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Ultra HD Blu-ray is coming later this year; here’s everything we know

In the year 2000, we began ditching our VHS tapes for DVDs. In 2006, Blu-ray brought high-definition video to flat-screen TVs everywhere. Now we’re about to take another step forward with the arrival of Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and players. That’s right: Come holiday time, there’s going to be a whole new format to embrace – and it’s going to be awesome.

Though there will be no format war to stunt its growth (remember the whole Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD debacle?), Ultra HD Blu-ray adoption will still be slow. Even as more people buy TVs that support the higher resolution, Ultra HD Blu-ray will appeal to a relatively small audience – at least at first. But for anyone who wants the best possible picture and sound quality they can get, the arrival of this new format is exciting. And the best news is: It’s a pretty significant leap forward from 1080p HD.

Of course, with new technology like this comes a whole bunch of conditions and caveats. Will you need a new disc player? Will they be backward compatible? Will you need new cables, a new receiver, or any other new equipment? We grilled the Blu-ray disc association and have all the information you’ll need below, in plain English.

What’s so great about Ultra HD Blu-ray?

It’s true that streaming movies and TV shows from services like Netflix, Amazon, and Vudu is the future of TV, but until the Internet gets a serious bandwidth upgrade (don’t worry, Google’s working on it!) discs will always kill streaming when it comes to picture quality. Ever notice 1080p Blu-rays still look better than Netflix’s fancy Ultra HD streaming video? The reason they do comes down to one very simple, but important factor: bitrate.

Simply put, the more data you can deliver, the better the picture and sound quality is going to be, and Ultra HD Blu-ray is poised to deliver some seriously big-time data. So much, in fact, that not only will Ultra HD Blu-ray discs offer four times the resolution of 1080p HD, they’ll be able to deliver two new features only recently introduced to TVs: High Dynamic Range (HDR) and Wide Color Gamut (WCG). The result will be an at-home experience that matches or beats what you get at the cinema, with more colors than ever, incredible contrast, and uncompromised sound quality.

To be fair, Netflix, Amazon are both planning on delivering streaming 4K content with HDR in the near future, and this will improve the look of those videos, but because of current Internet bandwidth restrictions, these streams will be heavily compressed, and that means more artifacts – or, noise — in the picture. You can see it especially well in dimly lit scenes, usually as big blocky anomalies.

If you want to enjoy Ultra-HD Blu-ray discs, you’ll need to buy a new Blu-ray disc player.

In addition, Ultra HD Blu-ray has the capability of delivering video at up to 60 frames per second (fps). Such a quick framerate is ideal for content that requires fast-moving cameras, like sports. Of course, as most movies are produced at 24fps, it remains to be seen how meaningful higher framerates will be in the near term.

Simply put: Ultra HD Blu-ray is going to offer significantly better picture and sound quality than any other format available, and it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Will I need a new Blu-ray player for Ultra HD Blu-ray discs?

If you want to enjoy Ultra-HD Blu-ray discs, you’ll need to buy a new Blu-ray disc player. We expect major manufacturers like Samsung, Panasonic, and Sony to announce new players later this year, possibly at the IFA electronics show this September in Berlin. The players are then expected to be available for purchase by the holidays at the end of the year.

These new players will be expensive when first introduced. For reference, the first Blu-ray players ran about $1,000 when they arrived in 2006, but now you can get a decent Blu-ray player with built-in Wi-Fi and streaming apps for about $100.

What kind of 4K UHD TV will work with Ultra HD Blu-ray?

Any and all 4K UHD TV will work with Ultra HD Blu-ray, including older models with HDMI 1.4 inputs. When connected to a TV via HDMI, an Ultra HD Blu-ray player is able to determine what that TV is capable of and act accordingly.

The catch is, the benefits to owners of older (even as recent as some of last year’s models) 4K UHD TVs will be limited to UHD resolution and that noise-free picture we talked about earlier. In order to get the HDR and WCG features we mentioned earlier, the TV has to be capable of producing the added colors and processing and producing High Dynamic Range content. With the exception of some Sony and Panasonic models from 2014, only the newest premium 2015 TVs are capable of this.

Adding complexity to this issue is the fact that many HDR systems require HDMI version 2.0a (there are exceptions – Dolby’s version of HDR doesn’t require HDMI 2.0a) and, at the time of this writing, there isn’t a single TV on the market that supports HDMI 2.0a … yet. That will change by the time Ultra HD Blu-ray makes its way to consumers, as manufacturers offer firmware updates or other update solutions to an extremely limited number of TVs. Really, it won’t be until spring of 2016 that a wider array of 4K UHD TVs with both HDR and WCG support will be made available.

Will Ultra HD Blu-ray players be backward compatible?

Yes. Ultra HD-Blu-ray players will play Blu-ray discs, DVDs, SACDs, DVD-Audio, and Redbook CDs. Both standard 1080p Blu-ray discs and DVDs will be up-converted to UHD resolution for playback on 4K UHD TVs.

In addition, Ultra HD Blu-ray players will downscale Ultra HD Blu-ray discs to work on 1080p HD TVs, so if you want to get a little ahead of the curve and purchase a new player and the latest discs, even before you get a 4K UHD TV, that’s just fine.

