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Summary:

Sony today announced a new US-only 4K video download service, Video Unlimited 4K. Sony also introduced two new 4K television models. It is all part of the company’s big bet on 4K technology as a way to stage a big comeback.

Sony XBR-X850A w. FMP-X1 and VU4K

Technology is a fickle mistress and no-company knows it better than Sony. There was a time when its television sets were a fixture in every upwardly mobile household. Sony game consoles were on every teenage boy’s Christmas wish-list and many of us grew up plugging into the Sony Walkman. It was a company that at one time was awe inspiring and amazing for even the late Steve Jobs.

Nothing lasts forever, especially when it comes to companies that get complacent and lose their way. Nimbler, hungrier rivals, new technologies and better manufacturing technologies eat away at even the mightiest of them all. And that is what happened to Sony, which lost its pre-eminence to Samsung, Apple, Microsoft and Google.

A dismal future awaited Sony if it didn’t do something drastic, in its case, focusing and betting on its core strengths – especially video technology, thanks to being a big player in television. Of course, what it was notoriously bad at was developing video standards and then getting traction with competitors and/or content creators. Remember Betamax?

For its turnaround, the company is betting on video-visual technology, called 4K Ultra HD. From a consumer standpoint, it is what comes after the HDTVs. The 4K Ultra HD represents an ultra high-definition resolution of 3840 pixels x 2160 lines, and 4K comes from the number of horizontal pixels. (In comparison, for the 1080p HDTVs the number represents the number of vertical pixels.) An increasing number of companies are releasing 4K products (including some at the IFA show being held in Berlin this week.

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Sony’s Big Week

It is a big week for Sony too — today the company is unveiling a new video download service, that is the final step in the 4K journey it started way back in 2005 when Sony first introduced 4K cinema projectors. Sony today announced a brand new 4K video download service, Video Unlimited 4K. For now, it is available only in the United States, but Sony has plans to eventually make it available everywhere.

Sony also introduced two new 4K television models (55 inch and 65 inch screens) and lowered the prices on some of its older 4K televisions. The new download service in the early days will have about 70 full-length native 4K Ultra HD feature films and TV shows. By the end of 2013, the number of available movies is going to increase to about 100.

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The Video Unlimited 4K service would require a 4K Ultra HD Media Player (FMP-X1) for one to either rent or purchase the content  — thhe cost for TV episodes is $3.99 and feature films start at $7.99 for a 24-hour rental, or $29.99 for a purchase. The media player is one big honking home server that comes with 2 TB of storage and costs a whopping $700 a pop. It does come pre-loaded with 10 bonus feature films.

The $700 dollar home media server isn’t the only expensive component of the 4K ecosystem. Even the lower-range televisions will cost more than $3000 a pop, while the higher-end 4K TVs can set you back more than twice as much. 4K is clearly an early adopter product. Not for long.

It’s the Ecosystem Baby

Sony Electronics President and COO Phil Molyneux in an interview said Sony’s approach was to systematically go after the entire video food chain — from displays to cinemas to professional video cameras to consumer devices. “We now have the whole 4K ecosystem, from production to projection to download service to media servers and televisions,” he boasted.

Sony wants every Sony product — Experia tablets, VAIO laptops, Experia phones, video camcorders — to support 4K, a technology it has nurtured for nearly a decade. Many of its products are already 4K-ready. Sony sees it as a way to overcome its past problems and leapfrog rivals. The new video download service is the last piece of the puzzle. It had to build its own because none of the regular video download services are ready just yet. Since Sony has access to a vast video library, it has been able to make movies and television shows available at 4K.

Still, 70 titles is a drop in the bucket — we are all used to basically getting unlimited access to tens of thousands of videos on Netflix and Amazon. The paucity of content is going to be a challenge for Sony, but Molyneux said Sony has graphics technology built into its devices that can up-convert 1080p images to near-4K, including Blu-ray HD movies. It is hard to judge the quality of the up-converted videos, without spending time looking at those screens.

The Broadband Challenge

Sony XBR-X850A w. FMP-X1 and VU4K

The lack of content isn’t the only challenge facing Sony and its download service. 4K movie downloads are big and bulky — about 45-60GB per film. That volume of content is like a whole pig moving through a python. Our broadband networks are puny and imagine the time it will take for a movie to download, not to mention how these downloads are going to impact the bandwidth caps that are being imposed by US broadband providers.

Molyneux acknowledged that, while the fat files are a challenge, new compression technologies such as the High Efficiency Video Coding standard (HEVC) will help deliver 50 percent more compression (similar quality at half the bit-rate) than the H.264 standard used for video-on-demand. Using a rough yardstick, a 4K movie encoded in H.264 needs about 18-20 Mbps for downloading. HEVC can halve the bandwidth requirement and thus should help with the internet-based distribution of 4K video content, Molyneux said.

vcsPRAsset_523486_85980_cfda6f66-661a-41ce-b803-d426f6727c3e_0Despite, his assurances, for me this is the biggest roadblock for adoption of 4K in the US. Unless Sony figures out a way to work with broadband providers such as Verizon FiOS and Comcast and persuades them to not count the Video Download 4K against customer’s monthly bandwidth caps, the careful planning of Sony will come to a naught.

There are many 4K doubters, especially in Europe. And perhaps that explains why Sony is making a big push in North America.

Sony, which is using compression technology from Palo Alto-based eyeIO, obviously thinks otherwise and believes that it has timed everything right — the bandwidth availability and compression technology are both ready for 4K content and screens. The numbers seems to back Sony — the worldwide shipments of 4K televisions are going to rise from next to nothing this year to over 7 million units over the next three years, according to NPD Display Research.

