UItra HD Blu-ray - the saviour of physical media explained

Packing in the latest of video imaging technology - the holy trinity of UHD, HDR and HFR - the disc may not be quite dead.

Physical media’s dead, right? We’re all done with discs now that the world streams all its media directly from source. Well, the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) may have something to say about that when the upcoming Ultra HD Blu-ray format finally lands.

Video streaming is all well and good when you have a super-fast, robust network connection, but that’s still not a reality for the whole country. And when some locales are struggling to get a decent 1080p stream down their interweb tubes the extra bandwidth requirements for the 4K Ultra HD standard are going to be punishing.

So having all that data on an easily accessed physical disc can solve those problems. You won’t get to that vital part of a movie where you finally see what it is the hero’s been fighting against all along...only to stall with a spinning, buffering circle of doom in the middle of the screen.

So let us explain what UHD Blu-ray means for you and why you should be tentatively excited about it.

What is it?

Ultra HD Blu-ray, as the name might suggest, is the disc format designed to serve 4K UHD media to your big screen 4K UHD, once you inevitably decide to make the upgrade.

That means you’re getting the full 3840 x 2160 resolution which, as you ought to know by now, is four times the res of the current 1920 x 1080 Full HD Blu-ray standard. But it’s not just about the number of pixels you're able to get out onto your big screen 4K telebox, there are a host of other features Ultra HD Blu-ray is set to bring to the home cinema faithful.

The new disc standard - which the BDA finalised earlier this year and started handing out licenses for back in August - is also already capable of dealing with the added rigours of the upcoming high dynamic range (HDR) revolution.

We’re unlikely to see HDR movies hitting the shelves at the same time as 4K UHD discs though; there are still issues with production and a complete standard for HDR too. But when HDR is ready to roll Ultra HD Blu-ray will be there to carry it into our homes.

If UHD and HDR weren’t enough acronyms for you, let us throw HFR into the mix too and see how that sits…

The high frame rate support of the Ultra HD Blu-ray standard means that as well as the current 24 frames per second (FPS) video standard the new format will also be able to display movies filmed in 60FPS too.

Currently we’ve only seen Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy in HFR, running at 48FPS, and that didn’t get the greatest of receptions. James Cameron though is looking to have the Avatar sequels filmed with HFR though so that might do better things for the public response.

Is Ultra HD Blu-ray just about image quality?

The holy acronym trilogy of UHD, HDR and HFR aren’t the only features of the new Ultra HD Blu-ray standard. In fact one of its biggest selling points could be the fact that it’s not all about the disc anymore.

The Digital Bridge feature allows for a full resolution transfer of whatever content is on the disc to another device.

The compatible devices, or supported hard drives, will need to be able to authorise the transfer, but it should mean that by purchasing the physical media you’ll be able to take it around with you without having to lug about a bulky Ultra HD Blu-ray player.

Being able to offer more than just the physical disc could be a real feather in the new format’s cap. Though there is a slight problem.

Though the Digital Bridge feature is part of the standard it’s only an optional part. Whether film companies have trust enough in the digital rights management of the Digital Bridge feature to allow the free copying of their movies is something only time will tell.

What are the plans for Ultra HD 3D Blu-ray?

In short, it doesn’t seem like there are any.

The 3D side of things seems to have been left entirely out of the base standard and, according to some reports, there are no plans to add support in at a later date either.

If ever there was a marker to tell you this iteration of 3D was dead, surely a new disc format rocking every major video innovation around today, and in the future, but deliberately eschewing 3D support would be the final nail.

What about sound?

Ultra HD Blu ray isn’t going to deliver anything new on the audio front, compared to what the existing Blu-ray standard is capable of offering, but that still means it’s your best bet for the full cinema experience.

It’s capable of supporting the very best positional audio experiences of Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. Considering an Ultra HD Netflix stream taps out at 5.1 Surround discs have long had the edge when it comes to the aurals.

Is it backwards compatible?

That’s one of the key points the BDA made when announcing the new disc format. Ultra HD Blu-ray is completely backwards compatible with your entire Blu-ray disc library.

Well, with the possible exception of 3D Blu-ray…

An Ultra HD Blu-ray player will also be backwards compatible with a lower resolution screen too, down-sampling to fit the screen res. Though you would be missing the ultimate benefit of using the new disc format if you restrict it to displaying on a 1080p panel.

