Ultra HD Blu-ray: what you need to know

Ultra HD Blu-ray is being positioned as the successor to Blu-ray. But what is it, what films are coming, and do we need it?

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Perhaps for the last time, 2016 will see movie studios and hardware manufacturers attempting to get you to upgrade your movie disc playback equipment again. Since the late 1990s, most of us have gone from VHS to DVD, and some went from DVD to Blu-ray. Others dallied with HD DVD, before that format collapsed, but before the majority of the world switches to streaming and downloads, Ultra HD Blu-ray is going to be making a pitch for your money.

What is it?

The format is the brainchild of Sony and the companies who form the Blu-ray Disc Association. Sony, of course, won the HD format war as we detailed here. Said victory cost Sony an awful lot of money, and it wants to extend the rewards for eventually emerging victorious. Hence Ultra HD Blu-ray, which at heart is an optical disc format that can store up to 100GB.

Currently, a dual layer Blu-ray disc (two very thin layers stuck together – that pause you sometimes get mid-film on a DVD or Blu-ray is the laser realigning to move to the next layer) can store 50GB of data (25GB per layer). Ultra HD Blu-rays will support up to triple-layer, and be able to squeeze more data on each (33GB, hence the 100GB total capacity).

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The upshot of this is that the discs will have the space to support what’s being called – you can’t beat marketing speak – ‘Ultra HD’.

That is a native screen resolution of 3840 pixels across by 2160 pixels down, at up to 60 frames per second (which in itself should make an interesting difference – most films are shot and presented at 24 frames a second. Remember the furore over Peter Jackson using 48 frames per second for his first Hobbit movie?).

Blu-ray – and current ‘high definition’ – supports up to 1920 pixels by 1080. Furthermore, Ultra HD Blu-ray will have the room to feature more advance audio tracks, making Dolby Atmos and DTS:X home cinema support possible. Bottom line: better quality sound, better quality picture.

The Ultra HD Blu-ray format will be backwards compatible with existing Blu-ray discs and DVDs, but naturally, if you want to play an Ultra HD Blu-ray disc, you’ll have to buy an Ultra HD Blu-ray player. And plenty of them are on the way.

A fuller breakdown of the technical advantages of Ultra HD Blu-ray can be found at this (very promotional) website: www.uhdbdinnumbers.com

What’s Digital Bridge?

Ah, this is one of the most interesting features of Ultra HD Blu-ray. Aware that illegal downloads aren’t going away, and that features such as the existing UltraViolet are an alternative to that, Ultra HD Blu-ray will support Digital Bridge. This means that you’ll be able to make an exact copy of a supported disc (I’m coming back to that phrase in a minute) on an authorised device.

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The key words there, of course, are “supported” and “authorized.” A studio putting out a major release will need to enact the feature, and thus it’ll be interesting to see how many go for it. Furthermore, it’s unclear yet what an ‘authorised’ device is likely to cover. Apple products, which have heavier digital rights management built in, are likely to be safe. A tatty external hard disk is a longer shot.

Most tablets and smartphones are likely to be covered, but conversely, to feel the benefits of Ultra HD, you need a large display. Thus, a PC or Mac is the most likely beneficiary of a Digital Bridge. How and whether they’re supported remains to be seen.

Will 3D be supported?

Er, no. Well, not yet anyway. Ultra HD 3D is built into the standards and specifications for Ultra HD Blu-ray, but right now, there are no plans to offer 3D support.

How do Ultra HD Blu-rays differ from existing 4K discs?

Sony, for one, has already released discs on the Blu-ray format that it advertises as ‘mastered in 4K’. But that’s not the same as Ultra HD Blu-ray. In the case of existing ‘mastered in 4K’ titles such as Spider-Man and Elysium, the film may have been mastered in ultra high definition, but the limits of the Blu-ray format mean it’s then downscaled and presented in 1920 x 1080 resolution.