“People think it is going to take three to four years, but we believe the transition to 4K is going to happen much faster,” said Molyneux. “It is the format for the future.”

It is a bet Sony can’t afford to lose — not again!

  1. My large-screen Sony LCD became “another TV” when Comcast required users to have a DTA (initially FREE but now it COSTS – every month!) in order to watch cable TV. The Sony remote does nothing, the features of the remote are useless; we are stuck with a DUMB remote that changes channels. Gone is the ability to display the schedule or channels that are available in HD unless we pay Comcast for HD programming access. Gone is the ability to have only the favorite channels available to cycle through / surf.

    Comcastic!

    I am about to replace that cable with local over-the-air TV using a small digital antenna and not worry about what is available on a cable. Comcast just increased my bill – AGAIN!

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    1. Don

      What is Comcast charging you more for? Can you share with us?

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      1. In 2010, I cancelled STARZ, a savings of $15 per month.

        In January 2012, I returned my cable modem and am using my own, saving $7 each month.

        In October 2012, Comcast started charging $1.99 every month for EACH of the DTAs, that DUMB POS remote. It had been FREE for the first two in a house with the $1.99 charge on DTAs more than the first two. Giveth with one hand, taketh away with the other. At the SAME time, Comcast increased the monthly charges on television and internet. $10 more every month for these increases.

        The latest is an increase in the monthly charges for television and internet that occurred in July 2013. Another $5 increase every month. The total charge is back to what it had been when I was paying for STARZ and the cable modem!

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  2. Just curious, is that 4K media player compatible with all 4K television sets or only on Sony branded 4K television sets?

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    1. Only Sony 4K TV’s currently.

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  3. The bandwidth issues are huge for this type of service and the cost of the media server is way too high – even for the early adopters. Sony should look at a satellite broadcasting solution – essentially downloading the files via satellite to a hard drive near the last mile. This will reduce the cost of transmitting all of those bits via the internet and essentially deliver the content to the last mile. The cost of TB hard drives is dropping, and as the content grows more and more terabytes can be added. As the network grows – the greatest cost – the distribution of the content across North America to the locations near the last mile will essentially be flat – it doesn’t matter to the satellite whether it is broadcasting the download to a single location or to a million (or more). This is off the top of my head – but it certainly makes more sense to do it this way.

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    1. Adam

      That is very true and it is going to be interesting battle, this tussle between bandwidth and compression. It is quite possible that as average bandwidth to the home exceeds 25 Mbps, we will see a greater number of people adopting 4K.

      Alternatively, 4K adoption could push demand for higher speed tiers, which means companies like Comcast can charge more for bandwidth.

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      1. This where HEVC comes in.

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  4. I’m wondering if Ultra-HD is ever going to be targeted at mainstream consumers.

    Also, given my experience (disappointment) viewing 3-D video on my 51-inch HDTV, I wonder if the appeal of 4K resolution is a must-have enhancement or a novelty. And, while they wait for market demand to materialize, would optical discs be a wiser content distribution vehicle?

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  5. 最终冰器红豆 Wednesday, September 4, 2013

    Sony’s bet on 4k technology was expected long ago, so as at the end they will fail. Even the 3D TV gimicks failed to get consumer’s interest, 4k TV will hardly do a better job (unless the price is close to ordinary one which I don’t think its possible). For a come back, it would be more fruitful if they could make their phone, tablet, TV and etc working seamlessly together.

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  6. At best, this is temporary life support for Sony. They face a peculiar, paradoxical dilemma. In order for their 4K hardware business to succeed, there needs to be large demand for 4K content AND they need to produce a line of product that can maintain a decisive market advantage. The problem is that if 4K content takes off and stimulates demand for the hardware, other providers will race to introduce their own alternatives. Recent history shows that such providers can run circles around Sony, in terms of innovation, variety, and price.

    Indeed, inexpensive 4K displays are popping up everywhere. I was in a large department store in China recently and saw a surprising number of 4K displays that ranged in price between $800 and $4000. They all looked pretty darn good. Even more telling was that this mega showroom not only had all of the many Chinese brands, but it also had all of the major Korean and Japanese brands sold in China. By comparison, there was something distinctly unremarkable and overpriced about the Sony section.

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    1. Shyam

      They are developing technologies and they are indeed working with Hollywood to help create the 4K content. As Phil said — it is an ecosystem play. The question is can they pull it off –that remains to be seen.

      On the Chinese brands etc, I don’t know enough to add anything — will take your word for it.

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  7. The real news will be when Sony announces support for this service on the PS4, which happens to have a hard drive and support 4K video. No more limitation to just Sony TVs, no expensive server to buy. People are already used to that model with PS3s and XB360s serving to feed Netflix and Youtube to non-smart TVs.

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    1. Agreed. And I don’t think it is too far off the mark. I am actually pretty excited about the whole 4K thing — mostly from my perspective it could be a big boost for broadband /demand.

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  8. Comparisons between 3D and 4K are absurd. 4K is a step forward just like HD over SD. Immediately perceptible, not requiring additional hardware fastened to the viewer.

    Mainland subs are already following the Samsung model of screwing their clients by competing with them – offering sub-$1500 50″ 4K sets.

    Just as DirecTV started out with overnight down time utilized for 1080p downloads > thence to streaming, I expect the same process to be repeated for 4K. They’re 10 months away from launching D14 which will be another significant expansion of capacity aimed at the largest unified customer base in the hemisphere

    And when Apple delivers a for-real TV set, of course I expect it will be 4K..

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  9. Xperia not Experia

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