Sony offers about 200 4K items via its download service.It hasn't been that long since Blu-ray debuted (in 2006), completing the transition of video content to 1080p HD resolution (1920 x 1080 pixels). Now, another transition is underway: the conversion to 2160p resolution (3840 x 2160 pixels), otherwise known as 4K or Ultra HD.
There are a few 4K televisions on the market now, with many more coming this year. Typical 4K sets range from 50 to 65 inches in diagonal screen size, and from about $2,500 to $7,000, though there are outliers. On the budget end, TV maker Vizio is promising a 50-inch 4K TV for $1,000; on the high end, there are new curved-screen TVs of all sizes, as well as monster bigger than 100 inches, with $10,000+ price tags.
MORE: What is 4K TV?
At the moment, 4K is a chicken-and-egg dilemma: 4K televisions won't be widely adopted until there is 4K content, and studios or TV providers won't make much 4K content available until there is a solid base of 4K televisions. But some companies have already begun or will soon provide 4K content, often working in tandem with TV makers. Here is the current and near-future state of 4K/Ultra HD.
Where can I get 4K video today?
Samsung's 55-inch curved HU9000 TV sells for $4,000.
Two television manufacturers are facing the 4K dilemma directly. Sony offers the most developed way to watch 4K entertainment. The company's 4K Ultra HD Media Player, a $700 4K video player, downloads content overnight to a 2TB hard drive and is compatible only with Sony televisions. You can purchase or rent new content via Sony's 4K version of its Video Unlimited online service, downloading films like "The Amazing Spider-Man" and shows like "Breaking Bad" (both made by Sony Pictures). Films cost around $30 to buy and $8 to rent (for 24 hours) and are about 40GB in size; television episodes are available to purchase at $4 each. There are currently about 80 films available. Adding in TV episodes (such as "Breaking Bad"), the service still has less than 200 pieces of content.
Sony's 2TB player shows 4K downloads on Sony TVs.Because Samsung doesn't yet have a 4K/Ultra HD player of any kind, it has been sending buyers of its 4K televisions a USB hard drive with two nature documentaries shot in 4K. With these movies, "The Last Reef" and "The Grand Canyon Adventure," Samsung aims to give owners something to show off on their Ultra HD setups. But later this year, Samsung will release the $300 CY-SUC105H UHD video pack. This 1TB hard drive device will feature yet-to-be-announced documentaries and vignettes, as well as five films (some from Paramount and others from 20th Century Fox): "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," "World War Z," "Night at the Museum," "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and "The Counselor." 20th Century Fox and Samsung have said more content will be coming.
Panasonic does not have a media player. Instead, the company launched an online 4K channel for its smart TVs, featuring short nature documentaries and other short-form content in 4K/Ultra HD resolution.
Digital camera maker Red — whose 4K, 5K and 6K cameras are used to film movies — offers its own digital player, the $1750 Redray. This 4K player can play files from the professional Red cameras as well as 4K indie films from a download service called Odemax.
Can I watch 4K video on computers?
There is one other way to watch 4K content now: on your computer. YouTube and Vimeo already stream 4K content. Most of the videos are of the nature/documentary variety, with some tech media coverage thrown in the mix. However, Google recently announced plans to make a much larger selection of 4K video available on YouTube, using its new compression technology, called VP9. If your computer has a powerful graphics card that supports 4K and HDMI version 1.4 or higher, you can connect your computer to a 4K television via an HDMI cable. You will likely need high bandwidth to stream the video without any issues, though neither YouTube nor Vimeo has specified the minimum data speed needed for 4K streaming. In addition, Asus, Dell and Sharp already have 4K computer monitors (with more coming this year) that can be used with your computer to watch 4K content.
The Toshiba Satellite P50t (price unknonw) will have a 4K display.Laptops with 4K screens are not available yet, but there are models with what some people call "3K" displays (about 3,000 pixels across), such as the MacBook Pro 15-inch and MSI GT60. Toshiba will be releasing a 4K laptop called the Satellite P50t later this year, as will Lenovo with the Y50. It's also important to note that while Windows 8 does support 4K / Ultra HD displays, that capability will not be coming to the Mac until the OS X Mavericks update 10.9.3, currently in beta. (The MacBook Pro's 3K resolution is already supported.)
Can I stream 4K video?
Streaming services, like Amazon and Netflix, will soon make 4K content easily accessible. Netflix filmed Season 2 of its original show "House of Cards" in 4K. After that, Netflix will film other originals in 4K as well. The company also has said that it will have 4K streaming to support its original content — first on specific smart TVs, such as those from LG, Samsung, Sony and Vizio. Though they haven't mentioned Netflix deals, both Panasonic and Toshiba have announced their new 4K TVs will support the HEVC codec that Netflix will use to make streaming 4K possible. So, soon you will be able to watch Kevin Spacey lie and scheme in 4K via Netflix streaming, as long as you have the right 4K television and 15+ Mbps bandwidth.
