4K content guide: What to watch in 4K today

So you bought a new 4K TV and you're wondering what's on. The answer right now is: not much. But the list is growing. Here's a look at what you can watch now in 4K, and what's coming down the pike in the near future.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Looking forward to watching your favorite team in 4K? Can't wait to TiVo HBO's 4K broadcasts of "Game of Thrones?" Excited to rebuy the "Lord of the Rings" (Extended Edition) box set on 4K Blu-ray?

Don't hold your breath. 4K TVs might be hurtling toward mainstream prices with the speed of a runaway train, but 4K content, the stuff you can actually watch in 4K today, can seem stalled in the station.

If you want your 4K fix right now, you'd better be a fan of original series on Netflix and Amazon or really want to rewatch movies like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Or you could buy a $700 Sony 4K player and pay $30 per movie.

You should also be prepared for the video quality to be very good, but not that much better than regular old 1080p Blu-ray. That's not a surprise since, from what we've seen, the improvement afforded by 4K resolution is minimal at best from normal seating distances. And despite what TV makers and salespeople will tell you, upconverting standard- or high-def video to 4K resolution doesn't make it look appreciably better.

More 4K home video is coming soon, and some of it might actually look great. We certainly hope so. But right now it seems 4K has at least one thing in common with 3D: plenty of TVs can handle it, but the content options are few and far between. And much of it is expensive, proprietary and/or simply not compelling.

With those caveats firmly in place, here's an overview of the 4K content landscape as it stands right now. We're talking home video content here; 4K PC games , arguably a better use for all those pixels, are another story.

Streaming now to most 4K TVs

To watch 4K streaming services you'll typically need a 2014 or newer 4K TV. You can also pair a 2013 Samsung F9000 or S9 with the 2014 OneConnect Evolution kit, or any compatible 2013 4K TV with the Sony FMP-X10 media player, to enable 4K streaming.

Your TV will also need the corresponding smart TV 4K app. If you're used to using your Roku 3 to watch Netflix, for example, you'll need to switch to the TV's embedded 4K app to watch Netflix 4K. That's because special hardware is required to handle the 4K stream -- check out What is HEVC? for more.

The exception from the services below is YouTube, which currently requires a computer for 4K streaming.

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Netflix

Cost: $11.99/month subscription

Example content: Original series "House of Cards," "Marco Polo"; TV series "Breaking Bad," "The Blacklist"; movies "The Smurfs 2," "Philadelphia," "Jerry Maguire," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," also "Moving Art" documentaries including "Oceans," "Forests," "Deserts" and "Flowers."

To watch 4K on Netflix you need to be subscribed to its highest-priced plan. Its movie selection was pretty anemic when we checked; the titles above are just about it. The best part is that everything is "free" to subscribers.

In our tests we've found the 4K stream looks a bit better than Netflix's Super HD 1080p stream, but a panel of CNET editors had a tough time telling the difference in one test .

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Amazon Instant Video

Cost: $99/year Prime subscription (which also includes many other benefits), or some titles to buy for $19.99 and up

Example content: Original series "Mozart in the Jungle," "Transparent," "Alpha House," "Gortimer Gibbon's Life on Normal Street"; TV series "Orphan Black." Also about 33 movies, a few available for free to Prime members ("Funny Girl," "Philadelphia," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Hitch") but most (including "The Other Guys," "Captain Philips," "The Amazing Spider-Man") are buy-only.

To get the most out of Amazon's 4K selection you'll need a Prime subscription, although a few titles are available to non-Prime members. Prime users get the original series and a few movies without having to pay, but some many of the newest films are pay-only even for Prime members.

In our hands-on we found Amazon's 4K stream superior to its 1080p version and the difference seemed greater than that of Netflix. On the other hand, our test of a 1080p Blu-ray vs. Amazon's 4K stream gave the quality nod to the Blu-ray.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

UltraFlix

Cost: Some clips and videos free, others up to $9.99 to rent

Example Content: Movies "RoboCop" (1987), "Fargo," "Rocky," "World's Fastest Indian"; Concerts "Muse Live at Rome," "Usher OMG Tour London"; IMAX Films "The Last Reef," "Magic Journey Africa," "Yellowstone," "The Living Sea." More categories include Action Sports, Automotive, Nature, Travel, Shorts and Trailers, CableLabs 4K demos and Moving Murals 4K (3 aquariums and a fireplace).

UltraFlix wants to be the Netflix of 4K, but that's a lot more difficult than blatantly ripping off a brand name. Available on Samsung and Vizio TVs (with others, such as Sony, coming soon), the app offers an array of 48-hour rentals -- there's no option to buy or subscribe to the service yet, although both are coming soon.

Aside from plenty of IMAX, the selection is weak. It's mostly stuff you've never heard of, albeit 500 hours' worth. UltraFlix deserves credit for rating the quality of its titles Silver, Gold and Platinum. Upconverted 1080p movies are Silver, film transfers Gold and native 4K movies Platinum. We haven't tested UltraFlix's video quality yet.

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David Katzmaier/CNET


YouTube

Cost: Free

Example Content: "Honey Bees," "Beauty of Wild Animals," "Northern India 4K," "Old Québec City, Canada"

Speaking of stuff you've never heard of, YouTube has a bunch of 4K mini-documentaries, demos and travelogues in 4K. Right now you'll need to connect a PC to your TV to watch them on the big screen, but in 2015 many 4K sets will support YouTube's VP9 hardware decoding.

In the meantime the service is a typical hodgepodge, and many searches for 4K video come up with HD material only -- including, sadly, stuff from the Blender Foundation and other pro-level films. Examples of native 4K material (accessible by selecting "2160p" from the gear icon) include this playlist and channelslikethese.

