Why can’t your computer stream 4K yet? Crazy compression and piracy

Streaming 4k content on computer
Amazon and Netflix recently enabled 4K streaming, an important milestone for many home viewers. Ultra HD media players remain expensive, but streaming is a possible alternative. Why spend hundreds on a 4K Blu-Ray player when a media-streaming device can fill the same role?

Yet this momentous rollout came with a major restriction: It doesn’t work with PCs. Aside from videos uploaded to YouTube, there’s currently no reliable source of Ultra HD media for computers. What’s going on, and when will this barrier be thrown down?

Foiled by format

Amazon and Netflix, the two major players in online streaming that offer UltraHD, have never given a technical reason why computers can’t play such content. For the most part the issue is entirely ignored; FAQ pages from both companies simply don’t discuss the issue, choosing to instead talk about the particulars of HDTV support or, in Amazon’s case, helpfully suggest a few Ultra HD sets viewers might want to purchase.

Better HEVC support is a problem largely in Intel’s hands.

The issue this duo tiptoes around is support for High-Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), aka H.265, the latest standard for encoding high-resolution video. Finalized in January of 2013, HEVC supports resolutions up to 8K (8,192 x 4,320) and drastically reduces file size relative to its predecessor, H.264. Its combination of high-resolution support and excellent compression without a drastic reduction in quality makes HEVC ideal for streaming 4K.

HEVC is relatively new, though, so the vast majority of computers don’t have the ability to decode it in hardware as they can H.264. That means a far slower software decode process must be used, which puts smooth 1080p video playback outside the reach of older desktops and many mobile systems. 4K of course greatly multiples the load, making smooth play even less likely.

Blame DRM, again

This explanation doesn’t explain everything, however. Even if HEVC support was the root cause, why doesn’t the option at least exist?

Blame the movie studios. For them, Ultra HD is more than just a tool to promote expensive re-masters of older movies. It’s a chance to put the genie back in the bottle. Anyone can jump on a Torrent site and quickly find a high-quality 1080p copy of a movie or TV series, and time has proven there’s no effective way to bring those copies down. With 4K, the studios are trying a different strategy; make sure the copy is never made in the first place.

hdcp playbackThis is theoretically possible thanks to High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection, or HDCP, an encryption standard developed by Intel that prevents playback on unauthorized devices and makes the signal unreadable in between each device. The latest version, HDCP 2.2, addresses previously discovered flaws in encryption, and compatibility with it is required to display most 4K content. In this way the movie studios, with cooperation from hardware manufacturers, have found a way to make piracy of new UltraHD content very difficult.

A computer, by its very nature, is a potential loophole in this scheme. There will always be some form of screen-capture software that can turn what’s on the screen into a near-perfect copy. Allowing distribution of 4K content through a PC (or Mac) would destroy the carefully protected ecosystem the studios have worked so had to build.

When will the fortress crumble?

HDCP 2.2, as its version number indicates, isn’t an entirely new invention. The standard has been around for years and has fallen victim to exploits repeatedly. Hackers will no doubt find away around this latest incarnation. HEVC will eventually receive better support from hardware, as well. The question is: when?

4K content on computers is likely to remain a tangle of licensing fees, DRM schemes and decoder issues for some time.

Unfortunately, PC users may have to wait awhile. Predicting when HDCP 2.2 will be cracked is impossible to do with any certainty, but the timing of past exploits suggests it’ll take a few years. There’s also the possibility a particular movie studio will simply break ranks, believing the threat of piracy will be counter-balanced by the profit of being first with widespread 4K for computers, but that seems an unlikely result. The MPAA has proven unified in the past.

Better HEVC support, meanwhile, is a problem largely in Intel’s hands. It’s the only company with the reach to bring hardware-decode support to most PC owners quickly, but so far it has not implemented or even announced such a feature.

That may be because HEVC is a licensed technology, so anyone putting together an implementation for distribution of more than 100,000 units must pay a royalty of 20 cents per product. That can add up to a maximum annual royalty of $25 million. Pricing was only announced a few months ago, as well, so Intel hasn’t had much time to decide whether it’s willing to pay.

