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This article is a continuation of the "Living with 4K" series of articles.

As I mentioned on my previous article regarding 4K players, I started with the idea of testing Sony's FMP-X1 4K player offered as part of the upgrade of my VPL-VW1000ES 4K projector (to the newer VPL-VW1100ES model), which was covered on the previous article, and also evaluating the quality of the 4K content available for download from Sony's Video Unlimited 4K Service, covered on this article.

Background

Over a year ago (March 2013) I performed my first review of 4K content using my own 4K projector and a server Sony's used to demo 4K on trade shows such as CES and CEDIA that Sony made available for my review. Below is an excerpt from that article:

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"The 4K experience is analogous to when a hi-end audio/video system is subjected to reproduce substandard content, or using low quality wiring, unmatched components, speaker coloration or positioning, incorrect audio/video calibration, or a signal source that is not consistently recorded with the expected excellent quality of the format.

Small imperfections in an otherwise high quality set of components will be immediately noticed as "something is wrong or is missing" or "this is not right, the system is better than this" degrading the whole system and its justification for its higher cost.

In this case, even using the 4K F65 cameras, a minor drop of proper illumination, a bit out of focus, not the right depth, too fast pan, the wrong choice of scene or objects, etc. made those few seconds degrade an otherwise brilliant 4K clip, which no doubt can motivate negative comments of the kind of "4K is not worth, I do not see the difference, who needs so much resolution", add the price information to that and anyone can anticipate the reaction. 

Additionally, this is also similar to when we started with HD in 1998 and had to rethink new approaches for make-ups, lighting, camera shots, etc. and perhaps even facelifts in a hurry due to the increased detail.

In summary, proper quality in 4K content and in the whole chain all the way up to the display device is required to notice a difference with 4K. When is done well it is too obvious to ignore it. So creating a good 4K camera or a stunning 4K display are just two items of the chain, many things in between can affect the outcome, such as using excessive compression on an otherwise excellent 4K content just to make it fit in the old jar."

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4K Content Now

Fast forward to August 2014 and Sony has now two 4K players for consumers, however, not much has changed regarding the content quality of most of the 4K video I have seen on the FMP-X1 player compared to a year ago, although Sony has now a Video Unlimited 4K service that offers over 200 titles, some for rental some for sale, and many free short clips.

Sony FMP-X1 4K Downloading PlayerFor the past two years I have been displaying 1080p sources and 4K (limited to the available 4:2:0 chroma sub-sampling, 8-bit color depth, 24/30 fps) on my 4K projector, and most of the 4K content from Sony's 4K service available TODAY for consumers does not have the stunning image quality that 4K "should" be able to show for a "wow" difference with upscaled 1080p to motivate UHDTV buyers.

To be specific, it does not categorically distinguish itself from a well upscaled 1080p Blu-Ray version using the Reality Creation feature of the 4K projector. That upscaling ability should actually be taken as a big plus that would facilitate the gradual adoption of 4K displays without requiring much 4K content available.

Does 1080p upscaled to 4K in a UHDTV show better than the same 1080p image shown by a 1080p display? Yes, a 4K display adds image improvements with its video processor that, depending on the quality of the video processing, untrained eyes may not easily identify differences between a 4K original and an upscaled 1080p image viewed at the recommended distance to appreciate 4K quality, often my reason for not justifying the purchase of a 4K downloaded version of an already owned Blu-Ray movie.

Ironically, some upscaled Blu-Rays showed even better than the 4K downloaded version (which may cost 50% more), one factor that may explain that is that the Blu-Ray disc content was recorded and played at a high bit rate while the 4K downloaded movie may have more pixels on the original image but may have also required more compression, which typically softens the image.

Perhaps the source may have not been actually 4K before its transfer to 4K, or the 4K source may have been subjected to CGI editing in 2K. How a consumer may know that? Typically may not, other than noticing some softness compared to other 4K sources.

Throughout the years I purchased selected movies in various formats looking for better audio and video quality for my collected content, however, after viewing the content offered TODAY in 4K I do not find motivation in purchasing a downloaded movie from the selection Sony offers, even if I do not have the movie and would be interested in owning it.

