The sad, disappointing, and frustrating state of 4K video

I had high hopes for 4K finally living up to my expectations. Ah, not really.

Roku 4 user interface

If there was a technology I’d call out as a dismal failure in 2015, it would have to be 4K.

It’s also one of those innovations I want to like. I had visions (excuse the pun) of watching major Hollywood movies like Ant-Man in wonderful 3840x2160 pixels, which is four times the resolution of HD. (For those who care, it’s 2,073,600 pixels versus 8,294,400.) I expected brilliant colors, sharp focus, high contrast -- essentially, something that’s a bit otherworldly as though the actors were sitting right in front of me.

Another reason I had high expectations is that 4K has been around a while now. It’s a big selling point for the holiday season. All of the boxes at Wal-Mart say 4K or UHD. When you visit sites to shop for televisions, they all highlight the 4K experience. It’s a promise of deeper immersion. At CES in Las Vegas, 4K has been "a thing" for years.

The reality is something else entirely.

First, I did manage to get all of the proper hardware working just fine. I used a Samsung JS9000 65-inch 4K UHD SmartTV curved television, basically the best you can find and one of my favorite displays. I also tested out the new Roku 4, which has a handy feature called 4K Spotlight that finds 4K movies and shows from multiple services like Vudu and M-Go and puts them all in one bucket. I even connected the new NVIDIA Shield, which supports both Netflix 4K shows and in 4K.

Then, I had a complete meltdown of high-resolution entertainment.

It was a series of 4K missteps. Here’s the cold hard truth. First, on the Samsung 65-inch television, when you try to play Amazon movies and shows in 4K, the stream always ends up switching to HD. (Amazon says they are looking into the issue.) I was using a fast cable connection at 60 megs, but it didn’t matter. No matter which content I played -- YouTube 4K videos, Netflix shows, or Amazon shows and movies -- the stream always played in HD. Many of the Amazon movies are just upsampled from HD anyway.

Next, the Vudu and M-Go services seemed promising, but the second cold hard truth is that most of the Hollywood movies in 4K cost $30 and you can only purchase them. I only found one movie for rent -- the disaster flick San Andreas, which I watched twice. I will admit being impressed by the quality, seeing individual flecks of dirt during a boat scene that were definitely harder to see in the HD stream, and noting how water droplets had more clarity like you could reach out and pop them.

Most 4K movies on Vudu and M-Go are not available to rent, though. It’s as though the 4K market is stuck in that awkward period when movies are released for purchase before you can rent them (which is, by the way, true of Ant-Man right now -- but not in 4K). The idea is that you purchase this gear to watch content in 4K and then have to come to grips with the fact that there isn’t any content. Of the movies available to purchase, there are only a few dozen and a handful of recent releases.

Another realization had to do with the NVIDIA Shield. It’s an amazing device -- simple to use, with a remote that has a microphone so you can do voice searches on Google. The interface is streamlined to help you find movies, shows, apps, and games quickly. But when you want to watch anything in 4K, you are stuck with Netflix (which as I said doesn’t stream properly even on a very high-speed connection) or YouTube 4K, which did work fine, but there are only a handful of good videos. Most of them are proof-of-concept clips showing nature scenes or people at water parks.

I’d hate to be the person who gets excited about a new 4K television, installs the NVIDIA Shield or the Roku 4, plunks down on a sofa with the remote and a bag of popcorn, and then realizes the selection of movies is abysmal and the quality is not that appealing.

I equate this problem to the one in the auto industry with autonomous cars. You think, if I buy a Tesla Model S, maybe someday it will drive by itself. Then you finally get a chance to upgrade (for $2,500) to Autopilot and find out it’s really just auto-steering and using adaptive cruise at highways speeds. I like the tech myself, but I can imagine someone who paid $85,000 for the car being really disappointed.  

The only way to really deal with the issue is to assume that, someday-maybe 4K will be more viable. I did hear that DirecTV offers 4K content, but wasn't available to review due to the recent AT&T acquisition. I liked how a few movies, like Fantastic Four in 4K, at least gave me a better sense of being in the theater, where 4K movies on an IMAX screen look almost photo-realistic. It’s just not enough (apart from the wooden acting in that film and the lame script) to make 4K compelling. At least, not yet.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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