Sony's FMP-X10 4K player: Widest selection, highest price

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Sony


Cost: $699 for the player, movies typically $7.99 to rent and/or $29.99 to buy

Example Content: TV series "The Blacklist," "Breaking Bad," "Masters of Sex" and "Bonnie & Clyde"; movies include "American Hustle," "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," "Fury," "Lawrence of Arabia," hundreds more.

The Sony FMP-X10 is the only serious 4K video player currently on the market, and late last year Sony with an HDMI 2.0 input that has HDCP 2.2. One bright spot for owners of older compatible 4K sets without built-in streaming is that the FMP-X10 will also handle Netflix and (later this year) Amazon streaming. The dark spot? The cost.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

4K movies from Sony are the main reason to buy this expensive player, however. They're not streamed, rather they're downloaded to the player's 1TB hard drive, a process that can take an hour or more. Sony claims superior video quality and stability compared to streaming, but we haven't tested those claims ourselves.

The service offers more than 200 titles in 4K, including numerous recent films. Only four TV series are available now and two of them, "The Blacklist" and "Breaking Bad" are already on Netflix in 4K. That said, if you have the money and care about feeding your 4K TV right now, the FMP-X10 is the best option.

Exclusive to Samsung TVs

You can only enjoy the following 4K sources if you happen to own a Samsung 4K TV. On a couple of them we expect the periods of exclusivity to end, maybe sooner rather than later, but for now they're all Samsung. No other 4K TV maker offers a major source of proprietary 4K content.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

M-Go

Cost: $399 for the player (see below); Movies $1 and up to rent, $20-$30 to buy; TV shows ($1.99 per ep, $10-$12 per season)

Example content: TV shows "Power" and "Spartacus" ($1.99 per ep, $10-$12 per season); movies to download include "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," "Die Hard," "Home Alone," "The Wolverine"; movies to stream include "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For," "The Giver," "3 Days to Kill" and a few free films from The Blender Project ("Tears of Steel," "Sintel" and "Big Buck Bunny").

The M-Go app is available on numerous TVs and devices, but the 4K version is exclusive to Samsung TVs. To download movies you'll need to attach Samsung's $399 UHD Video Pack 2. Note that the older version of the Pack (often included as a throw-in for 4K TV purchases) won't work with M-Go. See below for details.

About 15 are available to download, and the rest (110 titles according to the company) are available for streaming. We haven't tested this service, but at first glance the selection doesn't match that of Sony's player.

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Samsung UHD Video Pack 2

Cost: $399

Example content: "Star Trek: Into Darkness," "Life of Pi," "The Counselor," "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and 30 documentaries

The newest version of Samsung's wildly overpriced, copy-protected external USB hard drive, model CY-SUC10SH1/ZA, comes with 10 films and 30 documentaries onboard. The fact that it also allows is required for downloads via M-Go may help you feel less ripped off.

The previous version, model CY-SUC10SH/ZA (no "1" before the slash) is not compatible with M-Go and offers four fewer films. We tested it in our review of the HU9000 and found the 4K version of "The Counselor" ever-so-slightly sharper than the Blu-ray in select scenes, but mostly it was impossible to tell the two apart.

DirecTV

Cost: DirecTV subscription and Genie HD DVR; Titles are $3.99 to $15.99 for 48 hour rental

Example content: "Star Trek" (2009), "Transformers: Age of Extinction," "Forrest Gump," "Coral Reef Adventure" and "The Ultimate Wave Tahiti."

For DirecTV customers with a Genie HD DVR and a Samsung TV, a selection of 20 movies can be downloaded to the DVR on a rental basis. Compatibility with other brands of 4K TVs may come sooner rather than later in 2015, however. DirecTV's 4K satellite, launched late in 2015, should add more content options soon.

David Katzmaier

Comcast

Cost: Comcast subscription

Example content: "Suits," "Chicago Fire," "Covert Affairs"; coming in February: "Parks and Recreation."

Billed as a "UHD Sampler," the Comcast app for Samsung TVs offers three shows from Comcast subsidiary NBC Universal. At least they're free. Comcast promises to "add on-demand programming across multiple networks and studios in the future. It will also launch a 4K set-top box, model X1, later this year.

4K sources coming soon

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Panasonic


4K Blu-ray

Streaming beat disc to market, but the Blu-ray Disc Association announced in late 2014 that the 4K Blu-ray standard would be available in Q2 2015, with players shipping in the holiday season. The first such prototype player from Panasonic made its debut at CES with some mouthwatering specs, including 100 Mbps bitrates (current Blu-ray is 40Mbps) and compatibility with Dolby Vision HDR and the Rec 2020 color.

We'll be watching closely to see what new stuff actually makes it into the standard. Stay tuned.

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David Carnoy/CNET


Dish 4K Joey

Another CES 2015 debut, the 4K Joey will debut in the second quarter as an add-on for Dish's existing Hopper whole home DVR system. The satcaster calls it the world's first 4K set top box. There's no word on what kind of 4K content Dish has in store, but judging from the 4K offerings of DirecTV and Comcast, we don't expect a whole lot at first.

Stay tuned

That's it as far as we know. We wouldn't be surprised to hear about more 4K streaming services in the near future -- Vudu is an obvious choice, while Hulu Plus 4K or HBO Go 4K would be great, too -- but we'd be very surprised to hear about actual linear 4K TV broadcasts. If that happens in 2015, we suspect DirecTV and/or Comcast, given their teases mentioned above, to be the first to market. We'll see.

Updated Fenruary 5 with information and corrections from M-Go.

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