Out of the dozens of short 4K free clips offered with the service, I only kept recorded in the player's hard drive just the few that have better image quality, although they are still not representative of the best quality 4K can show. I deleted the rest of the 4K content to leave space for other movies, but unfortunately the 4K movies available on the Video Unlimited Service are either old, not of my preference, or are of unacceptable 4K video quality, regardless of cost.

Other than for my task of testing and for the review, since I got the player a few months ago my viewing of original 4K content has been close to zero for my own entertainment.

Source: Sony

Source: Sony

There are several reasons for that, a) the image quality of Blu-Ray upscaled/video processed to 4K with Reality Creation (after enhanced by Darbee) is excellent, b) Blu-Ray content abounds in quantity and variety of new releases from many movie studios, and also c) the features of lossless multi-channel audio, multiple languages, subtitle positioning into a Cinemascope image (not just into the bottom black bar), are not available in 4K downloads.

Not to mention the importance of immediate availability in Blu-Ray of the content I want to see without having to wait most of the day for it to download as 4K, and, as it has happened to me, having to postpone its viewing to the following day, and delete it from the hard drive after viewing to make room for other storage-hungry movies. According to Sony: 4K movies are big and a typical movie can take anywhere from 8 to 50 hours to download.

However, to its credit, 4K showed a stunning image when the camera shots, light, scenery, close-ups, camera pans, zoom, depth, etc. were right, but in over two years, only 5% of the 4K content I viewed was as good.

I also downloaded 3 movies, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, The Tourist, and Zorro; the three took about 90 GB from the available space in the hard drive and needed more than a day to download using my 100Mbps Internet line.

Regarding the player/tablet/content operation I experienced something that may have been an isolated event but could certainly be discouraging for a non-technical user. When the downloads completed the tablet showed messages of not connecting with the player even when the player was still listed as an identified device thru Wi-Fi, and with an active internet connection.

When they connected with each other it was only for a brief moment to disconnect again. It took several cycles of shutting down the tablet and the player (by removing it's power), and even then, when they connected and movie titles were shown on the tablet the connection was lost again or froze when pressing play or stop.

If my endeavor would not have been for debugging/reviewing for this article but rather for just entertainment I would not have continued with the unit and the content, perhaps returned it. After about one hour of repeated shutdowns/reboots the pair started to work as expected and continued to perform well after that.

This is the beginning of 4K players and 4K content for consumers, and I still commend Sony for their effort in innovating and giving consumers the opportunity to start experiencing the first steps of 4K, which no doubt has potential for improvement, and I hope that the arrival of 4K Blu-Ray will bring a big change in image and sound quality.

Final Thoughts

Allow me to be your devil's advocate today and expand the analysis from various angles considering that everyone has different purposes and preferences for choosing equipment quality, content type and methods of receiving content with downloads, streaming or discs.

Some prefer to pay extra for better quality of equipment or image; some even do that unable to evaluate the difference. Others may systematically avoid paying more for quality, including 4K.

Most consumers need guidance to learn how to identify differences and artifacts in image quality and unfortunately brick and mortar stores that may offer that guidance are fading away (assuming their sales staff know how to do it), and also there is an increase of buying thru the Internet to get rock bottom prices, and not even seeing the image of a TV set.

You may be a fan of 4K but perhaps not of downloading 4K content that you cannot physically collect as you may do with Blu-Ray discs, or, perhaps that is exactly what you want, have no more physical media and keep all content in the "cloud".

Content Selection

The 4K movies available in Sony's Entertainment service maybe of your interest, or maybe not, or you may already own them in Blu-Ray, and as I mentioned before, be satisfied enough viewing them upscaled to 4K.

Some may want to own the 4K version even when they already own the movie in lower resolution formats such as DVD or Blu-Ray. Some may object that 4K players are only compatible with Sony UHDTVs, or dislike having access to only Sony's studios content.

Your 4K VPL-VW1000 projector upgrade may have included $300 4K movie credits (or specific preselected movies) that may be of your preference, or not. Today's available selection of 200+ movies in the Sony Unlimited 4K service may be the type of content you like, or not, you may prefer that single movie studio, or not, or it may be content you already own and want other variety that is not available in 4K.

In the case of the projector's upgrade program the movie credits expire in March 2015 which limits the variety and the number of movies available for download to just the next few months, rendering the credits not as valuable if the selection does not augment considerably in the short term (unlikely, judging by the slow pace of growth since introduction), or the expiration date is not extended (more unlikely, considering Sony discontinued the credits offer on the newest player). The alternative would be to use the credits before the deadline on 4K movies you would not have bought otherwise, but who benefits in such situation?

