Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

This Week's Sponsor

Kolide ensures only secure devices can access your cloud apps. It's Device Trust for Okta. Watch the demo today!

By Jason Snell

The messy present of our glorious 4K HDR future

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

I’ve been thinking a lot about 4K video lately. I own a 4K TV (although it doesn’t have HDR support, alas). I can watch some stuff at 4K resolutions—Netflix and Amazon streams, some movies from iTunes. I’m thinking of buying a larger 4K TV with HDR support. But the entire world of 4K HDR video is a mess.

Let me back up. 4K and HDR are the buzzwords of the moment, so let me define them. 4K generally means a picture with 4000 horizontal pixels, but when we’re talking about TVs (and devices like the Apple TV 4K) it’s generally referring to an image comprised of 3840 x 2160 pixels. This is also often called UHD (Ultra High Definition) or 2160p, because it’s twice the vertical resolution of the larger of the two dominant HD video resolutions. 4K video has four times the pixels of the 1080p video you’d find on a Blu-Ray disc.

HDR is short for High Dynamic Range. There are a few different competing HDR standards, but to summarize, HDR is about increasing the amount of brightness and color information in a picture, and on the display side, in creating screens that are capable of displaying that information. A movie in HDR format on an excellent HDR-capable display should show deep blacks, bright whites, and brilliant colors.

For most people, HDR is a more noticeable improvement on the viewing experience than 4K (which really only matters when you’re close to a large screen), and that may be why TV manufacturers have largely lumped them together in a general category of “better than your current HDTV.”

Okay, sounds good. I saw “Black Panther” a couple of weeks ago in a theater, and the picture looked worse than the OLED TV I saw on display at Costco. Raising the bar on picture quality in general sounds great.

There’s just the trick of how 4K HDR video will come into my home. And on that front, I’m just not sure how things will shake out.

In the U.S., the transition to HD pictures took years, not just in terms of broadcast, but in terms of getting cable and satellite companies to align. (My cable company still insists on carrying SD channels. In 2018.1) It took ages to get here, and “here” is not great. On top of that, of course, many cable and satellite providers downscale and re-compress HD video to fit it in their system, so what we get isn’t really full quality even at the limited quality levels of the original channels. (I bought a few episodes of “The Magicians” on iTunes last year and was shocked at how much better they looked than the ones I’d been DVR’ing.)

Where does 4K video come in to this mess? I suppose that it’s possible one day broadcast and cable will truly embrace 4K, but it sure seems like streaming is going to be the place where 4K video takes off. Netflix, Amazon, and Apple are already there to some degree. So what if you’re HBO (with “Westworld”) or Starz (with “Counterpart”, which you should absolutely be watching) or FX (with “Legion”)… you’re cable channels with a streaming component, and on cable you can’t muster more than 720p or 1080i.

Do these channels want to get in the 4K HDR game? They can, but right now they’d need to use streaming to do it. Can you imagine HBO offering a new season of “Westworld” on cable in HD, but offering a 4K HDR version via the HBO Go and HBO Now apps? Would that drive people off of their cable boxes and onto their streaming boxes even faster? (For what it’s worth, I already watch all of HBO’s shows on my Apple TV rather than my TiVo… because they show up three hours earlier there. HBO GO doesn’t discriminate against the Pacific time zone; HBO’s feed on my cable service does.)

It gets weirder. There’s a 4K Blu-Ray of “Westworld” season 1. So could HBO upgrade the HBO Go/Now apps to support 4K video and start streaming this stuff at higher resolution?

Weirder still: “Westworld” is shot on film, scanned at 4K resolution… but completed at 2K resolution. That means that it’s not really 4K after all… that 4K Blu-Ray benefits from having support for HDR, better sound, and a higher bit rate, but actual extra pixels? Not really. (This has got to change at some point, right? If 4K HDR is the future, at some point TV studios are going to have to bite the bullet and build 4K masters of their shows just so they aren’t left out when non-4K video is abandoned like standard-def and black-and-white were.)

That opens yet another can of worms: bit rate. If you buy a 4K Blu-Ray of a movie and compare it to the 4K version streaming from iTunes or Netflix, you will discover that it looks way better on the disc. That’s because even on a blazing fast Internet connection, streaming services have to massively compress the video so that it can fit through the pipe. Depending on your eyes and the size of your TV, it might not matter—but it’s a real effect. (I always figure that the 4K versions of Netflix movies look better on my TV not because they’re 4K, but because they’re offered at a much higher bit rate and more efficient video codec than the HD versions.)

So if I want the best version of “Wonder Woman”, I guess I should buy the 4K HDR Blu-Ray. Except I do not want to buy a 4K Blu-Ray player. I don’t want to buy more discs. And yet the streaming providers and movie studios won’t let me download 4K HDR movies, so I’m left with what fits through my Internet connection or a spinning plastic disc.

I’m kind of excited about our 4K HDR video future…. but as for the present, it’s a mess.

  1. I assume some regulation is to blame, but it would be great if cable companies could dump SD channels and offer people with old SD sets a converter box. 

If you appreciate articles like this one, support us by becoming a Six Colors subscriber. Subscribers get access to an exclusive podcast, members-only stories, and a special community.

Search Six Colors