in earnest,” Parsons said. “It’s too soon to know any of the details yet, as this all needs to be sorted out by the BDA technical groups. But we are excited to have a decision in hand, and are looking forward to sharing more news about it once the specification process has been completed.”

As someone who treasures making of materials and collectible packaging, I’m happy to hear that, indeed. Granted, I do a lot of movie-watching via Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, but those services generally only deliver the movie itself, not the hours upon hours of extras you get with something like The Lord of the Rings on Blu-ray.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the movie studios wholly embrace a new UHD Blu-ray format. Let’s not forget the way they handed Blu-ray 3D: for the first year or two, at least, studios released the most popular movies in dealer-exclusive 3D packages that most consumers never saw. If you wanted Avatar in 3D, for example, you had to buy a Panasonic 3D TV; if you wanted Alice in Wonderland, you had to buy Sony. And it may be the case that we’ll see the same with 4K.

The one major difference between 3D and 4K, though – and the one reason to hope that perhaps the movie studios will take a far more inclusive approach to distribution – is that audience by and large seem to be reacting much more positively to the latter.

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