Amazon Joins 4K Arms Race, With Free 4K Streaming for Prime Members

Hot on the heels of the announcement of 4K video downloads and uploads by IAC/InterActiveCorp (IACI) video-sharing site Vimeo, Amazon.com, Inc. (AMZN) has joined the ultra high definition (UHD) video-sharing party.

UHD/4K in the film space has been described as a 3,840 x 2,160 pixel (8.3m total pixel) resolution, typically in the 16:9 aspect ratio.  That’s 2x the pixels in each direction, or 4x the total resolution of full HD/1080p video.

Amazon is joing Google Inc.’s (GOOG) YouTube and Netflix Inc. (NFLX) in offering on-demand, streaming 4K video.  Overall Amazon Prime’s 4K strategy is closest to Netflix’s, offering a variety of exclusive web show episode content in UHD.  However, unlike Netflix it won’t charge a premium to its Prime subscribers.  4K will simply be yet another added perk to the service, which already gives subscribers free 2-day-shipping and access to a library of streaming movies, TV shows, and music.

Orphan Black is among the shows Amazon is going to stream in 4K to Prime Subscribers with compatible TVs or laptops. [Image Source: BBC America]
Initially Prime subscribers will get access to a small library of 4K-grade television content.  The currently announced offerings are pretty sparse, but expected to grow.  They include:

  • Current Series
    • Alpha House (political/comedy)
    • Transparent (drama/comedy)
    • Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street (children)
    • Orphan Black (BBC America thriller/drama)
  • Upcoming Exclusive Shows
    • Mozart in the Jungle (drama)
    • Bosch (crime/drama)
    • Hand of God (drama)
    • The After (sci-fi/drama)
    • Red Oaks (80s/comedy)
  • Pilots For Exclusive Shows
    • Cocked
    • Down Dog
    • Mad Dogs
    • Man in the High Castle
    • Point of Honor
    • Salem Rogers
    • The New Yorker Presents

Amazon’s Digital Video vice president, Michael Paull cheers the new options, stating:
We want to deliver the best entertainment experience, and offering Ultra HD movies and TV shows raises the bar on quality and innovation that customers have come to expect from Amazon.  We’re also excited that Ultra HD is the latest benefit of the Amazon Prime membership, giving members instant access to great movies and TV shows in a premium picture resolution at no additional cost.
To kick off its 4K party Amazon is also offering a concert in UHD for free.  Granted, it’s by Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett, which may not appeal to everyone… but it’s free, so it’s hard to complain.

Amazon does not state which compression scheme it’s using (Netflix uses HVEC, YouTube uses VP9), but a lengthy discussion of HEVC, suggests that’s the h.265 delivery system du jour.  Here’s the text from the product page:
HEVC stands for High Efficiency Video Coding, a new technology for compressing dense Ultra HD video signals so they fit easily on optical discs or through Internet streaming. The most up to date 4K Ultra HD TVs should have an HEVC decoding chip that will allow viewing of 4K Ultra HD programs streamed through their Smart TV platforms. Most game consoles don’t have the ability to decode HEVC, but will likely have updated firmware early next year.
The online retail and services company is also pairing with Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE), the movie studio of Japan’s Sony Corp. (TYO:6758), to offer 4K movie purchases.  Customers can buy a variety of films, starting at $19.99 (some cost more).  Once purchased customers can stream the feature film on-demand to any capable 4K device.

Films in 4K on Amazon Instant Video include:

  • After Earth
  • American Hustle
  • Captain Phillips
  • Crouching Tiger
  • Hidden Dragon
  • 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
  • This Is the End

As Amazon reminds customers, the list of compatible 4K devices is currently limited to a handful of laptops, desktop monitors, and high-resolution TVs from Sony, LG Electronics, Inc. (KRX:066570)(KRX:066575), and Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KRX:005930) (KRX:005935).

Editor’s Note:
Amazon says the 4K streaming is not compatible with PCs.  It is only designed for Amazon Instant Video apps on smart TVs.  It’s unclear whether apps on set-top boxes, such as Tivo, Inc. (TIVO) or Roku boxes will work.  I’m still trying to get clarification on this limitation, but our guess is that it won’t work.  Regardless, Amazon’s decision is rather disappointing, to say the least.  Sorry, guys.

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