Ultra HD Blu-Ray: No Region Coding, But Is It Worth It?

The arrival of Ultra HD Blu-ray discs heralds the end of the much-hated region coding that has long prevented Australian consumers buying movies from overseas. Until now, discs made for one geographic market wouldn't play on machines coded for another, but the new generation of players just released abandons the old system, leaving movie buffs free to buy from the US Amazon site, for instance, with full confidence.

Image credit: 20th Century Fox

AU Editor's Note: We're going to be using the terms '4K', 'Ultra HD' and '4K Ultra HD Blu-ray' pretty interchangeably in the future, but rest assured you'll always find our coverage of the new 4K Blu-ray standard by checking the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray tag on Gizmodo. Cheers! — Cam

The arrival of Ultra HD Blu-ray players and discs is designed to do the latest televisions justice.Four-times sharper than today's "Full HD" Blu-ray movies, Ultra HD brings movies to life with a clearer picture, more vibrant colours and extra fine detail in the shadows. The trouble is that you can't cram all that extra detail onto a standard Blu-ray disc, which is why we've been waiting for the new format to hit the shelves.

The first batch of Ultra HD Blu-ray movie discs is reaching the stores this month, about 30 films including The Martian, Deadpool, Mad Max: Fury Road and San Andreas. This will grow to about 100 titles by Christmas, selling for roughly $50 each. Most include a free, standard Blu-ray copy in the box, plus some come with a code for a digital download.

Of course, just like the rise of DVD and Blu-ray, this latest leap in home entertainment technology comes at a high cost. To watch these new movie discs you'll need an Ultra HD television as well as an Ultra HD Blu-ray player, with Panasonic and Samsung bringing the first models into the country.Ultra HD televisions have been on sale here for several years, and prices are starting to fall, but until now our only Ultra HD content has come from Netflix, courtesy of a handful of Netflix Originals productions such as House of Cards, Marco Polo and Marvel's Daredevil.

To see all that extra detail, your Ultra HD television needs built-in Netflix Ultra HD streaming – which was missing from some of the early Ultra HD televisions. The bigger challenge is that you also need home broadband download speeds of at least 20 megabits per second, otherwise Netflix dials down the picture quality.

This puts Ultra HD Netflix streaming out of reach of many Australians until the NBN arrives on their doorstep some time in the next few years. Don't expect Australia's free-to-air television broadcasters to embrace Ultra HD – they've only just developed a taste for Full HD broadcasts and don't have the spectrum to do more.

Image credit: 20th Century Fox

It looks like these new disc players will offer a first taste of Ultra HD for many homes, but they aren't cheap.Samsung wants $599 for its first model, coming to stores this month, while Panasonic is expected to charge closer to $1000 when its player arrives in September. For now, this puts Ultra HD Blu-ray in early-adopter territory, but it won't take long for competition to ramp up and prices to come down – especially with talk of Sony releasing an Ultra HD-compatible PlayStation 4.

The good news is that we don't need to ride out another format war like the battle between Blu-ray and HD DVD 10 years ago. Instead, Ultra HD Blu-ray discs are battling with high-speed broadband to see which becomes the de facto standard for delivering content to the average Australian lounge room.

Ultra HD Blu-ray players offer the advantage of backwards compatibility with Blu-rays and DVDs, upscaling the picture to help your existing disc library look its best on an Ultra HD television. Upscaling takes an educated guess when filling in the extra detail, so it improves the picture but it doesn't look as good as true Ultra HD content.

As an each-way bet, Ultra HD Blu-ray players can also stream Ultra HD Netflix – making them rather attractive to people who bought the early Ultra HD televisions and missed out on this feature.

While Ultra HD crams a lot more pixels on the screen, the improvement over Blu-ray is more subtle than the jump to Blu-ray from DVD, which in turn wasn't as striking as the leap to DVD from the old VHS tapes.

