Blu-ray Disc Players: The Age of Ultra

Bonus: Best External Optical Drives

New Ultra HD Blu-ray video is colorful and vibrant, but the format is intended for home-theater enthusiasts for now. Meanwhile, Blu-ray Disc players include more streaming channels and services than ever before.

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Since the introduction of the first ultrahigh-definition (UHD), or 4K, TVs in 2012, we’ve waited for the day when we could buy or rent programs on 4K Blu-ray Discs and play them at home. That day is here, but the new Ultra HD Blu-ray format is rolling out slowly, and it isn’t geared toward a mainstream audience for now, says Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits, which covers the home-theater industry.

Few Ultra HD Blu-ray movie titles were available as of press time, and only one player was available in the United States at press time. Furthermore, your TV—even one that you just bought—might not be compatible.

“Ultra HD Blu-ray isn’t for the average consumer,” Hunt says.

In other words, Ultra HD Blu-ray in 2016 is really for the videophile.

A BIG DIFFERENCE. Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA), which is an industry group that develops standards for Blu-ray, finalized the Ultra HD Blu-ray format in May 2015.

Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs store up to 100GB of data and transfer data at 82–128 megabits per second (Mbps). Blu-ray Discs store up to 50GB of data and transfer data at 54 Mbps.

Because Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs store more data and transfer it quicker than do standard Blu-ray Discs, they’re capable of delivering better picture quality. Ultra HD Blu-ray supports video resolution that’s as high as 4K (3840 x 2160 pixels), compared with Blu-ray, which supports resolution that’s as high as HD (1920 x 1080 pixels).

That isn’t all. Unlike Blu-ray, Ultra HD Blu-ray provides enough data to support high-dynamic range (HDR), which delivers a wider range of contrast and light than ever before, and wide-color gamut (WCG), which displays a wider range of colors than ever before.

Ultra HD Blu-ray provides the most detailed and realistic video that you can see. We spoke with eight experts, and all of them tell us that Ultra HD Blu-ray delivers a wider range of light and detail than does a 4K video that doesn’t have HDR and WCG. For instance, if a torch moves across a white background in Ultra HD Blu-ray, you’ll be able to see the color and the detail of the flame, Hunt says. If you saw that same torch scene in a 4K video that doesn’t have HDR and WCG, you’d see a “yellow blob,” he says.

All eight experts agree that the benefits of Ultra HD Blu-ray are obvious to the average consumer, regardless of his/her UHDTV’s screen size or how far that he/she sits from it. In other words, this isn’t like a comparison of 4K and 1080p, in which experts agree that you won’t be able to discern any difference unless your UHDTV screen is larger than 70 inches.

An Ultra HD Blu-ray player also provides a better picture than does a streaming 4K video. Although the resolution is the same, streaming video typically is delivered at 12 Mbps or less because of bandwidth limitations. That means that the video is compressed, which creates random blurry spots and glitches in the picture. Streaming 4K video also is too compressed to support HDR and WCG, so the advantages of HDR and WCG disappear.

SLOW GOING. As of press time, only 47 titles were available on Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs. BDA expects that at least 100 such titles will be available by the end of 2016, and 200 titles should be available by 2018. As of press time, five studios—20th Century Fox, Lionsgate, Shout! Factory, Sony Pictures and Warner Bros.—support the format. Paramount and Universal are expected to release Ultra HD Blu-ray titles in June 2016 and August 2016, respectively. Experts tell us that Disney likely will introduce Ultra HD Blu-ray movies by early 2017.

As for the titles themselves, your selection primarily will be limited to movies that were released in the past 2 years, such as “The Martian” and “The Revenant.” That’s because major motion pictures of the past 2 years typically were filmed in 4K or 8K resolution, so it’s easy for studios to remaster them in the Ultra HD Blu-ray format.

“One of the problems with Ultra HD Blu-ray is that it’s very expensive to go back and scan all the film negatives and redo the visual effects,” Hunt says. “There are some films that will never be appropriate, because they were made so long ago or because the film has deteriorated, and they’ve lost some of the original information.”

Hunt says we can expect to see studios remaster more older movies after manufacturers introduce 100GB, or triple-layered, Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs later in 2016. As of press time, only 66GB, or double-layered, Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs were available.

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