Don’t hold your breath

4K content on computers is likely to remain a tangle of licensing fees, DRM schemes and decoder issues for some time. The interests of the movie studios and the complexity of HEVC have strewn the path forward with complexity, and there’s no one at the helm to navigate PCs through it. Even native Windows support of HEVC, an important step forward, won’t be added until the release of Windows 10 late in 2015.

It’s a shame, because the 4K experience is much more affordable on a computer than in a home theater, and the added resolution provides many benefits beyond sharper video. Yet the situation is not unusual. H.264 took some time to gather widespread support, as well, and lagged the rollout of high-definition video for home theaters. The lack of direction is just the price users pay for the PC’s relatively open ecosystem.

Product Review

The Asus ZenBook 14 is a tiny notebook that gets lost in the crowd

The ZenBook 14 aims to be the smallest 14-inch notebook around, and it succeeds thanks to some tiny bezels. Performance and battery life are good, but the notebook lacks a standout feature other than size.

Bolster your HD music catalog with the best high-res audio sites

Music connoisseurs relish HD audio, but scouring the web for all the best streaming and downloading sites can be a pain. Luckily, we've done the work for you. Check out our list, and let the high-resolution good times roll.
Movies & TV

Do you have questions about Hulu? We’ve got answers

Not sure which Hulu subscription is right for you? We're here to help. This is your complete guide to Hulu and Hulu with Live TV, including content offerings for each service, pricing, internet requirements, and more.
Home Theater

These awesome A/V receivers will swarm you with surround sound at any budget

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to shopping for a receiver, so we assembled our favorites for 2018, at multiple price points and all loaded with features, from Dolby Atmos to 4K HDR, and much more.

With our Steam guide, you can give the gift of gaming this holiday season

The holidays may have passed, but it's always a good time to give the gift of gaming (especially when there's a Steam sale)! Here's our quick guide on how to give a Steam game as a gift.

Forget painting-style transfers, this A.I. creates realistic portraits of fake people

Do these images look computer-generated? Nvidia researchers recently published a paper on a new variation on style transfer artificial intelligence that's able to generate entirely new portraits.

Leaked HP laptop listing reveals entry-level Nvidia MX250 GPU

Alongside powerful graphics cards, Nvidia may have more mobile GPUs to show off at next year's CES show in January. The MX250 has been spotted in a listing for an HP laptop, potentially replacing the entry-level MX150.

ZSpace’s laptop brings education to life with its own 3D technology

The ZSpace laptop wants to overhaul education and training by offering affordable access to 3D mixed reality through a bespoke screen and glasses technology that is already supported by a wide array of applications.

Former Microsoft intern claims Google may have sabotaged Edge browser

Google's Chrome web browser has been able to establish such dominance that Microsoft is abandoning its web rendering engine, switching Edge over to Chromium, but did Google play dirty in an attempt to force Microsoft to make the decision?

ViewSonic’s 1080p gaming monitor lets you experience the action in style

ViewSonic is catering to gamers with its latest monitor, the XG240R. Featuring a 1080p 144Hz panel, RGB lighting, and a fast 1ms response time, you can conquer your opponents and do it in style.

Here’s why you might still be using Wi-Fi after cellular 5G launches

Cellular 5G might be around the corner and promising to deliver lightning fast speeds, but the folks over at the Wi-Fi Alliance have a few reasons why they think you shouldn't dump Wi-Fi just yet.

Pinning websites to your taskbar is as easy as following these quick steps

Would you like to know how to pin a website to the taskbar in Windows 10 in order to use browser links like apps? Whichever browser you're using, it's easier than you might think. Here's how to get it done.

Detangle your desk with a mighty wireless mouse. Here are our six favorites

If you're looking for the best wireless mouse on the market, we've got the list for you!. These six models have something for everyone, whether you're a hardcore gamer or simply looking to ward off carpal tunnel.

Canceling Amazon Prime is easy, and you might get a refund

Don't be intimidated. Learning how to cancel Amazon Prime is easier than you might think. You might even get a partial or full refund on the cost, depending on how much you've used it. Check out our quick-hit guide for doing so.