Netflix will begin offering 4K content in 2014. Credit: Netflix
Similarly, Amazon has announced that it will begin filming all of its original content, such as political comedy "Alpha House," in 4K. The company has also formed partnerships with Samsung and several studios for 4K streaming, including Warner Bros., Lionsgate, 20th Century Fox and Discovery. Amazon hasn't announced when it will offer streams or downloads of these videos as 4K via Amazon Prime Instant video. But if Amazon wants to keep up with Netflix, it will probably begin at some point this year.
Streaming service M-Go has announced it will be offering 4K video soon, including through an app for Samsung televisions. DirecTV and Comcast's Xfinity will also have 4K apps to stream video over the Internet to Samsung televisions. Some day, you may be able to watch 4K via the latest gaming consoles, the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4. Execs from both Microsoft and Sony have said that the consoles are capable of playing 4K video, though the consoles do not have 4K enabled yet. Neither company has indicated when the latest game consoles will get 4K video, though. And when 4K finally comes to these consoles, it will only be as videos, as both companies have said 4K games will be beyond what their hardware can handle.
HD Netflix and Amazon apps are available on both consoles now. The console makers also have their own video services, Xbox Video and Sony's Video Unlimited. And with Microsoft pushing video entertainment on its consoles, and with Sony deeply invested in 4K televisions and cameras, both companies have a lot of motivation to bring 4K video to their consoles in the future.
MORE: How to Buy a Set Top Box
A company called NanoTech Entertainment has released the $300 Nuvola NP-1 4K streaming media player. The device has its own 4K channel, called UltraFlix, as well as a variety of apps, including Netflix and Amazon Instant. However, the player only upscales those channels' 1080p content for 4K televisions, since they are not streaming 4K videos yet.
Can I shoot 4K video?
The Samsung Galaxy S5 captures 4K video.While 4K video availability remains relatively limited, even you may be an important 4K content provider in 2014. Several Android phones coming down the pipeline will be able to take videos in 4K, though phones with actual 4K screens have yet to be revealed. The Acer Liquid S2, for example,can shoot 4K video, though it isn't available in the United States. Likewise, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 can shoot 4K video, but the feature was disabled for the models sold in the U.S. However, both the new LG G Pro 2 and Sony Xperia Z2 can shoot 4K video. Either way, with Android 4.3 and up supporting 4K video, phones with 4K capabilities will be arriving on U.S. shores soon.
The Panasonic Lumix GH4 is a still camera that also captures 4K.In addition to smartphone cameras, two upcoming dedicated cameras targeted at the consumer market will shoot in 4K: the $1,700 Panasonic Lumix GH4 and the $2,000 Sony FDR-AX100. Either camera will provide budding filmmakers a way to create 4K content to watch on their 4K computers or televisions. For athletic types, the $400 GoPro Hero3+ Black camera can also film in 4K, though only at 15 frames per second. Panasonic has its own 4K wearable camera coming in May, the HX-A500, which will film in 25 fps.
Are there 4K Blu-ray discs?
When will widely available 4K entertainment come to homes, the way Blu-ray did with HD video in 2006? Well, it may actually be through Blu-ray. Disc manufacturers will begin producing three-layer Blu-ray discs in 2015. These discs would have 100GB of space — enough for a compressed 4K film. Sony and Panasonic have announced that the two companies are working on 300GB Blu-ray discs for the end of 2015, which would provide more than enough space for a 4K film.
It may take some time before consumers see 4K Blu-ray players or updates for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One made available — never mind for film studios to release movies in 4K. So, you probably won't have a 4K Blu-ray collection before 2016.
MORE: TV Buying Guide 2014
When will cable and satellite broadcast 4K TV?
What about "old-fashioned" TV? How long will it be until 4K content travels over the airwaves or comes to your cable box or satellite receiver? Comcast has done some 4K broadcast demos. Japan is pushing to have 4K broadcasts via satellite later this year, with cable to follow afterward. It will likely take longer in the United States, where consumers will have to wait until broadcasters and pay-TV providers feel that 4K adoption is widespread enough to warrant broadcasts in 4K. According to satellite-TV provider DirecTV's estimates, it may not be until 2015, or even later, until it broadcasts 4K TV to U.S. consumers.
Regardless of when 4K Blu-ray or broadcasts become available, consumers can utilize one feature of 4K televisions now: upscaling. When you watch anything in HD resolution — from TV shows to Blu-rays to streaming films — on a 4K television, it will be upscaled to look more like Ultra HD resolution. While it won't have the same clarity as actual 4K content, you should see an improvement over regular HD content. (This assumes the TV's video processor does a good job of upscaling, something that is yet to be seen for the many new 4K TVs coming out this year.)
Many people are looking forward to visual entertainment with the realism of 4K resolution, though it will take some time before it is more than a niche format for early adopters. But as things stand, by this time next year, 4K TV owners will be streaming 4K content via the Internet and waiting for 4K Blu-rays and broadcasts to come. By that time, prices of TVs may be more palatable, enticing others to get 4K televisions. Until then, 4K fans will have to be satisfied with the meager selection available now and the 4K demos found in the big tech stores.