I first noticed the difference when tiny white flakes floated across the screen.
I was using an Epson Home Cinema 5040UB, one of the first 4K home projectors (it costs a cool $2,999). Big spoiler alert here, and I mean a big one, but I was watching the show Stranger Things on Netflix and the white flakes float down from an alternate universe, a sure sign that something was amiss. You can’t see the intricate cross-section of each flake, but it doesn’t matter, because on a normal HD television at 55-inches, those flakes are barely noticeable. My “screen” was about 12 feet wide and those finer details made every brilliantly crafted episode seem even more surreal. I remember thinking: 4K is the only way to watch this.
Then, I watched a long-jump competition at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Kudos to DISH and NBC for making a 4K channel available that seemed to dispense with any of the goofy broadcaster merriment and showed, in crisp 4K resolution, the athletes jumping right… toward… you in full color glory. I actually flinched once or twice when the sand sprayed at me and finally, at last, after all of this time, felt 4K was worth it.
What’s changed since the last time I wrote about this technology? In some ways, it’s been a few fits and starts. I’m still not sure what Amazon is doing with their 4K streams because they still look grainy and lifeless. There are quite a few glitches still, which I’ll explain in a bit. Yet, like Stranger Things, you get lost in the moment, blissfully unaware that multiple gigs of information are flying at you when you duck out of the way with every bat swing, blood splatter, and awkward teenage kiss.
Part of the brilliance of 4K is the size. I’ve tested dozens and dozens of projectors over the years, but this is the best one by far. It’s no contest. My entire wall filled with (again, major spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the show) a strange faceless creature with claws. With normal HD projectors, you lose some of the quality at this size, and there’s a strange pixelization and graying that occurs. 4K maintains the integrity. When I tested 4K last November, Netflix probably hadn’t figured out how to make 4K look so smooth or maybe the 4K television I was using didn’t have the processing chops to keep things so smooth. I wasn't that impressed, but that's changed.
Importantly, there also wasn’t as much 4K content available. Rio played for two weeks in 4K showing swimming matches, bicycling, wrestling, and everything in between all day long. I recorded everything so I can go back and watch the U.S. basketball games or that one volleyball match against Serbia. The DISH Hopper 3 never had any stuttering problems and, since I started with a fairly clean storage drive, never filled up unexpectedly. I can easily imagine what 4K will be like now, for the first time, after watching the Olympics every day without any problems.
There were only a few minor setup issues this time. One is that I didn’t realize my older Sony receiver doesn't support HDCP 2.2, which is required for 4K video. (Last time, the Yamaha receiver I had in as a loaner worked fine.) I had to run an RCA cable to my Sony receiver from the Hopper and connect an HDMI cable directly to the Epson projector. I also re-tested the NVIDIA Shield Android TV and had to stream music over Bluetooth to a wireless speaker. For my next test, I plan to upgrade to a newer receiver or use a soundbar and subwoofer directly from the Hopper 3.
I'm still not impressed with many of the streaming services like Vudu and Amazon because the 4K content is so slim. Yet, I can see some glimmer of hope. If more sports channels were in 4K, if DISH offered more 4K movies, and Vudu had a much wider selection (at a lower price), I'd be sold. I plan to watch more of the Netflix shows in 4K and can only assume that the major networks will eventually start offering their fall shows in 4K at some point.
There's some hope here, even if Stranger Things ended with a bit of a thud. (Seriously guys, please try to resolve these things better.)
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