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Did Santa Forget the 4K UltraHD Content this year?

Dec. 11, 2014, 8:18 a.m.
Michael Inouye, Principal Analyst

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Many consumers are making the decision to purchase 4K / UltraHD TVs in screen sizes from 55 inches and up; sale prices for a number of 4K sets fell between $1000 and $1500 this holiday season, representing a premium of $200-$500 on otherwise comparable 1080p HD displays. What will their experience be like?  Most of the content they watch will be up-sampled from 1080p; most manufacturers have relatively good up-sampling hardware – this is a case of “you get what you pay for” with higher end sets including better up-sampling algorithms.  For native 4K UltraHD Content, most of the content is currently being streamed at bitrates from 10-15 mbps, with only Sony and DirecTV opting for a download-based media player that will eliminate buffering and transition to lower bitrate as a concern. 

What services will consumers be able to use to really show off their 4K UltraHD displays?  Not enough, unfortunately.  Most services are just starting to make content available.  In many cases, it isn’t the latest and greatest content.  Even if money were no object, you just can’t get what you want. Here is a brief line up of the current 4K services available to early adopters:

  • Netflix was among the first companies to push 4K content with its original programming (e.g. House of Cards) and has since added some additional content like “Breaking Bad” and select movies. Netflix supports a range of TV manufacturers including: Samsung, LG, Panasonic, Sony, and Vizio. Despite the early lead Netflix’s library is lagging behind some providers like M-Go and the company put said content behind a premium paywall ($11.99 per month versus $8.99 for Standard service). While the Premium tier adds two extra screens for simultaneous viewing (up to 4) the value is not there for 4K given the limited library.
  • Amazon recently launched original 4K content to its Prime members with no additional fees. Amazon’s original programming (e.g. “Alpha House” and “Transparent”) headline the 4K library, but other series like BBC’s “Orphan Black” were also included among select Sony Pictures films (e.g. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Funny Girl,” “Hitch,” “Philadelphia”).  Non-Prime members can purchase some Sony Pictures films in 4K, including: “American Hustle,” “Captain Philips,” “The Monuments Men,” “This is the End,” etc.  Amazon currently supports Samsung, LG, Sony, and Vizio TVs.
  • M-Go launched its 4K service with its exclusive US partner, Samsung. At launch the service included over 70 titles with plans to bring up to 100 by the end of the year (2014). The service offers both VOD and EST transactions for 4K content.
  • Sony offers 4K content (VOD and EST) to its TVs through a media player and 4K TV sets. Sony offers perhaps the widest library with around 200 films/TV shows, although the service is locked to Sony hardware which will set you back another $700!
  • DirecTV was the first US pay TV operator to offer 4K content (VOD) – launched with 19 titles from Paramount Pictures and K2 Communications. The service required DirecTV’s Genie HD DVR and a supported Samsung TV; it is in essence an extension of the satellite’s Push VOD offering using the satellite connection to download the titles into the home.
  • Select streaming services like YouTube, Wuaki TV, and Vimeo support 4K content at some level. 

In addition to those services currently live others like Comcast are expected to announced formal plans for 4K in the near future (rumors suggest Samsung will be an initial partner with Comcast). It is interesting to note that while Sony had the early lead in 4K content and services, Samsung has quickly dethroned its competitor and become the most supported manufacturer by a wide margin.    Meanwhile, we may see 4K Blu-ray units in time for the holidays in 2015, but it might push into spring of 2016.