At this year's CES consumer electronics trade show in Las Vegas we were treated to all kinds of televisual treats. And as much as we've been sucked in by the wonders of the latest 4K TVs from all the big manufacturers, it's the content that we're most excited about.
Breaking Bad in 4K? Yes please, just to see Jesse's vacant stare in four times the resolution. But, hold up, with the announcement of 4K Blu-ray discs only just upon us, and with no release date set, how can any early adopters get the very best out of their Ultra HD tellies? Netflix, that's how.
We sat down with Joris Evers, director of global communications for Netflix, during CES 2014 to get the inside line on what to expect. When it is due, how you can get it, whether it will cost more for the resolution premium and so forth.
Not only did we get an in-and-out look at all the latest offerings - including previewing the House of Cards season 2 trailer streaming in true Ultra HD 4K - but also an in-depth chat about the company's 4K plans. Is the Ultra HD era upon us, or is 4K too ambitious in the current connected climate?
When will we see the 4K Netflix come available?
"LG, Sony, Samsung and Vizio announced new televisions [at CES] that will be Ultra HD 4K televisions for this year’s TV refresh - which is typically in the spring or the first half of the year. Once those TVs are in stores and on shelves for people to buy, that’s also when we are going to be ready to stream in 4K."
But is 4K Netflix limited to those companies and those televisions as points of access?
"It is limited to TVs that have the capability to decode our [Netflix] 4K streams. And those will be TVs that have hardware built in to decode the HEVC H.265 stream. And there will be more TVs that do that [in the future]."
In the future, will devices such as the PlayStation 4 be able to work around the current hardware necessities by a software update instead?
"I think that’s a Sony question. It’s possible, potentially, but there are other things you need to have. When it’s built right into the TV you don’t have to worry about hooking things up to a TV, as in cable standards like HDMI 2.0 which is required to stream at the higher frame rates. We are saying Ultra HD 4K because Ultra HD is more than just 4K - it’s the resolution, it’s the frame rate (fps) and it’s the colour depth. We’re going to be able to cover all of them."
What sort of data rates, or bandwidth, will be required for streaming at 4K?
"It’s streaming at 15.6Mbps. So that’s higher than what we’re streaming at right now - our current highest bitrate 1080p HD stream is 5.8Mbps."
Is it? Is Super HD [Netflix’s 1080p service with higher bitrate] not more?
"That is the same. We’re no longer calling it Super HD. It’s available to everybody and we’re going into Ultra HD territory so we’ve gotten rid of the 'Super HD' badge. It was going to go anyway because there would have been too many different labels around. Super HD was our own thing that we came up with last year so we had that high quality available. We’ve moved to label everything that’s available as Ultra HD 4K, and the Super HD badge is just HD - which is the best HD we have available, at 5.8Mbps."
Will there be any price premium for 4K content?
"No. When you pick up one of these TVs - you’ll have to ask Sony, Samsung and LG when they will ship - and you’re connected up at home and you turn on Netflix you’ll just start seeing the titles that are available in Ultra HD 4K via the badges. There will be a row that says Ultra HD 4K as well."
So you’ll be able to search by 4K titles?
"Yeah, you’ll get a full row of Ultra HD 4K titles. Netflix will recognise that you’re using a device that can stream and decode 4K and it will give you all those titles."
A foreseeable problem, particularly in the UK, is that many networks won’t be able to sustain 15.6Mbps for best quality 4K streaming.
"Do you ever follow our speed index? You can see different ISP's [speed ratings]."
Say you have one of these 4K TVs [capable of decoding Netflix] and the service isn’t so good one day, what will the service do - revert down to a lower resolution?
"It will go down to a lower resolution and give you 1080p. The good news, though, is that the networks in the UK aren’t terrible. The Netherlands is the top tier [by average]."
So is 4K overambitious for the current networks?
"Using HEVC H.265 we are able to stream at a relatively decent bitrate at a really high quality. So 15.6Mbps is doable for many networks."
Is that the maximum bitrate?
"Yeah, that’s the top."
What’s the lowest before it reverts to 1080p?
"I think it’s 11.7Mbps."
We were shown the House of Cards season 2 trailer streaming in 4K. Just to prove its streaming, it runs in geek mode to show the constant 15.6Mbps speed. Hats off to The Wynn in Vegas for having such impressive internet, but that was a side thought in our minds because, put simply, it looked pin sharp and amazing on the current 4K TV we were shown it on.
