(Almost) 4K reasons why Ultra HD Blu-ray needs to succeed

What about digital distribution?

Digital distribution avenues like iTunes have certainly provided a convenient way for people to build movie libraries that will be with them forever (so long as they don't lose their Apple ID login details – or go belly up, like Australian video streaming service Ezyflix did recently), but they're also far from perfect.

iTunes has a large selection of films to purchase, though they can be quite expensive, especially when you consider that your product only exists as ones and zeroes.

The price isn't such a big deal when you consider that the file will be available to re-download forever, but that system has its drawbacks – the file is to be forever tied to the Apple ecosystem via DRM, meaning you can either watch your films on a computer or make sure that you always own an Apple TV.

Speaking of the Apple TV, the long-awaited latest iteration of Apple's living room media device can only output up to a resolution 1080p, so those hoping to purchase 4K content from the Apple Store in the near future will have to wait a while longer.

Sure, iTunes isn't the be-all and end-all for the digital distribution of movies, but it is definitely the one with the most stable future. While there are many small digital distribution services on the internet, there's an inherent risk in backing the little guy. The recent shuttering of EzyFlix, an Australian digital distribution service, proves that not all services of this kind have a concrete future.

At the mercy of my connection

When streaming video services work perfectly, it's a thing of beauty – 1080p and 4K video is seamlessly delivered in what feels like an instant. But there are plenty of factors which determine the quality of your stream.

A major one is the quality of your internet connection at any given time. Though it doesn't take a huge amount of data to transmit 1080p and 4K streams, picture quality on Netflix isn't always rock-solid, with the service's variable bitrate occasionally fluctuating somewhere between "crystal clear" and "fuzzy as hell".

Part of this is likely due to traffic congestion during peak Netflix-watching hours – a recent attempt to watch Marvel's Daredevil on the 65-inch LG 4K OLED during primetime (around 8pm) saw the stream struggling to maintain a 1080p resolution. A few hours later during a post-midnight viewing, the stream instantly reached full 4K resolution.

For some people, a poor stream could simply be attributed to their location, with some countries and rural areas sporting less-than-stellar internet infrastructure.

Internet throttling is also going to be a major concern going forward, and while discussions on Net Neutrality have quieted somewhat after being a major focus in tech news last year, it's not entirely gone – the idea of cable companies effectively 'owning the internet' and being able to dole out 'fast lane' internet tubes to the highest bidder is something that streaming services like Netflix see as a large threat, with some suggesting that the company would have to raise its prices if that were ever to take effect.

Let's get physical

But the question remains: "What can the 4K Blu-ray format offer that streaming and traditional Blu-ray can't deliver?"

It's worth noting that the upscaling functionality found on many 4K televisions makes regular Blu-ray movies look absolutely fantastic. In our review of the 65-inch LG 4K OLED, we stated that an upscaled viewing of Interstellar looked so good on Blu-ray, it could've passed for a true 4K presentation of the film to untrained eyes. However, older films that were made without the benefit of Interstellar's cutting edge special effects and digitally-processed film stock looked less than.. ahem... stellar. As televisions get larger, the 1080p resolution of traditional Blu-rays becomes strained, kind of how DVDs look when played on HD televisions. It works, but it's not taking full advantage of your UHD television. This is where 4K Blu-ray will shine brightest.

Stephen Lambrechts
Senior Journalist, Phones and Entertainment

Stephen primarily covers phones and entertainment for TechRadar's Australian team, and has written professionally across the categories of tech, film, television and gaming in both print and online for over a decade. He's obsessed with smartphones, televisions, consoles and gaming PCs, and has a deep-seated desire to consume all forms of media at the highest quality possible. 

He's also likely to talk a person’s ear off at the mere mention of Android, cats, retro sneaker releases, travelling and physical media, such as vinyl and boutique Blu-ray releases. Right now, he's most excited about QD-OLED technology, The Batman and Hellblade 2: Senua's Saga.