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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