Leveraging an asset—a Hollywood movie studio—that competitors like LG and Samsung must envy, Sony is planning a summer launch of a new distribution system that will allow Ultra HD TV owners to download 4K movies to a new streamlined media player.
One of the big concerns about Ultra HD TVs is the lack of native 4K content that can take advantage of the sets' higher resolution, with four times the number of pixels as current 1080p TVs. Ultra TVs will upconvert regular high-def programs from cable or Blu-ray, though the quality won't be as high as with native 4K material.
We first got a glimpse of the new player at CES in January. Currently, Sony provides owners of its 84-inch XBR-84X900 set a free media PC that's loaded with 4K content, including 10 feature films from Sony Pictures. The system can be updated with newer content via Blu-ray data discs, since there's no standard yet for 4K support in regular Blu-ray discs.
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But the intention is to eventually replace these media PCs with the new media player, which sports a unique, circular design. Unlike the media PC, the player lacks a disc-drive slot, so content is refreshed solely through downloads. Sony hasn't disclosed the compression scheme it will use to reduce the size of the downloaded files, nor the amount of time it will take to complete a 4K download. Presumably you'll be able to schedules the downloads to happen late at night or early in the morning, since the expectation is that it could take hours to download a complete movie.
Currently the only full-length feature films are from Sony Pictures Entertainment, but Sony says it's talking with other studios about making 4K versions of their releases available through the Sony distribution system.
Like the media PC, the new media player will be offered free to those buying the 84-inch XBR-84X900 Ultra HD TV, but it's not yet clear whether it will be included with the purchase of one of the smaller sets. A Sony source told me the company would likely offer the media player separately, so it's possible that even if you buy another brand of Ultra HD you'll be able to get a player. But there was no indication of what it could cost.
If there was an elephant in the room during the press event, it was exactly what role the recently announced Sony PlayStation 4 will play in the Sony Ultra HD ecosystem. So far, details of the PS4's hardware specifications have been sketchy, but it isn't hard to imagine the PS4 become an option for downloading Ultra HD content, provided it comes with a robust enough hard drive. We expect to hear more about the PS4 at the upcoming E3 video-game trade show in June.
—James K. Willcox