Is Netflix’s Vision of the Future Technical Magic or a Total Nightmare?

HD. Super HD. Now 4K, or “Ultra HD.”

Netflix, the now ubiquitous streaming service, has been leading the charge for delivering the sharpest picture possible—and doing so over broadband. When the all-you-can-watch-for-$8 company rolled out their Super HD magic, it was hard not to marvel at how they could deliver such a clear picture (easily comparable or possibly better than Blu-ray quality) over the Internet. Earlier this week, Netflix began streaming several of their offerings—their hotly anticipated House of Cards Season 2 as the showpiece—in 4K.

What is 4K and why should you care? Well, there are two ways to describe 4K, or Ultra HD. First, there’s the technical explanation: for simplicity’s sake, we can just break it down to the fact that it has twice the horizontal and vertical resolution of 1080p. 1080p is the top output of the HDTV format. 4K boasts four times as many pixels than 1080p. 

For an interesting comparison, let’s compare 4K to the super-sharp Retina displays on the Apple line of products. The Retina display of the new iPad Air is 2048 by 1536 pixels and a 15” Macbook pro is 2880×1800. 4K TV offers a resolution of 3840×2160. Resolution numbers aside, even Netflix’s Super HD will look better on your TV than on your laptop or tablet.

Still with me? Good. Now the best way to fully grasp the difference between HDTV and 4K is to pop into your local electronics store. They’ll likely have a display showing off the 4K picture, and it will blow you away. Remember when you saw the first Hobbit movie in HDFR (you did see it in HDFR, didn’t you?)? It’s pretty much like that. 

HDTVtest, in their tests of House of Cards Season 2 in 4K vs. regular Super HD, described the difference this way:

“Where the 4K version did shine was with bright, colourful scenes. On-screen images were rendered with greater sharpness and smoother gradients, receiving a very slight boost in intra-scene gamma and contrast in the process too. Every time the video stream switched from [1080p HD] to [2160 HD], it’s as if a veil had been lifted from the front of the screen, bringing objects—even faraway ones in long shots—into breathtaking clarity.”

As awesome as 4K sounds (or in this case, looks), the format has some serious roadblocks to overcome. The biggest hurdle is the price: right now the cheapest 4K TV at Futureshop will set you back $2,999; three grand is a lot to throw at a TV these days. Yes, you can find some lesser-known brand 4K TVs online for less than a thousand bucks—and they’ll look great—but they may not be compatible with Netflix streaming.

Here’s where things get a bit murky. According to a post on iPhoneinCanada.com blog, the 4K Netflix stream may be tied to TV manufacturers. Netflix suggested Canadians who want their 4K fix should stick to 2014 models from Samsung, LG, and Sony. Apparently it’s an issue with the newer codec (think of this as a program that encodes a data stream or signal for transmission) used to stream the huge data file. Netflix is using the newer HEVC/H.265 codec, and only TVs and devices armed with specialized Netflix software and support the format can decode the highly compressed streams. Whew!

Sounds confusing, doesn’t it? Imagine purchasing a brand new 4K TV only to find that it isn’t compatible with Netflix’s (or future offerings from your cable provider) 4K streams. Plus, the codec is only one side of the equation; we also have the bandwidth issue to deal with. Netflix’s Super HD currently requires anywhere between six and 12 megabits per second (Mbps), whereas 4K requires at least 15 Mbps. Sure, most Canadians with broadband Internet probably have download speeds between 15 and 50 Mbps, but that’s under ideal conditions. Depending on your ISP, results may vary. 

Getting a 4K stream to your TV may be akin to trying to fit a basketball through a garden hose. Can you imagine if 4K took off and Canadians were gobbling up that type of bandwidth? I can’t see ISPs being too thrilled.

4K is here, but it may not be here to stay. Some would say that Netflix is using this form of Ultra HD as a marketing ploy. Perhaps they’re right. Regardless, we are a long way from widespread acceptance in Canada. It may happen by 2016; but in the world of technology, that’s light years ahead.