Searching for Ultra HDTV, and Where to Find It

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- HDTV turned my sister-in-law into a huge football fan. She set aside her U.S. Weekly as the crisp, high-definition video exposed the unexplored details of the game -- glistening beads of sweat dripping off the quarterback's temples, someone yawning in the crowd, everyone's wrinkles.

High definition mesmerized millions. It was better than being there!

Now, there's something even better. Ultra High Definition -- better known as 4K or Ultra HD -- stands to potentially replace HD. At four times the pixel resolution of HD, some liken the upgrade to the same, eye-popping experience one felt when moving from the standard-definition TV to HDTV.

But while 4K TVs have been available to consumers for a year, finding Ultra HD movies and video content is difficult.

"It looks fantastic. My own personal experience is I was standing two feet away from it and looking at a concert. I felt like I was there," Sweta Dash, an analyst who tracks the TV industry for market research firm IHS iSuppli, told me last month. "The trouble with that is even though 4K TV looks so good, we don't have 4K content."

A lot can happen in a month. In early September, Sony ( SNE) launched the first 4K video download service. A few weeks later, Netflix ( NFLX) CEO Reed Hastings confirmed his company will begin streaming 4K content next year.

The industry is making 4K the next big gamble, even those who lost on 3D TVs. Many directors and studios are now shooting with 4K cameras to future-proof the movies and TV shows. A new video-compression standard called High Efficiency Video Coding aims to replace HD's H.264/MPEG-4 AVC to support UHD content. Also, the TVs are available.

The first Ultra HDTVs showed up in stores last year with high price tags. LG's 84-inch behemoth cost $22,000. By January of this year, pretty much every major TV maker had announced an UHD TV at the Consumer Electronics Show.

Critics aren't sure consumers will notice the differences, especially if the TV screen is too small -- UHD enthusiasts recommend at least a 60-inch screen. To take a peak, search for "4K resolution" on YouTube for video shot with a 4K camera. Keep in mind, if your screen maxes out at HD quality -- or 1080p -- you will be watching a 4K video on a lower-resolution screen.

The difference, technically, is how much video is on the screen every split second. DVDs had 480 horizontal lines of video. HD shot up to 1,080 lines. UHD doubles that to 2,160 lines or quadruples to 4320 lines -- making it four times the resolution of HDTV. Compared to standard-definition TV, there is the added benefit of progressive frame rates and widescreen viewing.

Prices are dropping and more products are becoming available. Sony's new 55-inch XBR-55X900A Ultra HDTV just launched for $3,499. Seiki Digital has touted a 50-inch 4K UHD TV for just under $1,000 on and a 39-inch version for $699 at

There's also a new Sony 4k camcorder (the FDR-AX1) for $4,500. Also, the upcoming PlayStation 4 and Microsoft ( MSFT) Xbox One will support 4K. This month, Samsung said its new Galaxy Note 3 phablet smartphone will record video in 4k resolution. CEA projects 57,000 UHD products will ship this year, and grow to one million units by 2015. Existing UHD products are upscaling lower-definition video, filling in the missing pixels to a near, but not quite, UHD quality.

But UHD has the same problem HDTV had in its early days -- no one is broadcasting in UHD or has announced plans to. Even ESPN, which was one of the early broadcasters supporting 3D with its own channel, has no concrete 4K plans (plus it announced that it will end the 3D channel this year).

The good news is that many movies and TV shows are already shooting in 4K -- the Summer X Games, movies like The Hobbit. There is 4K content. But until 4K content is pervasive, here's where one can expect to see it today or soon:

Available Now: Sony's Video Unlimited 4K

Sony launched what it calls the world's first 4k video download service earlier this month. Called Video Unlimited 4k, the service aims to satisfy those 4k TV owners who have nothing to watch. Only about 70 movies and TV shows are currently available and cost $4 to $8 per rental. You'll need the Sony 4k Ultra HD Media Player and one of its UHD TVs to access those videos.

Available Now: 'Mastered in 4k' Blu-ray discs

Sony launched "Mastered in 4k" Blu-ray discs that offer movies scanned in 4k before being converted down to 1080p. The "Mastered" moniker, however, means that it's still on a Blu-ray disc, which doesn't have the capacity to store a full 4k movie. Sony said that the movies are "sourced from pristine 4K masters and presented at high-bitrate 1080p resolution." But ultimately, it's still 1080p. About a dozen titles are available, including Ghostbusters, The Amazing Spider-Man and Total Recall.

Available Now: Delta Sky Club lounges

RMG Networks, a company that provides digital signage in public areas, has deployed about 20 4K TVs at VIP travel lounges such as Delta Sky Club, according to Multichannel News. The TVs can access 4K video content stored in a cloud-based platform and are showing in-house ads to supplement the limited supply of 4K movies available.

Coming in 2014: Netflix

Netflix is committed to 4k streaming in 2014, Reed Hastings, its CEO, said in an interview at the Copenhagen Future TV conference. No date was given but Hastings said such a high-quality stream would require an Internet connection of around 15 megabits per second.

Until then, the company plans to satisfy customers with Super HD, a higher-quality HD stream launched in January. For customers to access the stream, which some liken to Blu-ray quality, their Internet service had to partner with Netflix's Open Connect service. On Thursday, Netflix expanded Open Connect to all customers.

Coming soon: UHD discs

No official announcement has been made by the Blu-ray Disc Association, which said in the spring that 4k Blu-ray discs were possible. Earlier this month, tech news site TechRadar pointed out that disc-creator company Singulus built a machine to make 100 GB discs en masse. That would be able to store a 4k movie.

Unknown: Paid-TV companies

Many cable and TV networks are interested in 4K broadcasts, but with the high-level of bandwidth required to send high-resolution video to people's homes, UHD from your local TV service provider seems like it may never get here. Still, UHD enthusiasts are hopeful because of the numerous tests going on in the world. In South Korea, a pilot program began in July to broadcast UHD to residents. Eutelsat, a French satellite provider, began a 4K demo channel in January. Here in the U.S., companies like Verizon ( VZ) FiOS have already said its fiber-to-the-home feed can handle 4K once broadcasts start. TV companies in the U.S. are not saying no.

In fact, in June, Comcast ( CMCSA) demonstrated its first public delivery of 4K Ultra HD over its fiber network.

"With ample capacity in our existing network, and the tools to distribute this next-gen video format, Comcast is ready to deliver tomorrow's experiences today," said Tony Werner, the company's executive vice president and Chief Technology Officer in its blog. No date was mentioned on when this would be available to consumers.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.
Tamara Chuang is an outside contributor to TheStreet. Her opinions are her own. Email her at

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