4K content guide: What to watch in 4K and HDR today

TVs

by David Katzmaier March 28, 2017 1:16 PM PDT @dkatzmaier

Looking forward to watching your favorite baseball team in 4K? Can't wait to TiVo HBO's 4K broadcasts of "Game of Thrones?" Excited to rebuy the "Lord of the Rings" (Extended Edition) box set on 4K Blu-ray?

Don't hold your breath. 4K TVs are falling in price with the speed of a runaway train, but 4K content, the stuff you can actually watch in 4K today, can seem stalled in the station. The same goes for HDR (high dynamic range), which in our tests makes bigger picture quality difference than 4K.

If you want your 4K fix right now, you'd better have a fast Internet connection and be a fan of original series on Netflix and Amazon. Or you could buy a 4K Blu-ray player and (gasp) actual physical discs at $15 a pop and up.

So what can you watch, anyway?

Streaming and Blu-ray, but not cable

4K streaming services Netflix, Amazon, Vudu and YouTube have the biggest selection of 4K movies and TV shows. A couple of less-popular services like Google Play Movies and TV, Sony's Ultra, Fandango Now and UltraFlix4K offer additional options. Hulu also has 4K now, but only on a couple of devices.

The catch? All of these streaming services only offer a tiny portion of their vast libraries in 4K. Chances are, whatever show or movie you want to watch won't be in 4K or HDR. The exception is original series on Netflix and Amazon, like "Daredevil" and "The Man in the High Castle." Many of them are available in 4K.

4K Blu-ray is the other common source of actual 4K and HDR movies. There are more than 100 titles on 4K Blu-ray now, and many of them are in HDR. With the high prices of recent 4K/HDR movies and TV shows on streaming services, sometimes buying the disc is the best value. Buying a recent 4K movie from a service like Vudu or Amazon typically costs $30, while 4K Blu-rays are more often discounted. And most include the HD version as a physical Blu-ray and digital copy (for mobile and streaming devices) as well.

So what about cable TV? It's not in 4K yet.

Live and on-demand TV from cable, satellite, over-the-air antenna or a streaming service like Sling TV is almost never in 4K or HDR. DirecTV has the biggest selection, with a 24-hour channel that carries a few events, and Dish Network has dabbled in 4K too. Cable doesn't have any 4K broadcasts in the US yet.

In short, it'll be a long time before you can watch your favorite broadcast TV shows and sports in 4K and/or HDR.

By the way, gaming is a whole other animal. Check out our PlayStation 4 Pro, Xbox One S, gaming laptop and gaming desktop reviews to learn Why you shouldn't get excited about 4K and HDR gaming, at least not yet.

Netflix

Cost: $11.99/month subscription

Example content: Original series "The Crown," "Orange is the New Black," "Marco Polo," "House of Cards," "Santa Clarita Diet," "Narcos," "Love," "Jessica Jones," "Daredevil" and many more. TV series "Breaking Bad," "Better Call Saul," "The Blacklist," movies "The Young Offenders," "Terra," "Apex: The Story of the Hypercar," "Flight of the Butterflies"

Takeaway: To watch 4K on Netflix you need to be subscribed to its highest-priced plan. Seemingly every recent Netflix-produced property, from original original series to stand-up comedy special to documentary, is available in 4K, and many in HDR. Stuff Netflix didn't make itself is rare, however.

Amazon

Cost: $99/year Prime subscription (which also includes many other benefits), or some titles to buy for $19.99 and up

Example content (Prime): Original series "Transparent," "Hand of God," "Mozart in the Jungle," "Patriot," "Sneaky Pete," "The Man in the High Castle," "Goliath," "Bosch" and more. TV series "Orphan Black," movies "Spectre," "Chi-Raq," "Cafe Society," "Manchester by the Sea" (after May 5)

Example content (rent or buy): Movies "Inferno," "Passengers," "Ghostbusters," "Sausage Party," "Money Monster," "The Other Guys," "Concussion," "The Walk." TV series "Outlander," "Better Call Saul," "Masters of Sex," "House of Cards."

Takeaway: Like Netflix, just about every original series is in 4K and many are in HDR. Prime members can watch any of them, and access a few movies as well including the Amazon production "Manchester by the Sea," coming May 5 to Prime. There are a few movies available to rent or buy, too -- certainly a better selection than Netflix, but not nearly as good as Vudu -- and a handful of shows, including a couple available free on Netflix.

