More 4K Streaming Now Available on UHD TVs

Amazon Instant Video and UltraFlix have at last launched their 4K/Ultra HD (UHD) streaming services. Keeping its promise to have 4K content by the end of the year, Amazon has made a few dozen TV shows and movies available for streaming to select UHD TVs from Sony, Samsung, and LG Electronics. UltraFlix, on the other hand, is offering an eclectic collection of non-mainstream titles.

Watching on a 65-inch Samsung HU8550 UHD TV, my first impression of both streaming services is that both offer a stunning picture, with almost no grain or pixels, and a rich digital surround sound experience.

I learned that 4K was available for streaming from an Amazon app message on my TV that said the TV’s firmware needed to be updated. Actually, it was the app that didn’t automatically update so I had to force the update. After highlighting the app, I held down the select button on the remote to bring up an options menu. Then I chose “update the app” and clicked the checkbox to “update now.” It likely that other UHD TVs will also require a forced update of the Amazon app.

At launch, Amazon Prime was offering a few free 4K movies from Sony Picture Entertainment, including Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Philadelphia, Hitch, and Funny Girl. I decided to test the oldest film of the bunch, Funny Girl as I was curious how 1960s classic would look after its 4K transfer. It was gorgeous. I could sit a foot away from the screen and not see pixels or film grain in most scenes. The digital surround sound was crystal clear (I have the TV connected to my receiver using the HDMI Arc port). Crouching Tiger was strikingly detailed and clear.

For all the naysayers who claim you can't tell the difference between HD and UHD when sitting more than 6 feet away, I must respectfully disagree. Watching a scene from Hitch that I regularly use for testing, I noticed for the first time that Kevin James had grains of mustard on his nose when he meets Hitch on the stairs. When viewed in 1080p, the grains merely appear as subtle differences in color. Don’t get me started on how surprised I was to notice men’s fake hair pieces that hadn’t been apparent in the past.

Like Netflix, Amazon suggests an Internet download minimum speed of 15 Mb/s (megabits per second). If you pay for 50 Mb/s internet, you might expect that 15 Mb/s would be easy. That's not always the case. I have seen streaming speeds of less than 5 Mb/s on devices even though I have an extremely fast Internet connection. Remember, the actual speed that reaches your TV is only a portion of the full bandwidth, which is shared with all devices in the home and reduced over long distances. Using Netgear's high-speed R7500 Nighthawk router, I was able to reach the speed needed without any buffers or glitches. With a lesser router, that might not be the case.

If your Internet provider has a monthly data limit, proceed with caution if you're into binge viewing. While Amazon wouldn’t comment on the size of UHD movies compared with HD titles, I streamed 128 gigabytes (GB)of data in two days, according to the traffic meter on my router. This included 10 episodes of the BBC America series Orphan Black as well as Funny Girl, Hitch, and a smattering of UltraFlix shorts for a grand total of about 14 hours. (Don’t judge me for sitting in front of the TV that long—I was nursing a cold.) Simple math would estimate UHD streaming at 8 or 9 GBs per hour of video, compared with around 1.5 GBs per hour for a 1080p stream. While not scientific, consider this a cautionary tale: It wouldn't be terribly difficult to exceed your monthly data limit with UHD streaming.

Along with the few free Prime member movie titles, Amazon is offering its library of online TV shows—the second season of Alpha House, the Writers Guild of America award-nominated series Transparent, and the children’s series Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street. There are also two seasons of BBC America’s Orphan Black. Amazon Studios titles include Mozart in the Jungle , Bosch, Hand of God, The After, and Red Oaks.

Not all Sony Pictures titles are included in free Amazon Prime streaming. A few are available for purchase and cannot be rented. And they are not cheap at an average price of $26 per title. The buy-only list includes After Earth, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Elysium, Godzilla, Hancock, Moneyball, The Mask of Zorro, The Monuments Men, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, The Da Vinci Code, The Patriot, Think Like a Man Too, and This Is the End. When you buy one of these titles, the movie is stored in the Amazon cloud for streaming to your TV.

There were far fewer UltraFlix launch titles than I had expected. The current offering includes a few offbeat movies and a number of beauty shorts to show off 4K video. Extreme sports and auto videos are available along with nature and travel videos. A few videos are free, others run $3 to $4. Unfortunately, many of the videos are poorly shot and poorly written. The 4K beauty videos are better produced than the travel videos I tried to watch. We can only hope that UltraFlix will strengthen its 4K lineup in the near future with content that is more mainstream and better produced.