Will I need any other new equipment?

The more data, the better the picture and sound quality, and Ultra HD Blu-ray is poised to deliver big-time data.

That depends on your system. The good news is you won’t need any new HDMI cables. As for your A/V receiver? Think of it along the same lines as a 4K UHD TV. Older receivers with HDMI 1.4 will be able to support the higher resolution, but not HDR or WCG. If your receiver supports HDMI 2.0, there’s a chance it could be updated to support HDMI 2.0a later on when it’s needed. However, depending on how HDCP (High Definition Copy Protection) 2.2 gets implemented by movie studios, you may need to consider a brand new A/V receiver if you want one to remain the hub of your home theater for the long term.

There’s an audio processing component to think about here as well. New surround formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X will be available on Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, but to enjoy them, you’ll need a newer receiver with up-to-date processing built in.

Will Ultra HD Blu-ray support digital transfers?

Yes. Just as UltraViolet has done for standard Blu-ray, Ultra HD Blu-ray discs will support digital copies, allowing users to access content “across the range of in-home mobile devices,” according to the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA). New information disclosed in an interview by BDA executive, Victor Matsuda, reveals how this will work: “There are two digital bridge features, copy and export,” Matsuda. “Copy permits a bit for bit copy to be stored on an authorized attached media drive. Export allows files to be transferred to an authorized mobile device.”

Tech specs

For you tech heads, here’s some interesting data:

Ultra HD Blu-ray will use primarily double-layer 66GB discs (though 100GB triple-layer discs are part of the spec) and will be capable of delivering up to 108Mbps of data. To put this in perspective, consider that Netflix’s 4K Ultra HD streams are delivered at about 16Mbps and represent an average of 14GB of total data for two hours of entertainment.

Ultra HD Blu-ray discs will be encoded using the relatively new HEVC (also known as H.265) codec. The Blu-ray disc association says encoding and disc authoring tools are currently being used experimentally by technicians in Hollywood.

Ultra HD Blu-ray will support several different types of HDR metadata, including those proposed by Dolby, Philips, and Technicolor. However, only the open HDR standard supported by the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers (SMPTE) is a requirement for Ultra HD Blu-ray authoring. The rest will be up to individual content creators, and require TV compatibility with a specific type of HDR Metadata. Vizio’s Reference Series TVs, for instance, will support Dolby’s vision of HDR in addition to the SMPTE standard.

So there you have it: Everything we know about Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and players so far. As we learn more from manufacturers and movie studios, we’ll be sure to update this article. In the meantime, you might want to start saving your pennies if you want a slice of the next biggest thing to hit home theater.

Update 8/6/2015 by Caleb Denison: The Blu-ray disc association confirmed it is prepared to issue licensing to manufacturers, and disclosed information regarding a new system that allows digital copies for home and mobile use.

Fox’s first four UHD titles will include HDR mastering

Hitting digital download distribution channels prior to launching on physical UHD discs, Fox will soon release four titles in Ultra HD resolution along with high dynamic range (HDR) mastering. The first four titles to receive this treatment include Kingsman: The Secret Service, Life of Pi, Exodus: Gods and Kings and The Maze Runner.

High dynamic range has been a popular feature utilized in digital photography for years, but video mastering with HDR is still relatively new. Consumers should expect to see more vibrant images as well as a wider range of colors displayed on an Ultra HDTV. Movie theaters are also starting to experiment with HDR, specifically Dolby Vision. IMAX has also started upgrading to support HDR with a new laser projection system in theaters.

Detailed by the Hollywood Reporter, Fox is planning to release additional UHD titles such as X-Men: Days of Future Past, but these four films will be available first on streaming service M-GO. Utilizing a Samsung SUHD television, consumers will be able to download the films to their Samsung Video Pack and take advantage of Ultra HD resolution. Prior to the launch of the full version of the four films in UHD, clips from Life of Pi and Exodus: Gods and Kings were supplied to Samsung for demonstration displays.

Fox hasn’t specified how large a UHD movie file will be or the average length of time it will take to download a film in UHD. That could potentially be an issue for anyone with monthly data caps on downloads. However, it’s likely that these four films will be released in physical format when Ultra HD Blu-ray players hit the market toward the end of 2015. It’s also likely that Samsung, Sony, Panasonic and other consumer electronics manufacturers will announce players within the next few months.
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09-03-2015, 11:24 PM
sanlyn sanlyn is offline
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You mean we have to start throwing stuff away again? No thanks. How much detail do people want from only 5 to 12 feet away from their TV? And it still doesn't look as real as movie film does from 75 feet back.
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09-04-2015, 12:36 AM
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I still prefer stereo audio, and have no issues with "DVD quality" (720x480 resolution). And that's on a 55" from about 9 feet away.

What I find stupid is that "4K" content is not really 4K source resolution. Some isn't even HD resolution.

I already have lots of Blu-ray discs that simply show more noise, and not more picture info.

My "digital copies" are from DVDFab + Avidemux. UltraViolet is garbage. I now store all DVDs as ISO on HDDs, and the original DVDs are stored in boxes in the spare room closet.