14 Best 4K Blu-rays

4K Blu-ray discs

Cost: $15 and up

Example content: Movies "Planet Earth 2," "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," "Deepwater Horizon," "John Wick," "Passengers," "Trolls," "Assassin's Creed," "Sing," "Arrival," "Deadpool," "Star Trek: Beyond," "Snow White and the Huntsman," "The Magnificent Seven," "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," "The Revenant," "Pacific Rim."

Takeaway: More than 100 4K Blu-ray discs are available now, with more coming out each week, and most of them offer HDR as well. New movies in 4K on streaming services are still relatively rare (and expensive), so if you want to see a particular film an actual disc might be your best bet. As a bonus, the cost usually includes a standard 1080p Blu-ray and access to the digital copy.

Vudu

Cost: $8 and up to rent, $30 to buy

Example content: Movies "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," "The Girl on the Train," "Arrival," "Sing," "Live by Night," "Allied," "The Accountant," "Jack Reacher," "The Secret Life of Pets," "Storks," "Suicide Squad," "Sully," "Mad Max: Fury Road."

Takeaway: When it comes to recent movies in 4K, Vudu rules among the streaming services. All of the above titles are "Vudu UHD Exclusives," meaning no other service gets them in 4K. Vudu only streams in HDR using the Dolby Vision format.

YouTube

Cost: Free

Example Content: "Timescapes" (full movie), 4K movie trailers and music videos, nature videos like "Costa Rica in 4K" and "4K African Wildlife," other videos include "Tornados in 4K," "Iceland in 4K," "4K Hawaii Drone Footage," "Space Station Fisheye Fly-through 4K," "Vertical Maze Dubai."

Takeaway: YouTube has a whole lot of videos in 4K, and many of them skew toward higher production values than your typical YouTube video. The list above is basically the first page of results using the "4K" filter on March 28, 2017, and provides a decent cross-section of what to expect. YouTube doesn't yet offer any videos in HDR.

Other sources

Hulu: A few original series, including "Shut Eye," "Chance," "The Path," "11.22.63" and (coming April 26, 2017) "Handmaid's Tale." Also the entire James Bond movie collection with more than 20 films. Unfortunately the only devices currently supported are the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One S.

Google Play Movies and TV: Movies to buy ($15 to $30) include "Star Trek Beyond," "Me Before You," "The Shallows," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," "World War Z" and more. Unfortunately the only devices currently supported are Chromecast Ultra and select 4K Android TVs, namely from Sony.

FandangoNow (formerly M-Go): Movies to buy ($18 to $30) include "Sing," "Furious 7," "Jason Bourne," "Warcraft," "How to Train Your Dragon," "The Love Punch" and many more. You can also rent lesser-known titles like "Circles of Life: Iceland" and "Earth to Echo." Unfortunately the only devices currently supported are 4K TVs from LG and Samsung as well as 4K Roku TVs and devices.

UltraFlix: Older 4K movies like "Robocop" and "Rocky" ($10 each to buy), along with plenty of stuff you've never heard of. It's available on Roku and some Smart TVs

Sony Ultra: This has Sony Pictures films like "Concussion" and "Fury" for $30 to buy, and it's available only on Sony 4K TVs. On the plus side, most of the films are in HDR too.

Anything else I need to know?

To watch any of these sources you'll need a 4K TV, and if you want to watch in high dynamic range it should also support HDR (with or without Dolby Vision). Most 4K TVs offer the big apps built-in, but if you'd rather use an external device our favorite is the Roku Premiere+.

For 4K Blu-ray you'll also need a player, like the Samsung UBD-K8500 or an Xbox One S. More 4K Blu-ray players are being introduced this year, including models that support Dolby Vision, along with Dolby Vision discs.

Finally, just because something is in 4K even HDR doesn't mean it will look dramatically better than a standard high-def Blu-ray disc or even an HD stream. In many of our tests of 4K streams we've found it difficult to tell the difference. HDR generally provides a more noticeable improvement, but the TV's performance itself is a major factor too.

We'll keep this guide updated as more 4K and HDR content becomes available.

Fully updated March 27, 2017.

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