The benefit of Ultra HD's sharper resolution shows through as extra fine detail in skin tones and clothing, along with slightly less blur in action and panning shots, although you need a big screen to appreciate it. Realistically, viewers without an eye for detail will struggle to see much improvement over upscaled standard Blu-ray on a television smaller than 140cm. Unfortunately, many of the first Ultra HD Blu-ray movies weren't shot and edited in Ultra HD resolution. Instead, they were upscaled during the editing process. Only a handful of new movies such as Deadpool were made in true Ultra HD and you can see the step up in picture quality, which is a promising sign of things to come.

While most of the focus has been on Ultra HD's resolution, it is the High Dynamic Range (HDR) that makes the most striking improvement to the picture. Movies shot in HDR boost the brightness and contrast to reveal a lot more fine detail in the shadows. You'll see the improvement whatever the screen size, especially when your favourite superheroes do battle with baddies in dark alleyways.

Most new Ultra HD Blu-ray movies take advantage of HDR, but the bad news is that most Ultra HD televisions don't support it so you miss out on all that extra detail. HDR is only available on the top-shelf 2016 model Ultra HD televisions, plus a handful of 2015 models via a firmware upgrade – but this might only let you stream HDR content from Netflix, not play it from an Ultra HD Blu-ray disc player.

With the right television and a great movie Ultra HD Blu-ray looks fantastic, but right now you need deep pockets to really appreciate all it has to offer. The new ultra-sharp movies look pretty good but, unless money is no object, you might want to wait for the price of HDR-capable televisions to fall before you give your lounge room an Ultra HD overhaul.

This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald's home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.

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    Jesus Christ can they stop bumping up the price by including old formats I give no crap about? If I'm buying a UHD Bluray, I don't want a HD bluray. If I'm buying a HD Bluray, I don't want a damned DVD. Disney are the absolute worst for this, $40 for a bluray because it has "bonus" digital version, DVD, audio songbook, etc. You know what's a better bonus? Buying the Bluray on its own for $28...

      Depends on your situation. If I got a 3D version of a movie, I'd want the normal version as well, and in pretty much every case, I want the digital version along the way, but in general, yeah, you dont need last gen versions these days.

      I used to, mostly because the only blu ray player I had was a PS3, but fast forward a few years and I now count 5 blu ray players in my house (2 x PS3, PS4, blu ray player, and PC drive) spread across 2 bedrooms and the lounge. So the DVD really has nowhere to go but a relatives place.

        Given about 1/3 of my digital redemptions can be iTunes, another third googleplay, and another third ultraviolet, I've never really taken to digital redemptions. If I wanted to compress the HD movie I just bought physically for the best quality over digitally for streaming, I'd just rip it.

          Good point, and one I sorta made elsewhere. One of the bigger issues I see with streaming in general is that what we want is split across too many options. Digital copies are a good example of that as you say. I find most are ultraviolet these days, so its sort of settling into a pattern, but I see your point.

          Mostly just saying that I prefer digital to be there than not, and far more than the DVD, which I used to want in preference to the digital copy. Not too long ago it was uncommon to have more than one blu ray player, these days not so much, so those extra disc versions have become a waste.

            Also with ultraviolet, I don't trust that either of the two options in Australia will exist in 12 months let alone 5 years. If I owned an "ultraviolet" copy of a movie I could play across multiple services, I'd be fine with that, but from what I gather if you redeem on JB, and JB quit ultraviolet, that's it, your movie is gone, correct?

      The stupid thing is the cost of actually manufacturing that additional BD or DVD to go along with your UHD is measurable in cents. The extra premium you're actually paying is largely artificial.

      Note: I'm talking the physical manufacture of the disc, not the mastering and other one-off costs. Those costs would be negated by the fact they're producing BDs or DVDs for sale anyway.

      You said it mate! All this superfluous media is such a rip being packaged with the latest technology. K

    Discs?... Pfft!

      My paranoia about digital is that the service you subscribe to can very quickly shut down, and you lose everything you bought from them.

      Might not happen today (and probably wont) and might not happen next year (and probably wont), but what impact on peoples libraries would there be if Apple shut down their iTunes service in 2020?

      There are any number of reasons it might happen, though to be fair its highly unlikely, but in essence with digital you're only renting the content, and only have access until they decide otherwise.

