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A new era dawns as Netflix begins 4K/UHD streaming

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Flying decidedly under the radar, Netflix has reportedly begun streaming select content in spanking new 4K resolution. As reported by Multi-Channel News, the anticipated uber-high resolution streaming became available for a meager percentage of the viewing public (restricted to reviewers at this point) on Sunday, with access to House of Cards Season 2 and a few nature documentaries for newer 4K TVs, which are just now beginning to ship to retailers. 

The news marks a turning point at the dawn of the 4K era, with Netflix fulfilling its promise to become one of the pioneers of bringing 4K content into living rooms via online streaming.

In case you’ve yet to be initiated into the 4K fold, the technology (also known as Ultra HD) provides picture resolution that is four times higher than 1080p HD. 4K has been under constant scrutiny since TV manufacturers started making a heavy push towards displays that support the resolution in recent years, due to the fact that there is an extremely low quantity of 4K content available for the high-priced sets, along with other questions, including its performance benefits in regards to the constraints of what the human eye is capable of discerning.

One of the major questions raised about 4K streaming in particular has been the ability to compress the massive video files to a size that makes them viable for streaming over the current Internet infrastructure, while still preserving the resolution benefits. To do so, Netflix uses the newer HEVC/H.265 codec, and only TVs and devices which support the format and also have specialized Netflix software can decode the highly compressed streams. When Netflix announced plans to push for 4K streaming last November, it was criticized by many, deriding both the limits of compression capabilities, as well as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ claims that an average speed of 15 Mbps would be required to access the content.

Netflix has shrugged off such criticism, however, going full steam ahead in releasing its first taste of the 4K streaming future. The UK’s HDTV was able to surf the new sparkling streams of Netflix’s own House of Cards Season 2 (which was filmed in 4K) via the Netflix app aboard a Samsung HU8500 4K display on Sunday, with mixed results.

“You can’t cheat the physics of compression,” the site reports, complaining of “lots of gradients and camera noise” in darker scenes. The article also complains of trouble keeping the 4K streaming rate constant, with plenty of bouncing back and forth between 4K and 1080p HD. On the bright side (literally), the report did praise the brighter scenes for a more vivid display of gamma and contrast boost – when 4K actually kicked in, that is.

Rocky start or no, 4K streaming has finally arrived from a major format, and it is likely here to stay. Along with Samsung’s HU8500, LG announced a dozen new Netflix-equipped 4K TVs at CES this year, even hosting Mr. Hastings as a guest at its main press conference to roll out the new lineup. As MCN reports, other manufacturers including Sony, and Vizio will also be compatible with the new streams and as bandwidth increases, and 4K devices become more ubiquitous, access to 4K streams will likely grow at a rapid pace.

What do you think? Are you excited for the coming 4K era? Skeptical? Indifferent? Let us know in the comments.

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Ryan Waniata
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Ryan Waniata is a multi-year veteran of the digital media industry, a lover of all things tech, audio, and TV, and a…
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