Download/Streaming Cost

Granted 4K is not 1080p Blu-Ray, but as I mentioned before 1080p is close enough to TODAY's 4K regarding image quality because is upscaled by the UHDTV, not to mention superior to 4K downloads regarding all the other factors such as lossless audio, languages, subtitles, etc.

Regarding the cost of Sony's 4K content, most 4K downloads are not of recent movies but still at least 50% more expensive than new arrivals of Blu-Ray movies, and they rent for about 5 times the cost of a redbox Blu-Ray.

For example, the most recent movie I downloaded "The Amazing Spiderman 2" for $29.99, which could also be rented for $7.99, was sold in Blu-Ray for $19.99 upon introduction (in a three format package, Blu-Ray/DVD/Ultraviolet), and rents for $1.59 in redbox Blu-Ray. I will be glad to pay the higher pricing if the quality of 4K content is better than it is (also consider the Total Cost of Ownership covered further below).

Of course downloading or streaming will save you the burden of going out for the redbox disc rental, but you may instead have to settle for a long 4K download that may not be completed until the following day, and the player does not allow you to start the viewing while the remaining content is being downloaded. Certainly not an impulse VOD experience for those that like a last minute selection of a movie to watch after dinner.

Since 4K downloads take several hours to be available for viewing, the expectation (as Sony also says) is that the image quality would be better and less compressed than Netflix streamed 4K in real time. Although in theory this should be true, the image quality of the download was not that great in practice, so I imagine what to expect from Netflix streaming then, and what to expect from Netflix on an ISP bandwidth lower than 20 Mbps, or shared with other Internet activity in the house.

Total Cost of Ownership per Movie

To evaluate cost properly the total cost of ownership must include the cost of delivering the content as well, not just the download. Whether is for download or stream, cost would inevitably and continuously be affected by higher ISP rates, higher tier cost for faster speed, limited monthly data caps, with or without net neutrality.

The total cost of ownership per movie would be much higher than the sole price of the download, and probably will be even more expensive than a near future 4K Blu-Ray that is autonomous from the cost of Internet delivery, although inconvenient if buying the disc at the local store, or getting to the nearby redbox rental (in the hope that redbox may eventually have 4K Blu-Rays, if that business model does not disappear).

I discussed a similar concept of Total Cost of Ownership when I reviewed the Kaleidescape Cinema One system to download and store movies from their online library, which can oscillate between $60 and $105 per movie depending of the system and the mode of collecting the movies (downloads only, Blu-Rays and downloads, etc.), and that was not taking into consideration the cost of delivering the movie via the Internet connection.

For example, a subscriber of Comcast Xfinity Internet service, depending where he/she lives, may be restricted to about 300GB data cap usage per month (according to the updated plan conditions of August 2014), which may represent a maximum of six 4K downloaded movies of 50GB each, as Sony Entertainment's website estimates a typical 4K movie may take on their player's hard drive (and of ISP transmission line for the download).

Moreover, Comcast offers a Flexible Data Option, by which it charges $10 for every 50GB that exceeds the monthly data cap, which would be the cost of downloading one 4K movie over the ISP line, that $10 delivery cost should be added to the $30 movie cost for those subscribers.

Other ISP providers may charge differently (or have no data-caps such as Verizon FiOS or my own Fiber cable service), or be limited to just 100GB data-cap per month, such as Charter in Hollister CA ($40 per month, equivalent $20 per 4K movie download).

A subscriber from Charter mentioned that although the data-cap is a soft target, Charter may send a couple of monthly notices if exceeding the 100GB cap, and if the cap continues to be exceeded the ISP will 'offer' a better (read: higher cost) service, and if he/she does not accept their 'offer', or do not reduce the downloading, the service may be cancelled.

Regarding streaming, as Sony mentions on their 4K Entertainment web site, the 4K signal would be more compressed than the better quality downloaded version of the same movie, and the cost of delivering a streamed 4K 2hr movie at 20Mbps may be half of the $10 above if data caps are exceeded.

