As we reported in January, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray players were supposed to arrive by the end of this year. They probably won't. And if you're a fan of 3D TV, you won't see 3D movies in 4K glory, though some manufacturers might offer players that can accommodate current high-def 3D titles.
That disappointing news is among the takeaways from a recent briefing by the Blu-ray Disc Association, or BDA, which said the industry is moving into licensing and product deployment now that the specifications for Ultra Blu-ray have been completed. While the BDA can't speak for manufacturers, it did acknowledge that it expected to hear several product announcements at CES in January.
Is there any chance Ultra HD Blu-ray players will emerge before the holidays? That's looking unlikely. Earlier this week, Panasonic announced it would ship its first UHD player, the $3,000-plus UBZ1, to stores in Japan in November. There are no firm plans for a U.S. launch. Samsung previously reported that its first UHD Blu-ray player won't arrive until 2016.
Some Good News
- When Ultra HD Blu-ray players do finally hit the market, Ultra Blu-ray players—paired with high-performing UHD TVs—should provide the best picture quality consumers have ever seen. The specifications include 4K (3840x2160) resolution, 10-bit color with support for color gamuts beyond the current Rec.709 standard, and rates of up to 60 frames per second.
- Ultra HD Blu-ray players that offer high dynamic range support will all conform to a baseline SMPTE specification, but manufacturers and movie studios will decide for themselves whether they want to support additional, optional HDR formats from brands such as Dolby (Dolby Vision) and Philips as well.
- The new Ultra HD Blu-ray discs will feature the more efficient HEVC video encoding adopted by almost all the streaming services that offer 4K content. They will also support both Dolby (Atmos) and DTS (DTS-X) object-based audio. Current standard high-def Blu-ray discs can be played on Ultra HD Blu-ray players, but the new UlHD Blu-ray titles won't work on regular Blu-ray players.
Some have questioned whether Blu-ray discs will have a future in a world increasingly enamored with streaming. The industry's response is simple: Ultra HD Blu-ray player and discs provide the best possible picture quality for those who own high-performing UHD TVs. The picture quality of the 4K content from services such as Amazon and Netflix is highly dependent on the viewer's broadband connection and the amount of network traffic inside and outside the viewer's home.
With a constant bitrate in excess of 100Mbps second—four times the FCC's definition of what constitutes broadband—Ultra Blu-ray promises a consistent, reliable, high level of performance currently unmatched by streaming.
At the same time, the industry has acknowledged the shifts in viewer habits with an Ultra Blu-ray feature called "copy and export." As its name suggests, copy and export lets you make a bit-for-bit copy of an Ultra HD film or program and store it on an authorized hard drive. That means you can probably expect to see Ultra HD Blu-ray players with 1TB or more hard drives.
Using the export feature, you'll be able to transfer a file—presumably a lower-quality version of the content—to authorized mobile devices. But you can't transfer it directly on your own to that device; it will have to go through a third-party service such as Vidity or UltraViolet. Both the movie studio and the player will have to implement this feature for it to work.
Just like current Blu-ray titles, Ultra Blu-ray discs can carry lower-quality content, such as 1080p programs or movies, but manufacturers must clearly state that in the tech specs box on the package. One advantage to doing this would be to include an entire series on a single disc. There will be three disc sizes: 50GB, 66GB, and 100GB, depending on the length of the program material and which extra features—wider color gamuts, HDR, etc—are included.
While some company could still surprise us and ship Ultra HD Blu-ray players in time for the holidays, it's less likely with each passing day. We'll continue to monitor new developments.
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