        I'm with you 100% that's been a concern for me too. I hate the fact that I don't own a physical copy of the content. Even from a less disastrous point of view, the service doesn't have to be shut down, it just has to be down *at the time*. Internet outage = sorry you can't watch any of your movies. Considering Netflix (and I assume other services) rotate content out you can't even guarantee that a movie will be available when you want to watch it.

        Don't get me wrong I think streaming is a great idea for watch once type content. But as soon as you have a favourite that you like to watch regularly then a physical copy wins out.

          Its a gripe I have with cloud computing in general to be honest. I just dont trust it to be there permanently, and dont trust that the service wont be abused by others.

          Look at Megaupload, and how the US shut it down purely on the basis of a dot com address, and servers being on US soil. They justified their actions on technical grounds, and locked out thousands or millions of legitimate users without caring.

          People trust online services, and I'm not sure they're fully aware of the potential risks. I've seen details of some of the bigger cloud services in Australia (privacy laws mean I aint giving details), there ARE risks.

          Besides, I like having a physical library to call on, even though it does take up waaaaaay too much space :) Think its 4 bookshelves and growing at the moment.

            Exactly, I used to work for the state Govt and we had a couple outages after moving a lot of our infrastructure to an offsite supplier. They weren't calling it the cloud at the time, but that's essentially what it was. It's great having a day where you can't do email or access all your word docs and spreadsheets because the link to the data centre is down.

            And it's soooo much better when you have to rely on a third party to actually get it working again. At least as a govt entity we had a decent support agreement. It'd suck if you were just Joe Average who wasn't paying them millions every year.

        I have downloaded a copy of all my itunes movie purchases. If itunes was suddenly shut down, at least I can still play them from the HD. Yes, its easier and faster to stream a movie, but with the amount of storage and how cheap external HDs are, having a backup locally is a smart option for when the Apple armageddon happens.

          Dont blame you, but didnt you see the news that downloading a movie is illegal? :)

          Seriously though, it would be an interesting test of copyright laws if they went after someone that owned the movie. The claim that its a lost sale versus format shifting would be an obvious test, and other comms laws say we are in our rights to have a copy of any digital data, or a reasonable facsimile thereof (and disc technology is digital, so...) so how would they stack up?

          Its what let us rip CD's to MP3's back in the day, and technically means various software companies should give us a backup when we buy something.

          We have some interesting rules here, that go that little bit further in protecting the user. They just havent been tested.

            Sorry... I should have pointed out that all my downloads were official and straight from Apple through iTunes. The advantage there is the inclusion of meta data, chapter markers, special features etc.

            But you make a good point! I have audio CDs which are scratched and feel the need to download the MP3s as the CDs can't be ripped any more.

              I've thought for a long time that it would be a most entertaining test of the law to see how far "reasonable facsimile" could be taken. Buy a blu ray for example, and its in 1080p format. By rights, we should be able to own a copy of that, or a reasonable facsimile, but you know the studios arent going to just give you a free copy, thats not how they work.

              BUT, and this is the core of the content owners argument, it IS illegal to bypass DRM, so its a clash of laws if you rip from discs you own. Do the digital backup rules override the DRM rules, or vice sersa? Never been tested, I doubt it ever will, but I expect the DRM rules would win.

              What if its someone else thats bypassed the DRM though? YOU are still just obtaining a copy of what you already own, and it wasnt YOU that breached the DRM rules, so where would you stand, and is a 720p copy of what you own on blu ray a 'reasonable facsimile'? I think it is, 'reasonable facsimile' doesnt mean 'exact copy', just something close enough to do the same job.

              There are countries where it is legal to bypass DRM, so in theory no laws have been broken.

              Would be a ballsy defense :)

    I don't think I've purchased a Blu Ray or DVD movie in a few years. These days it's Netflix and STAN, and if I want to watch them on the go, I buy off iTunes. And yes people will say I'm 'renting' off iTunes, but it's cheaper and in the 5 years of HD Digital Downloads, I've never encountered a problem.

      Yea, but we're talking UHD Bluray here, which is the current premium of quality. That Netflix movie is compressed to crap and about 3-4gb in 1080p, a regular bluray movie is more like 18-22gb. Now we've got UHD Bluray, which is much much better again.