4K Content is not Needed to Enjoy a 4K UHDTV

I see this effort as just the beginning of 4K, and any imperfection should not be used against buying a 4K set "if you need a TV now" (and rather buy an HDTV), or used as an excuse for waiting until the format, the standard, the content, the equipment, and technology, are all fully developed and compatible across manufacturers at competitive prices. However, if you do not need a TV now, waiting longer for a 4K UHDTV/player may benefit you in some of the above factors.

4K UHDTV prices are rapidly getting closer to their 1080p HDTV versions and larger screen sizes are available and make the higher resolution more justifiable.

There is no need for demanding that 4K content be available to start enjoying a 4K UHDTV, just as HDTV early adopters did in 1998 when it was introduced, with almost no HD content to watch.

Perspective is King

Those early adopters bought their first HDTV primarily to enjoy progressive DVD anamorphic widescreen movies, a 480i/p format introduced two years earlier (1996), upscaled 6 times by the HDTV and showing smaller letterboxed black bars that 4:3 TVs.

Comparatively, a 4K UHDTV upscales 4 times the pixel count of 1080p Blu-ray or HD content from cable/satellite/over-the-air sources, exactly doubling the pixel count in both directions, a perfect fit on the same aspect ratio of 16:9.

That was how the first couple of million HDTVs were sold during the first 3 years (1998-2001) of the DTV transition, with barely no HD over-the-air content available other than a few repeated PBS 1-hr HD loops, no cable/satellite HD service for a while, no Blu-Ray disc of the same HD resolution until 8 years later (2006, with a first Sony Blu-Ray player that cost $800+), no Over-the-Top services for Internet downloading or streaming, etc.

The same chicken and egg situation of "content/TV" being criticized now for 4K by some uninformed journalists was discussed back in 1998 for HDTV. However, HD and SD had approved standards for over-the-air broadcast, the main source of HD back then, while today's content distribution model is more diverse, with cable, satellite, IPTV downloads and streaming, discs, etc.

An HDTV back then cost about 3 times as much as a similar size UHDTV today (I paid $8,000 for a 58-inches Pioneer Elite in 1998 dollars, with more rudimentary electronics than today's sets).

Under that perspective, 4K UHDTVs, players, and content are relatively in good health, increasingly available almost in sync, reasonable in cost, and blending the pricing and timing of early adopters and typical consumers closer than before, thanks to Sony, Samsung, LG and many others that made 4K possible.

Posted by Rodolfo La Maestra, September 4, 2014 7:38 AM

More in Category: 4K (Ultra HD)

About Rodolfo La Maestra

Rodolfo La Maestra is the Senior Technical Director of UHDTV Magazine and HDTV Magazine and participated in the HDTV vision since the late 1980's. In the late 1990's, he began tracking and reviewing HDTV consumer equipment, and authored the annual HDTV Technology Review report, tutorials, and educative articles for HDTV Magazine, DVDetc and HDTVetc  magazines, Veritas et Visus Newsletter, Display Search, and served as technical consultant/editor for the "Reference Guide" and the "HDTV Glossary of Terms" for HDTVetc and HDTV Magazines.  In 2004, he began recording a weekly HDTV technology program for MD Cable television, which by 2006 reached the rating of second most viewed.

Rodolfo's background encompasses Electronic Engineering, Computer Science, and Audio and Video Electronics, with over 4,700 hours of professional training, a BS in Computer and Information Systems, and thirty+ professional and post-graduate certifications, some from MIT, American, and George Washington Universities.  Rodolfo was also Computer Science professor in five institutions between 1966-1973 in Argentina, regarding IBM, Burroughs, and Honeywell mainframe computers.  After 38 years of computer systems career, Rodolfo retired in 2003 as Chief of Systems Development from the Inter-American Development Bank directing sixty+ software-development computer professionals, supporting member countries in north/central/south America.

In parallel, from 1998 he helped the public with his other career of audio/video electronics, which started with hi-end audio in the early 60’s and merged with Home Theater video, multichannel audio
, HD, 3D and UHDTV. When HDTV started airing in November 1998, and later followed by 3DTV and 4K UHDTV, he realized that the technology as implemented would overwhelm consumers due to its complexity, and it certainly does even today, and launched his mission of educating and helping consumers understand the complexity, the challenge, and the beauty of the technology pursuing better sound and image, so the public learn to appreciate it not just as another television.