Streaming vs discs: Best way to watch 4K movies

Recent movies are avilable on 4K Blu-ray discs, but you need the right hardware.
Recent movies are avilable on 4K Blu-ray discs, but you need the right hardware.
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Celluloid film had a good run – for just over than a century it was the de facto way of projecting an image in the cinema. But nearly every feature now has been shot on digital media and arrives at your local Odeon on a hard disk, not on reels.

Older releases are also capable of being scanned from 35mm film in ultra high-resolution, otherwise known as 4K. That means, if you have a UHD television, you can watch them in the same quality at home.

But how? None of the terrestrial channels transmit in 4K and are unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future. So the options are streaming over the internet or resorting to physical disks.

Although they have been on the decline for several years, DVDs and their successors are actually the best option at the moment if you want the widest choice of content. Every movie is released on disk, usually before it becomes available for streaming on Netflix, and of course once you’ve bought a film, you can keep it on your shelf as long as you like.

Three formats of optical disc are now available: DVD, which works only in standard definition; regular Blu-ray, which delivers high definition pictures of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels, otherwise known as 1080p; and 4K Blu-ray, whose resolution is 3840 x 2160 pixels.

The jump in price is roughly equivalent to the pixel count. A DVD of a current movie typically costs around £10, with the standard Blu-ray about £15 and the 4K Blu-ray £25.

But the discs are no use unless you have the right player.

Blu-ray machines, which also play your old DVDs, start at around £55 on the high street, and some have smart apps for receiving the iPlayer and other streaming services. Some models are advertised as having 4K upscaling, which means they try to match their output to the resolution of your UHD TV – but they don’t handle 4K discs, so the result is only an approximation of the real thing. What’s more, the quality of the electronics varies greatly between different models and brands.

True 4K Blu-ray players start at around £140, or £200 if you want the latest High Dynamic Range circuitry, which widens the range of colours your screen can display. Your TV must also support HDR for it to work.

As you can see, the cost soon adds up. Streaming is not a necessarily cheaper option, but it is more flexible. There is no upfront cost, and Netflix currently charges £10 a month to stream in 4K, to up to four devices at a time. You’re not constrained by a contract, so you can opt in and out as often as you like – but the choice of recent films is far more limited. Most of last year’s blockbusters are out on disc but few have arrived on the subscription services.

You can, however, stream most new titles in 1080p from Amazon, for less than £5 for a 30-day rental or around £12 to keep. Be warned, though, that Amazon makes it extremely easy to order by accident, so it’s worth adding a PIN number to your settings to prevent unintended expense.

Such a bewildering array of options makes the selection of either VHS or Betamax in the video rental shops of the 1980s seem like child’s play, though it seemed to confuse many at the time. Making the right choice this time around depends on whether you really want to push your 4K TV to its limits, and how often.