How big are the Ultra HD Blu-ray discs?

Physically they’re the same size as a standard Blu-ray, so there’s no chance of a glorious LP-sized laserdisc-style platter.

But in terms of actual storage capacity there’s the option of three different sizes of disc in the new standard. There’s the 50GB disc at the smallest end, with a transfer rate above Blu-ray of 82Mbps, a middling 66GB disc running at 108Mbps and finally a hefty 100GB disc with a transfer speed of 128Mbps.

Considering a full season of House of Cards on Netflix, encoded with HEVC, runs to around 75GB that should be able to fit on a single Ultra HD Blu-ray disc.

What hardware do I need to get Ultra HD Blu-ray?

That’s the big question on the hardware front. The base requirement is going to be an Ultra HD Blu-ray player, but we’re still waiting to see when exactly the actual devices will go on sale.

We saw a few on-stand at this year’s IFA show in Berlin, and we expect to see a slew of them at CES next January, but the manufacturers are remaining tight-lipped about when we’ll get hands-on.

As well as an Ultra HD Blu-ray player you’ll also need an Ultra HD device to watch the source material on.

That could be a 4K TV or a lovely 4K projector. Granted a UHD beamer is the expensive option, but if you want the full home cinema experience then that’s the way to go.

You will though need to make sure your chosen device has the right connections on it. You need a HDMI 2.0 port to be able to get above that 30FPS speed limit, but more importantly you’ll need to make sure your device’s connections include HDCP 2.2 support. That’s the copy protection standard which will let you transfer the high-res audiovisuals over an HDMI cable.

And to nail that full home cinema setup you’ll need a decent A/V receiver or amplifier to be able to get the complete, room-shaking, Dolby Atmos / DTS:X aural experience.

Finally, and actually more importantly than any of that, you’ll need an Ultra HD Blu-ray disc.

When will I be able to buy all of that?

The UHD TVs and projectors are already on the shelves, as are compatible A/V amps, but the players and discs themselves are proving elusive.

Panasonic is releasing its super high-end DMR-UBZ1 player in Japan on November 13 for around £2,000 and Samsung has announced plans for a £500 player to hit the shelves early next year..

We’re hoping though we might see some actual players hitting the market around Christmas this year and there will, of course, be filmmakers releasing actual discs to support the launch from the likes of Fox, Universal, Disney and Warner Bros. - all current members of the BDA.

So, should we really be that excited?

It’s all about the content. If that’s available in great enough quantities then we could be in for a resurgence of the disc format and our own personal video libraries.

Movies genuinely look stunning in native 4K resolutions and with the added bonus of HDR support and higher frame rates UHD Blu-ray will offer the best way of watching films.

And when it comes to getting 4K movies via over the top streaming services you can bet the movie guys aren’t going to let Amazon and Netflix have the latest films in 4K at the same time as they go on sale on-disc.

It’s in their interests to make sure the streamers have to wait for the good stuff.

Then there’s the aural experience. We know most people are more than happy with the 5.1 surround limit of Netflix, but the serious home cinema crowd will likely hiss at you like a bunch of cornered cats at that. So if you want to really make the most of your dedicated home cinema room - you lucky human - then Ultra HD Blu-ray is the only way to go.

If you’re reading this all smug with your 4K TV, high-speed internet and UHD Netflix account and wondering why you’d bother to think about the bandwidth requirements, spare a thought for the majority of the population.

You may get a good, solid connection in the cities and big towns of the UK, but out in the countryside you’ll struggle to always nail that 25Mbps download needed for the full UHD Netflix experience.

An Ultra HD Blu-ray won’t suddenly drop down to 576p if there’s a random blip in the connection.

And then consider the extra ramifications of adding HDR to that mix. Estimates on the streaming demands puts that to another 20% on top of the UHD bandwidth requirements.

That puts the future UHD/HDR Netflix demands up to a 30Mbps connection for the premium experience.

So yes, if the home cinema experience in your country pile really matters to you, then you ought to be excited about Ultra HD Blu-ray. For the rest of us it’s probably more going to be a question of sitting back to see how well supported it is by the filmmakers and just how pricey those players and discs are going to be.

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