Once upon a time Blu-ray was the standard-bearer for picture quality, but streaming services could very well lead the way from here. We have had access to Netflix in 4K for some days now. Here are our hands-on impressions.
Hands-on with Netflix 4K streaming
If you own an Ultra HD - or 4K - TV today you probably have a hard time finding content. Blu-ray movies are released in 1080p, so if you want to enjoy four times the pixels Netflix is the only choice available in the mainstream market. It does not come at a premium either. 4K is available from your Netflix account right now.
The catalogue is limited at the moment. The critically acclaimed House of Cards with Kevin Spacey in the lead role is available in 4K - but only season 2. Some nature documentaries are also available, but Netflix has committed to produce all future TV series in 4K resolution, including Orange is the New Black, Hemlock Grove and Sense8. Breaking Bad will also be available in 4K soon.
House of Cards is available in “Ultra HD 4K”
We have seen 4K streaming from Netflix before, but while testing Samsung HU8500 (HU9000) we had a chance to take a much closer look. It also gave us an excuse to watch House of Cards during work hours. Netflix specifically labels content that is available as "Ultra HD 4K". When you press play you will get a SD picture, but it will quickly jump to the 4K layer. We experienced no drops in quality afterwards, even though we were using a WiFi connection.
Picture quality is pretty incredible. You can literally see every wrinkle in Mr. Spacey’s face. House of Cards is not exactly action-packed so we had plenty of opportunities for studying the tiny details. At times it felt like people are actually right in front of you. In the best shots the detail level exceeds that of Blu-ray, but in other shots - for example movement - it is hard to tell a difference.
You will be impressed by the picture quality and it is hard to argue that streaming services offer subpar picture quality nowadays. Just take a look at your TV channels. Most people have probably never seen a TV channel in Full HD 1080p - almost every TV channels is 720p or 1080i. Netflix deserves praise for pushing the limits.
Notice the 2160p text in the upper left corner. This is the 4K layer from Netflix
We should probably add that a 55-inch TV is large enough to enjoy the 4K experience from Netflix. It was easy to spot the difference between the 1080p and 4K layer. Some describe it as a veil being lifted. We would not put it in such dramatic words, but you can easily see the difference. It is quite significant.
You need a Smart TV - and HEVC
Netflix is using HEVC decoding with a 15.6 Mb/s bitrate. A typical Blu-ray movie hovers around 20-25 Mb/s (some go higher) MPEG4 (H.264), but HEVC is said to be twice as effective as H.264. 15.6 Mb/s seems to be high enough for the current 4K videos available from Netflix, but we can imagine that for example sports or action movies will require a higher bitrate.
To experience 4K from Netflix you need one of the new 2014 Ultra HD Smart TVs from either Samsung, Sony or LG. Panasonic is planning to add support later this year. Sony recently introduced the first 4K media player with support for Netflix 4K. In addition you require a 16 Mb/s - preferably faster - internet connection.