Could Microsoft's latest game console be the X factor that helps 4K Blu-ray become mainstream?
The first 4K TVs hit the market in 2012, but the first actual 4K Blu-ray discs only began shipping this February. The new physical media format faces an uphill battle against streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, which beat it to the punch in delivering both high-resolution 4K and high dynamic range (HDR) video. Disc sales have been declining for years, falling 12 percent in 2015 according to the Digital Entertainment Group, compared to an 18 percent rise in digital revenues.
The forthcoming Xbox One S game console could be the best thing to happen to 4K Blu-ray since, well, ever.
Microsoft will release the new Xbox in August 2016, with prices starting at $299 for the 500GB model. The console will support both 4K Ultra-HD Blu-ray discs and 4K streaming services, with HDR support for both.
The only 4K Blu-ray player available today, the Samsung UBD-K8500, currently costs $100 more than the Xbox One S . Others announced but not yet shipping, namely the Philips BDP7501 ($399) and the Panasonic DMP-UB900 (no official US or Australian pricing yet, but the UK price is £600, which converts to $846), are just as expensive or more.
Meanwhile Sony has announced it will also build 4K Blu-ray support into its "PlayStation 4 Neo," but that console is expected to cost at least $399. Sony has yet to announce a standalone player but says it will commit by March 2017.
With its $100 discount compared to other 4K players, and the fact that it plays games, the new Xbox looks like a really good deal to people looking for a 4K Blu-ray player. Even if you're only curious about the new Blu-ray format, the game playing aspect and other home-theater facilities will likely make the purchase worthwhile.
And it could also serve as a "Trojan Horse," getting a 4K Blu-ray player into the hands of gamers who might eventually use it to play discs, too. There's plenty of precedent for that.
Can the Xbox One S pull a PlayStation 3?
Previous game consoles have played big roles in popularizing next-gen video formats. The original PlayStation helped the DVD replace VHS as the defacto video standard, and the PlayStation 3 went a long way toward popularizing Blu-ray. Game consoles were also among the first to offer streaming video, and are still among the most popular streaming devices.
Things are different this time around, however. While the Xbox One S and the new PlayStation 4 Neo will play back 4K Blu-ray and stream 4K content, they won't be the consoles' native format. Both models will use existing Blu-ray disks to store games, and of more importance to gamers, neither console will support 4K games.
While format wars are largely a thing of the past -- there's only one 4K disc standard being proposed -- Microsoft has a long history with new disc formats. Back in 2005, Microsoft invested heavily in what turned out to be the loser of the "blue laser wars:" HD-DVD. While Microsoft did produce an HD-DVD solution for its console -- a $200 add-on drive for the Xbox 360 -- it wasn't enough to save the format.
Meanwhile the PS3 had native support for Blu-ray, the winner of the war, and remains one of the most popular Blu-ray disc players to this day.
If you're looking to buy a 4K player, the Xbox One S is the currently cheapest and most feature-rich option. Of course, we expect cheaper 4K Blu-ray players to hit the market in 2017 and beyond, and maybe a price drop is in store for that Samsung player.
It remains to be seen if the new Xbox will have any effect on 4K Blu-ray sales, especially as most people will need a new TV -- and new discs -- to benefit from the format. But it can't hurt. And did we mention it plays games, too?