What's out there and how it looks
The next big thing in home theater projectors is 4K Ultra High Definition. These projectors, with a native resolution of 4,096 by 2,160 pixels, have four times the resolution of 1080p and bring a whole new level of detail and smoothness to home theater projection. Though 4K projection is in its infancy, these projectors offer a huge step up in resolution, detail, smoothness, and clarity.
Right now, there are only 15 native 4K projectors available, and many of them aren't appropriate for home theater. There are also a number of projectors, namely those from JVC and Epson, that can interpolate 4K from native 1080p chips. Given the level of interest in these products, it's a safe bet that the industry as a whole will embrace 4K in the years to come.
The one thing missing from this equation is native 4K content. Now keep in mind that you don't need 4K content to enjoy a 4K projector. We've found that 4K projectors bring new life to existing 1080p content, rendering it with a realness and level of fine detail that cannot be matched by any native 1080p projector. But for those who want the full 4K experience, here's what's out there, how it looks, and how to get it.
At the moment, there are only a few places to get native 4K content, and all of them are internet based. So when you're ready, fire up your broadband connection and take a look at the following:
Downloadable 4K. Sony, one of the pioneers of 4K home theater projection, has launched their own video store that offers the largest selection of native 4K content currently available. The store is accessed through their FMP-X10 media player, which includes a 1-terabyte hard drive and WiFi. At launch, this player only worked with Sony projectors and televisions, but a recent firmware update makes the FMP-X10 compatible with all 4K displays that support HDCP 2.2.
At this time, the VU4K store has just over 200 items available for rent or purchase. Of these, about 80 are episodes of TV shows such as Breaking Bad and The Blacklist, roughly 60 are short films or video clips, and 74 are full-length feature films.
The good news is that some of the titles, including many recent movies, are delivered in the highest quality available. In a shootout between Netflix and VU4K copies of several episodes of Breaking Bad, the VU4K versions had superior contrast, three-dimensionality, resolution, detail, and color.
The bad news is that quality costs. Not only is the player $699, but individual titles cost money, too - from $3.99 for individual TV episodes to $29.99 for full-length movies. Some movies, but not all, are available for rent at $7.99 for 24 hours. Some short films and documentary clips are available for free.
Due to the large file sizes involved, movies from the VU4K store are not available for streaming. You'll have to download the movie in its entirety before you can watch. Since some of these files are quite large (40GB or more), they can take a long time to download - up to 8 hours on a basic residential broadband connection.
Samsung offers a similar service called M-Go, but it's only available on Samsung 4K TVs, so it's of zero interest to projector owners.
Streaming 4K. Netflix was one of the first companies to offer 4K content, and they continue to add to their library of "Ultra HD" material. Included are some of the same TV shows you'll find on the VU4K store, including Breaking Bad and The Blacklist, plus season 2 of their own House of Cards. Netflix also has a number of documentary clips and a few feature films, including Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters II, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Jerry Maguire.
All of Netflix's 4K material is available with your streaming subscription - though you'll need to sign up for the higher-tier service at $12 per month. And since all of the content is streaming, you won't need to wait for a lengthy download before watching. But as noted above, quality suffers. In direct comparisons with the VU4K store, the Netflix copy appeared less detailed and strangely flat, with noticeable compression artifacts in many scenes. The highest-quality content appeared to be House of Cards, but Netflix's 4K streaming version was at best comparable to the 1080p Blu-ray copy, though the quality of the streaming copy topped out at "about the same" - it never looked better than the Blu-ray and sometimes looked worse.
Amazon has started adding 4K content to their Instant Video service, some of which is available free with a Prime membership and some of which has an additional cost. Since it is streaming, like Netflix, you can expect a similar level of quality - especially since it seems that much of their material overlaps with Netflix's own offerings.
Disc-based 4K. HD projectors were available for years before HD content became widely available, but it's only after the release of HD-DVD and Blu-ray that 1080p really took off. A lot of folks look at the current situation with 4K and can't help but see the parallels.
The Blu-ray Disc Association is still working on a specification for BD4K. We're not sure exactly what the specification will include, but current 4K projectors may have some minor limitations with regard to advanced color gamuts, color subsampling, and color bit depth. They will still be able to play 4K Blu-ray at full resolution. We can be reasonably sure that BD4K will offer very high quality 4K content, and disc-based media remains our best hope of obtaining "reference-quality" 4K movies. But with no timeline for release and no firm idea of how many movies will be transferred to Ultra HD, BD4K remains vaporware for now.
With 4K projectors becoming more common and more affordable, it's reasonable to want native 4K content. For now, if you want 4K content you should stick with Sony's Video Unlimited 4K store, as it offers the best quality 4K available, albeit at a price. If you balk at the idea of paying for this solution or would rather wait for disc-based media, you can rest assured that in the meantime 4K projectors will continue to make 1080p content look better than it ever has before.