      Even before streaming services and iTunes I never bought DVDs as I didnt see the value. I will watch the same movie maybe 3 times in my life so it always made more sense to me to rent them for a video store. I guess for people that like watching the same thing over and over again purchasing makes sense.

        Well one problem is Video stores are going the way of the dodo. So that isn't even going to be an option in the not too distant future.

        Another problem, and a big part of the reason I buy movies is their profitable life-span. I remember watching them on VHS (or even Beta) years ago and thinking "I can just go rent this any time I want to watch it". Only to find 6 or 12 months later that the store had sold or trashed their copies of the movie I wanted to watch again because it wasn't super popular and they needed to the shelf space.

        This is a problem we're even seeing with digital - Netflix rotate their catalogue. They simply don't make *every* movie available the whole time. If you can buy a DVD you want to watch (even if it's only 3 times in your life) for a cheap price then why not? At least then you *can* watch it when/if you get the urge.

        And all that's not even considering the reality of children's viewing habits. Often kids will watch a single movie over and over and over... until your ears bleed at the first few chords of "Let It Go" and you collapse in an uncontrollably twitching heap. Much better to buy them the damned DVD and lock them in a room with it :P

          I havent used video stores in years, I'm all digital, I have no trouble finding anything I want to watch from any era :-)

          As for your last comment that's a perfect reason not to buy DVDs for your kids.

            lol true, except then you have to find some other way to entertain the little buggers.

      I used to be a lot into the whole renting movies and such. Every Tuesday, I would go to my local video store and rent about 5 Bluray movies, but it was becoming a bit expensive for me. So I decided to build my own digital library using PlexTV. Its been great since then and no a single cent spent on rentals.

      Now that I have NBN and a UHD TV, I can watch UHD content on my TV.

    A lot of new DVD and Blu-Ray releases are "all region" anyway so it's not a huge issue. And my mate bought an all region DVD player from Harvey Norman on Saturday for $34, which makes it a complete non-issue regardless. I'm much happier buying physical media than burning through my bandwidth on compressed streaming media. I also prefer the process of browsing in a shop to trying to find out what's available where on-line.

    "until the NBN arrives on their doorstep"

    The irony being that NBN will be arriving a mile down the road making Ultra HD streaming potentially troublesome.

    Will I be able to use these in my PC which has a Blu-ray drive or will I have to update it?

      A good question, and not one I've seen covered before.

      Some quick research now gives the answer "maybe, but probably not".

      * You need a newer BDXL compatible drive to read the triple- or quadruple-layer discs that UHD will use.
      * If you can read the file structure on the disc, you'll still need a software player capable of decrypting and playing the movie
      * And you may also need a graphics card and monitor combination that both support HDCP 2.2 to allow the video signal to be processed correctly.

        Cheers for the reply @zak. Looks like I'll probably have to upgrade my drive then.

    I didn't purchase any Blu Ray from few years but now thinking it's time to go for it.

    Just wait few more months the UHD player will be cheap as chips...

    Then Super Duper UHD will be out... lol... 8K resolution? 12K resolution? the cycle never ends... I have about 600+ DVD... was thinking updating it to BD... now UHD.... and now I don't bother... just NETFLIX it... cheap and simple.

    They WANT people to pirate, theres no other explanation for making all the 4k screens people have already obsolete.
    The whole chain needs to be hdcp 2.2 compatible, so thats a new monitor, graphics card, AV receiver and blu ray drive that i would need to buy in order to watch these 4k blurays. To hell with forking out another 1-2 grand for that. (this may not be the case INITIALLY, im not sure, but down the track you can be damn sure theyll lock it down because they can).

      To be honest, they're not really aiming it at PC people. They're looking more at the home theatre market. There is a very real push to get people upgrading their TVs every few years, same with their players. I suspect most people buying a new TV these days would be buying UHD (though probably not the HDR versions) so there is half the upgrade done. And while the current player is about $600 it won't be long before you'll see them for $200 then $100...

      Most 4k TV's bought in the last two years are HDCP 2.2 compatible. Even if the older ones (read: mine) might not have a built in HVEC decoder for 4k streaming.

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