Sony’s recent announcement of the PlayStation 4 left fans feeling conflicted — some of the announcements, like the next-gen console’s modern x86-based CPU and graphics, were great to see. Not actually seeing the console was less exciting.
One aspect that was left largely unmentioned was the PS4’s tie-in with Sony’s also-next-gen $25K Ultra HD BRAVIA TV.
NB: In this article, we’ll use the terms ‘Ultra HD’ and ‘4K’ interchangeably. We note that the CEA has codified ‘Ultra HD’ as the correct term for the resolution we’re talking about, but Sony is being particularly stubborn in using the term ‘4K Ultra HD’ to refer to its various above-1080p display devices. So, we’ll compromise.
According to Polygon, the PS4 won’t be able to play games at a native 4K resolution — we expect the hardware it runs on just isn’t powerful enough, and the screens themselves are going to be rare for the next few years. It will be able to play 4K video, though, as well as high-resolution photos.
This fits in conveniently with Sony’s aspirations for its 4K Ultra HD BRAVIA and 4K projector. We already know that Sony is going to be throwing in 10 4K movies with every Ultra HD TV it sells, with a proprietary hard drive-based Ultra HD video player — in the US, at least. Sony's also onboard with its "world's first" Ultra HD video delivery service for the BRAVIA and the PS4.
There’s a big problem for Australian hi-def video buffs here, though.
Locally, LG is keeping quiet on any in-house 4K video services for its $16K Ultra HD TV, and Samsung, the other soon-to-be-big Ultra HD player, hasn’t said anything about how potential buyers might watch 4K movies on their new TVs either. Both these Korean companies are huge, but they’re hardware companies without any real stake in content. When we hear about Ultra HD TVs from Panasonic, Sharp, or Toshiba, we bet they’ll be quiet on Ultra HD movies too.
Sony, however, is unique — it has the help of its Sony Pictures film production arm. A huge film company and the world’s best better-than-Full HD video cameras is a recipe for some of the most visually stunning movies available; the company definitely has the video content on hand, as well as some capable playback hardware.
We look to Sony to see the future of Ultra HD.
The problem is this — the PlayStation 4’s Blu-ray drive will only officially support 1080p Full HD video playback when it launches, just like any other Blu-ray player you can buy today. Sony has some ‘Mastered in 4K’ Blu-rays coming out, but they’re not actually 4K, rather just especially-high-quality Full HD.
The Blu-ray Disc Association, the peak body responsible for setting standards for the format, is only four months into the process of considering the feasibility of 4K content on Blu-ray discs — so although it’s technically feasible, we won’t be seeing Ultra HD Blu-rays any time soon.
As physical standards go, we’re confident that no game-changing, market-disrupting successor to Blu-ray will be out in at least the next few years. The PlayStation 3’s Blu-ray drive was largely responsible for driving initial uptake of the new video format, and the confirmation of regular ol’ Blu-ray in the PS4 sets the tone for the next half-decade. We’re hearing whispers that Microsoft is on board with Blu-ray as well in the next Xbox.
Ultra HD — without Blu-ray?
That puts physical discs for 4K movies out of the question. The only avenue left for ultra-high-def movies anywhere then is in digital delivery via the Internet. Sony Electronics USA president Phil Molyneux has gone so far as to say that "the whole world is moving more and more to download" when talking about any possibility of Ultra HD Blu-rays.
The big problem that Australians have with that is this: 100GB movie downloads. To get proper movie-disc-quality Ultra HD video, there isn't too much wiggle room on this number — you quickly start losing video quality to compression artifacts and there's no point to Ultra HD at all. One possible solution is HEVC, but it's not a sure thing just yet, with hardware support unlikely 'til 2014.
If you’re living in Kansas and have relatively cheap Google Fiber, a 100GB download to get a couple of hours of Ultra HD feature film into your living room isn’t a big deal — a 13-minute wait for an entire movie, by our rather optimistic calculations (102400MB at 125MB/sec on Gigabit Google Fiber). Unlimited download quotas, too.
If you’re living almost anywhere in Australia, a 100GB 4K movie download just isn’t feasible. Again, calculating optimistically, Australia’s best ADSL2+ connection will take 9 and a half hours to get that two hours of 4K video. Even at a quarter of the size and time, a 25GB 1080p movie download — that’s full Full HD Blu-ray quality, no compression — still isn’t feasible for most households.
We say almost because the allure of NBN Co’s 100Mb/s fibre-to-the-premises connections, currently slowly rolling out around the country, gives us the slightest glimmer of hope.
But even after you’ve got the fast connection, you’ve still got Australia’s traditionally stingy download quotas to deal with, whether you’re on ADSL2+ or the NBN. Buy an NBN plan from iinet — the fastest 100Mb/s speed, the largest 1000GB combined on/off-peak quota — and you’re up for a full $100 per month to download the same ten movies that Sony throws in with an Ultra HD TV for free in the US, and nothing else.
So while the technical appeal of Ultra HD TVs is certainly there — they do look stunning — there’s simply no way that Australia will be seeing many accompanying Ultra HD movies any time soon, whether it's via the Internet or through Blu-rays in your local JB Hi-Fi.
All you can do for now is buy yourself a copy of TimeScapes and stick it on repeat.