Our Troubled NBN May Give Ultra HD Blu-Ray Players A Foothold

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Digital hipsters will tell you that optical discs are already dead, but Ultra HD streaming on a Friday night is still a pipe dream for many Australians.

As prices drop on Ultra HD televisions they're finding their way into more Australian lounge rooms, although to be honest most of what we'd watch is still upscaled standard-def or high-def content. Finding true Ultra HD video to do that new screen justice presents a few challenges.

Don't hold your breath waiting for Australia to follow South Korea's lead and upgrade to free-to-air Ultra HD broadcasting. Our commercial networks have made it painfully clear that they'd rather dedicate their spectrum towards extra SD channels churning out infomercials and reruns of I Dream of Jeannie.

What's odd is that the South Korean broadcasters are actually jealous of Australia. They're certainly not jealous of our second-rate broadband, or our shabby SD broadcasts and overabundance of reruns – they think you're joking when you tell them we still waste spectrum broadcasting I Dream of Jeannie. Instead they're jealous of the number of Australians still watching terrestrial broadcasts.

South Koreans love their free-to-air television, but these days most of them watch it streamed online rather than via the terrestrial broadcasts – which is understandable when you're blessed with the world's best home broadband speeds. With Seoul's online simulcasts also upgrading to Ultra HD, there'll be even less reason for the locals to watch television over the airwaves.

With Australia's broadcasters putting quantity before quality, that leaves us looking to streaming services and optical discs for our Ultra HD fix.

These days you'll find a handful of Ultra HD content on the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Stan (co-owned by Fairfax Media) – but only if your home broadband connection can do it justice.

In theory you need at least 15 Mbps download speeds, which will remain out of reach for many Australians for a few years yet, but even if you are one of the lucky ones you might find that Ultra HD streaming leaves you staring at the spinning wheel of death.

Video streaming doesn't just require fast broadband, it also relies on reliable broadband – and that's where Australia's broadband infrastructure is found wanting.

I'm fortunate enough to be on 100 Mbps Telstra HFC cable, which is great most of the time, but it can still choke on a Friday night with Netflix freezing every few minutes as all the cable broadband users in my area hit the couch and look for something to stream. This didn't happen on my old 4 Mbps DSL service.

HFC cable doesn't cope well when everyone in your street is using it at the same time, it's like punching holes in a garden hose and watching the water pressure drop. Things might get worse when that Telstra cable becomes NBN cable, tripling the number of homes relying on it for broadband.

NBN has vowed to upgrade the Telstra HFC network to handle the load, while scrapping the Optus cable network because it wasn't worth saving. Early indications show that NBN is slow to deliver on those HFC upgrade promises, which isn't surprising considering that the government has forced it to take a budget "near enough is good enough" approach to the national rollout.

To make matters worse, some internet retailers are not buying enough capacity to satisfy all their customers during peak times, with NBN head honcho Bill Morrow starting NBN's war of words with the retailers this week.

That means some NBN users face the double whammy of retailers skimping on bandwidth and the infrastructure struggling to cope with the load.

So that leaves us with Ultra HD Blu-ray discs as the most reliable way to get Ultra HD video into your lounge room. The players have been slow to take off and the Ultra HD Blu-ray disc section at my local JB HiFi is still minuscule, but it was the same with the rise of DVD and Blu-ray.

Video streaming was supposedly going to kill all these shiny optical video discs, but they've thrived in Australia because our super-fast broadband is stuck in the slow lane. The cumbersome NBN rollout might buy Ultra HD Blu-ray the time it needs to get a decent foothold in Australian lounge rooms.

Where do you source your Friday night entertainment and how will Ultra HD content find its way to your lounge room?

Adam Turner visited South Korea as a guest of LG.


Comments

    There's another thing that I always refer to whenever people say "Why would you buy optical media when you can just buy stuff digitally?"

    Bitrate. A regular Blu-ray has an average video bitrate of roughly 30-35Mbps. An iTunes digital copy on the other hand has a maximum bitrate of about a fifth of that. Netflix isn't much better (if their 25mbps requirement for UHD is anything to go by). So it doesn't matter how high the resolution is - the higher the bitrate the better the image quality. Same goes for audio. Audio on Blu-ray is usually DTS-HD, so it's near lossless. Audio on digital releases however is highly compressed and not much better than DVD quality.

    Most consumers won't notice a difference, but for those of us who do prefer the best possible quality you can't go past optical-based media. AND DON'T EVEN GET ME STARTED ON DIGITAL DRM.

    Last edited 07/08/17 11:41 am

      The one benefit is that after you've been watching Netflix shows and go back to blu-ray you get that nice feeling of, "wow that looks so good."

      The main thing I think about when it comes to the decision between a streaming provider and buying a disc is whether I want to watch it more than once. With streaming companies rotating titles in and out of their libraries it means you can't guarantee that your favourite film is going to be there when you feel like watching it. So I'd much rather buy favourites (like The Thing) on disc so I can watch them when I get the urge.

      Probably the most offputting thing about UHD disc players is their exorbitant cost at the moment. When the cheapest player is probably a game machine that's around $400 it's not a great deal. Where are the $200 players? :(

    I love my UHD player! I'm on Netflix flat out but I love having a physical collection. Streaming a movie just doesn't have same feel as putting a disc in, I suppose it's much the same as people who prefer reading books compared to ebooks. There's a little more fanfare to it, I think. scrolling through a list of movies doesn't have the same sense of occasion as looking through my carefully ordered racks of DVDs, blurays and UHD blurays. I am a sucker for completing series of things; my James Bond collection grows every few years (no Never Say Never Again - doesn't count!), I get cranky whenever I see my Simpsons box sets - forever to be incomplete, and I will be putting everyone who worked at Marvel and DC's kids through college for what I imagine will be until the end of time.

    As a side note, I wish marvel would step up to the UHD plate, and curiously, will Spiderman Homecoming get a UHD release being Fox but still MCU?, sorry running off topic...

    Last edited 07/08/17 12:00 pm

    A National Broadband Network that can't provide enough bandwidth to stream 4K TV properly!

    During the next election campaign we should remind everyone why, after billions upon billions of dollars, the NBN sucks.

      Even Labor had no plan to give enough back-haul for everyone to stream 4K. We're limited by the fact that our international links have to be submarine, increasing the cost of laying them.

        Less submarines, more CDNs.

          And that will help stream content from the USA....How?

    And when you call up your ISP to complain, they'll tell you to try streaming 4k at 5am.

    This may be off topic but I want to vent over Stan only has HD quality for The Preacher's last two episodes. After watching earlier episodes in 4K goodness I can't go back... I won't.
    Getting back on topic, each HD disk costs $40 so when I weigh that 1 disc against 1 month of Netflix + Stan + Amazon it comes off as poor value no matter how high the HD bitrate.

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