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Ultra HD streaming explained

Updated: Jan 15, 2014 02:56 PM
M-Go Streaming Service (© PR NewsFoto/M-Go) M-Go Streaming Service (© PR NewsFoto/M-Go)

By Caleb Denison
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You couldn't take six steps at CES 2014 without running into something that had to do with Ultra HD 4K technology. Ultra HD, which offers four times the resolution of 1080p HD, is the future of television, and manufacturers of everything from televisions to Wi-Fi routers wanted to show off support for the new standard. But for consumers, many questions remain. Last year, one of the big questions was: Where's the content? This year, the industry answered: It is coming. And, for the most part, it will be streamed.

But an answer like that pries open a whole new can of worms. Who will stream it? How much bandwidth will it require? Will it be compressed? What will compression do to the picture quality? These are all good questions, and after putting them to execs from the industry's biggest players at CES, we know the answers.

Which companies will stream Ultra HD 4K content?

Netflix, Amazon, M-GO and YouTube are the four biggest streaming platforms with plans to stream Ultra HD 4K content this year. Expect a slow start from Netflix, as it is banking on a handful of nature documentaries and the second season of its original series, House of Cards, to get things started. Things look a little more promising with Amazon – at least at the start – as it has announced partnerships with Lion's Gate, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox and Discovery. M-GO is backed by Technicolor and Dreamworks Animation, so we can likely expect plenty of 4K animated features there. As for YouTube, it appears to be partnered with Sony, though it is unclear how Sony will reconcile any content it distributes through YouTube with its own Video Unlimited service, which is designed specifically for Sony TV owners.

What kind of TV will I need?

Broadly speaking, you'll need a 2014 Ultra HD television. The Ultra HD TVs that were released in 2013 (which are still being sold today) will not support the apps or the decoding chips necessary for viewing streaming Ultra HD out of the box. It is possible that manufacturers will have a fix in place for early adopters. Samsung, for instance, may offer an upgraded ‘One Connect' breakout box to those customers who purchased a first-generation Ultra HD set.

But as we dig a little deeper, things get a little more complicated. Each of the streaming services mentioned above are partnered with specific TV manufacturers, sometimes exclusively, sometimes not. M-Go, for instance, appears to be partnered exclusively with Samsung, while Netflix tends to be spread out a little more with Vizio, LG, Sony and Samsung on board. As for Amazon, its partnership appears to be restricted to Samsung right now, though we can't image that relationship remaining monogamous for long. Support for YouTube's Ultra HD content appears to be more widespread. The company showed off Ultra HD streams at LG, Panasonic and Sony's booths at CES 2014, and Samsung, Toshiba and Sharp have all been named as hardware partners as well.

What kind of Internet connection will I need?

Netflix and M-GO have both stated that their Ultra HD streams will require no more than a 15 Mbps connection. Amazon has been less specific, though in a forum at CES it was indicated the company's services would not require more than 20 Mbps. YouTube is different, though, because it will be using its own codec, called VP9. Though we do know that VP9 will be royalty-free (and, therefore, open for anyone to use), we're not certain what kind of bandwidth requirements it might impose. Likely, it won't exceed that of  the H.265 (HEVC) codec that Netflix and M-GO appear to be using.

Unfortunately, a speedy Internet connection is no guarantee of successful Ultra HD streaming. Much depends on the capability of a service's servers, as well as the capabilities and actions of a given Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Currently, Netflix customers are struggling to get reliable 1080p and even 720p HD streams, especially during peak hours. Our own rudimentary test of Netflix streaming indicates the issue likely resides with Netflix's servers. However, it has been noted in the past that some ISPs may be intentionally slowing down high bit-rate traffic from sites like Netflix. No matter which is to blame, the issue remains: If steady 1080p streams are unreliable, then Ultra HD streaming is little more than a pipe dream. Never mind whether the Internet infrastructure is ready, it's the politics between ISP's and streaming media companies that need to be sorted out.

What if I have a data cap?

If you have a data cap on your broadband Internet service, then Ultra HD streaming may not be such a good idea for you. If an Ultra HD stream consumed a steady 15 Mbps throughput for an entire hour (not likely), you would burn through 16GB of your data cap in one sitting.

What is compression and what will it do picture quality?

The Ultra HD video streams we get will be very highly compressed, otherwise they could never be streamed over the Internet as we know it today. Unfortunately, the term "compression" has a bad reputation in the world of video, and is often misunderstood as being synonymous with poor quality. That doesn't necessarily have to be the case. In fact, most people have watched nothing but compressed video their entire lives and been perfectly happy with it … impressed, even.

For those not familiar, compression, at its most basic, is the processes of taking a huge file and shrinking it down to a more manageable size. Lossy compression, the technique used to shrink down video files, works by removing data we're not supposed to notice. Sometimes, it doesn't quite work that way. For instance, in overly compressed video, large, off-color blocks will be visible in what should be a solid pool of black. Bands of color will likely not move smoothly from one another. All kinds of tiny errors crop up during fast-moving scenes.

But that doesn't mean all compressed video is bad. The video on DVDs is compressed to anywhere from 15 to 30 times its original size, but it was still hailed as a massive step up from VHS when it arrived because of its higher resolution. Likewise, the HD video feeds we get from our cable or satellite companies are highly compressed, but still look vastly superior to standard-def because of their higher native resolution. Even Blu-ray, the least-compressed 1080p source the consumer can get his hands on, is still highly compressed, and we all agree it looks spectacular.

This isn't to suggest that the Ultra HD streams will be glorious. We will see the same compression artifacts that we see with compressed HD now. Still, detail will be enhanced, color will be a little deeper, and, at the end of the day, it will look better than the 1080p we see streamed now. Having seen compressed Ultra HD streamed in the flesh, we can confirm that it is, indeed, a leap forward from the status quo.

This article was originally posted on Digital Trends

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