"This is a current 4K TV, it does not have the HEVC decoder in it. So we borrowed a box from Broadcom, a reference design. You can’t go to Fry’s or Best Buy for this. It has a chip set in there for the HEVC decode and then we connected that up via HDMI 1.4 to this TV. That means you don’t quite get the full Ultra HD experience because HDMI 1.4 doesn’t support higher frame rates than 30fps."
Will Netflix be streaming content at a higher frame rate than that any way?
"We will. Initially, I think it's not there. But we will have HFR content. We have test content up to 60fps, just not real-world content. But we can stream at 60fps.
"There are three things that go into Ultra HD. One is the resolution, the other part is the frame rate, the final part is the colour depth - you go from 8-bit colour [at 1080p] to 10-bit colour [in UHD 4K]. We can do all those things streaming, but then it’s up to the TV whether it’ll support all those elements. Some TVs might have a wider colour space than others."
There’s quite a considerable amount of pixellation in the user interface (UI). Is it because that hasn't been updated yet?
"The UI is 720p."
Will that change?
"This is our choice, so it’s not really a manufacturer decision. It’s not a 4K UI, but we think it looks pretty good in 4K."
Will House of Cards season 2 be available in 4K from day one?
"We do have House of Cards season 2 in 4K. But those TVs that I talked about won’t be out then [14 February]. If you had this Broadcom setup then you could watch the entire season. But you’d have to have this Broadcom box somewhere, which you won’t be able to find unless you snuck into this room at night and took it from us!"
So Netflix is ahead of the curve?
"Yeah, yeah, we’re ready. And when those TVs come out you get to watch it in 4K. Also, at the Sony press conference you heard Arid talk about Breaking Bad which we’ll have in Ultra HD 4K as well for all seasons."
Netflix is obviously a streaming service at its core. Will there ever be a point where you deliver offline content?
"[Hesitates] very unlikely. I was going to say no, I was going to just categorically say no. But let me just tell you it’s very unlikely.
"Because we want to be a click and watch service that’s as simple and straightforward and easy as possible. Downloading - there’s a whole bunch of extra things involved. You’ve got to store those downloads somewhere, sometimes you have expiring files and all that kind of stuff. Licensing could become more complicated, there are a bunch of things. Plus there are other services that offer downloads."
Speaking of the competition. What do you think of Now TV, for example? Is competition healthy?
"Now TV is a great service for movies, or sports. Generally I think it’s great to see that there are many more streaming services coming out."
Does it not worry you?
"No. We think that the future of television is internet television. And internet television is on demand. And that, ultimately, the traditional broadcaster world is going to go the route of the fixed line telephone - Netflix is the cellphone in that analogy.
"The UK is a great example of where there are streaming services as well as traditional broadcasters such as the BBC being ahead of everybody - it is already streaming and offering titles before they’re broadcast on traditional channels. It’s something we think is inevitable, and we as Netflix just look to be ahead of everybody as the service to watch."
Do you think Netflix original content is what separates the service from the competition?
"Being a channel that has great content, but being completely on demand and letting people watch what they want to watch when they want to watch it is key. You’re going to go to Netflix because you want to watch Breaking Bad or House of Cards, or these new series that we’re going to be coming out with.
"That’s the story of 4K. This quality of content is only really going to be coming to you through the internet. That’s why we’re at the forefront of it and why we’re talking about it so much. And why most of our original series will be available in 4K.
"You might be subscribed to Now TV because you want to watch the sports they offer. And you can subscribe to whatever other services, or watch iPlayer, for other content. But not in 4K"
Does Netflix have plans for that kind of sports [or live] content?
With the original series, will they not be coming out on Blu-ray?
"Typically what Netflix has done so far is own the rights for streaming and TV broadcast for those original series. DVD and Blu-ray rights are typically sold by somebody else. What’s called syndication rights - as in many years after a show has become available - could conceivably mean that House of Cards shows up on regular television broadcasts after many years.
"We buy certain rights and we may own shows outright in the future. Sony, for example, owns House of Cards. I’ve had questions before asking why Netflix doesn’t do merchandising for House of Cards. ‘How come there aren’t any Kevin Spacey bobble heads?’ or something like that. That would be down to Sony because they own those kinds of rights. It’s a complicated world with different companies owning different parts of things."
Netflix is available in the UK with streaming plans starting at £5.99/month, visit: www.netflix.com