The hardware

Several manufacturers already have players in the works, and the first will be out in shops by Easter. Samsung and Panasonic will be amongst the first to launch dedicated Ultra HD Blu-ray players.

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Be wary: there’s some labelling confusion at the moment, with units on sale that call themselves 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray players, or 4K Blu-ray players. Given that these machines can help stream 4K content to your display, their names aren’t wholly inaccurate, but they are confusing. If you’re after an Ultra HD Blu-ray player, two things. One, they’re not out yet. Two, make sure the unit you ultimately choose has the official logo on it.

What films can I expect on Ultra HD Blu-ray?

Crucially, Ultra HD Blu-ray is getting quick and considerable studio support. 2016 will see a mix of new release and catalogue titles, and here’s what individual studios have revealed so far:

Warner Bros: it’ll have Mad Max: Fury Road, San Andreas, The LEGO Movie, and Pan ready for day one of the format, and in 2016 it plans to have 35 films out in Ultra HD Blu-ray. Amongst them are Man Of Steel and Pacific Rim and presumably some of its 2016 blockbusters.

20th Century Fox: the studio will support all big new films on the format, and will be releasing catalogue titles such as Kingsman, Fantastic Four, Life Of Pi, The Maze Runner, Wild, Exodus: Gods And Kings, and X-Men: Days Of Future Past, amongst others. They’re due this year.

Sony: as the parent of Blu-ray, Sony has ambitious plans to bring lots of discs to the format. Its initial titles will, er, apparently include The Smurfs 2, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Pineapple Express. Further titles for 2016? Chappie, Salt, Hancock, Fury, Ghostbusters, The Fifth Element, and Captain Philips are due this year.

Universal and Paramount: no titles mentioned thus far. Paramount has effectively shut down its own home entertainment distribution arm, however, with all of its titles now going through Universal. Universal is expected to support the format, but hasn’t explained its plans yet.

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Lionsgate: given the Lionsgate wants its ‘top 100 movies’ on Ultra HD Blu-ray, that Hunger Games boxset can’t be far away.

Anchor Bay: Anchor Bay’s library includes titles such as Burnt, Scream 4, Hellraiser, The Evil Dead, and many niche catalogue titles. It’s supporting the format, but hasn’t announced any releases yet.

Disney: Disney is part of the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) that has developed the new format. It hasn’t announced any discs so far, though. It’s unlikely that Star Wars: The Force Awakens will get a release in tandem with the DVD and Blu-ray unveiling of the movie.

When?

Expect a big push throughout 2016, but the first players and discs are expected to be in the shops this side of Easter. Whether that’s just in the US or worldwide remains to be seen. The DVD format, after all, took several months to officially cross the channel.

How much?

No idea. Thus far, we know that discs and players are expected to cost less than the equivalent Blu-ray titles at launch. That should mean players settle quickly under £500 – which arguably they need to do, if all concerned want quick take up – and discs around the £20 mark. Expect aggressive discounting and promotions. This year’s Black Friday should be interesting, for a start…

Is it all worth it?

The ultimate question.

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If you have an ultra-quick broadband connection, and are willing to hang around for 4K streaming of movies to become a reality, then that’s the real growth area at the moment. If you like a physical product, then this is looking like the last optical disc upgrade we’ll get. Never say never, but the limits of optical disc technology have pretty much peaked, short of adding more and more layers to discs, that gradually make them thicker. The next physical format, if there is one, is likely to revolve around solid state drives, and that’s got to be a long way off.

Furthermore, if you don’t have a 4K television of generous size – at least 60/70″ – then it’s hard to see you’ll get too much visual benefit from the upgrade. On the audio side? If you’ve made the investment in Dolby Atmos home cinema technology, for instance, then you may see the biggest improvement there.

But ultimately, it depends on you. Do you need and want the biggest and the best? If so, this will be it as far as physical formats go. It’s just a shame that Star Wars isn’t out there as a launch title – that could be the ‘killer app’ that Ultra HD Blu-ray will need early in its life if it’s to break through.