The only reason that Blu-ray "won" the format war was because Sony bribed studios, and were willing to lose money on all PS3 hardware. That was the magic. Sony cannot afford that again, especially after 2014, so I doubt this will take off. People just bought Blu-ray, and don't want to change for at least 10 more years.

I started laughing at the phrase "noise-free picture". Yeah, I don't think so.

We can already get 50gb discs, and 100gb discs are not really a huge savings of space. Besides, Blu-ray media is NOT archival grade, thus useless. I doubt a 3-layer 100gb disc will ever be burnable anyway.

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09-04-2015, 10:55 AM
Winsordawson Winsordawson is offline
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Do many "tech head" consumers even play video-discs anymore? With the rise of on-demand Internet streaming why would I invest in more soon-to-be-obsolete hardware? I'd prefer if they focused on the actual content of the production rather than whether the audience can view it in 4D.
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09-04-2015, 11:14 PM
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kpmedia kpmedia is offline
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Originally Posted by Winsordawson View Post
Do many "tech head" consumers even play video-discs anymore? With the rise of on-demand Internet streaming
This is an excellent point.

Streaming is getting to be the main way in which video is viewed, but the main hurdle is the bandwidth. A few select cities may have fast 10mbps+ internet, but they're the exception and not the norm in the USA. The main bottleneck is still the wiring/bandwidth in this country, which is way behind EU and Asia. For example, even Iraq has a better upload speed than the USA, in some of its cities! So viewing HD streaming is often difficult.

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09-05-2015, 02:29 AM
jmac698 jmac698 is offline
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Streaming is a great idea in theory, but it's never going to work out. I've checked Netflix (a major American streaming service) but it usually didn't have the titles I was interested in. And they recently announced they were dropping the distributor of Hunger Games so you'll never be able to stream it again. The problem is selection. There will never be all the important movies in one place, and no one's going to sign up to all the streaming services.

On the other hand, I was on a disc rental service and it was great, I got to see the classic Hitchocks, old sci-fi series, foreign films (7 Samurai), the original Scarface, a lot of things that aren't main stream that a movie buff would like.

As for quality, I definitely enjoy HD over DVD. I can easily see horrible banding effects in DVD. 4k doesn't matter so much, but I think the improved colours will be noticeable, I'll have to see. Netflix quality is pretty good, so I won't say Bluray is noticeably better.

I wouldn't mind streaming, but it just doesn't have the selection. And I can rent movie buff discs from the library for free. TV even has it's place to me, I used to love the movie channel, after work I'd watch some random movie each night, which weren't amazing but they were ok. It was a curated selection. Trying to select a movie on streaming is hit and miss. As for the movies I really want to see, they are only on disc (in fact, not even available on torrent).

Another point that's missing with streaming, is it's fundamentally eroding our shared culture. We used to be in sync, everyone knew what The Waltons was for example and watched it as a family, now we're in our own little pockets, watching things at random times, we can't connect with a shared experience except sporadically.

There's also the matter of exposure. We're never forced out of our comfort zone, by seeing some movie we'd never think of watching while flipping through channels bored. What we see now is driven by some type of network graph, and I think we'll be exposed to less things that we might actually love.
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09-05-2015, 10:25 AM
sodality sodality is offline
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Streaming is a great idea in theory, but it's never going to work out.
Exactly my thoughts. Who wants to use all these streaming services, whether or not the movies you are interested in are available(most of the movies are crap).
The only interesting one is Hulu, which is sadly not accessible in my country. It's strange but I know a lot of people who don't want to watch Streams or even DVD's . They wait for the movies to be broadcast on TV. Maybe they need the feeling of communality.

As for UHD Blu-ray, I don't think it will play a major role in the next years.
Most people are fine with their 1080 panels, and Blu-ray did not even arrive in the majority of homes.

To speak for me, I would rather watch a good movie in SD, than a crappy movie in HD/UHD.
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09-07-2015, 12:51 AM
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I agree on streaming. Nice concept, but many of us have slow ISPs and we want physical media. You cannot trust "the cloud" (or a company like Netflix) to forever make it available. I'm still pissed that WWE pulled the Hulk Hogan cartoons simply because Hogan was an idiot. Why hurt the fans of the toon? I have videos from 30+ years ago than are now unavailable. Streaming is the same.

However, that what the masses want. So in terms of "UHD is better than ___" (DVD, Bluray, etc), they don't really care. Most physical media owners just want something, anything, and don't care about ultra-high resolution. Most of the things we want are older anyway. We're just happy if they don't crop a 4x3 to 16x9!

It's two-fold about culture. There will never be a mass watching of M.A.S.H. or Cosby, but we also get the chance to watch lesser-known (to non-fans) shows like Daredevil. Daredevil would have never been picked up by networks, or even cable. Even on the slim chance that they had been, Marvel would have been required to change the story to suit the network execs. That's not good. Thanks to Netflix, Marvel can release Daredevil with the story it sees fit. And fans that want to see it can -- unbutchered by some non-fan chowderhead network exec. I hate network TV commercials anyway, as it wastes 20 minutes per hour. My time is more valuable than that.

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