Google is getting serious about 4K as the company has now announced a significant change to UHD content available through Play Movies & TV. Most noteworthy is the confirmation that Google is upgrading select existing movie purchases to 4K for free and this is irrespective of whether the title was first purchased in a HD or an SD quality. This is understood to be starting today with the expectation consumers will receive a notification in the Play Movies & TV app confirming that a number of their titles have been upgraded. This is likely to be welcomed news for those who are already heavily invested in a digital movie library as those consumers will see their 4K collection instantly getting a major boost. It’s worth noting there are some caveats to this and the most important of which is that there’s no guarantee any title in particular will get upgraded to 4K. Instead, this will largely be dependent on support at the movie studio level. For example, Google says it will upgrade all 4K titles that are eligible immediately, and will continue to upgrade other titles as and when studio support becomes available. At present, this support seems to be limited to titles from Fox, Lionsgate, NBC Universal, Sony, and Warner Bros. Another of the caveats worth noting is this upgrading is only available to customers based in the US and Canada.
Free upgrades is not all Google announced today, as the company also took the opportunity to explain it's taking a more widespread approach to improving access to 4K content through Play Movies & TV by ensuring the greater resolution content becomes more affordable at the point of purchase. Which as explained by Google now means consumers will have the option to buy new content in 4K at a much lower price than ever before. At present, Google has not confirmed how much cheaper 4K content will be, although the lower pricing structure is understood to be in effect now as those lower prices are already visible in Google Play. For example, Ready Player One was showing as $29.99 yesterday in 4K and now is listed at just $19.99. Lastly, to coincide with the upgrades and cheaper 4K movies, the Play Movies & TV apps on compatible Samsung, LG and Vizio TVs are also getting an upgrade.
Background: In 2016 Google added an 'Ultra' device to its Chromecast lineup. This version was primarily designed to complement the existing Chromecast (that’s now been replaced by the newer 2018 model) by offering consumers an option that supports 4K content. At the time, however, the Google Play Movies & TV service did not offer any 4K content although this was soon rectified. As during November of the same year consumers started to notice an option to purchase select content in 4K through the Google-backed rental and purchase service, and this was to mark the start of what would become an official launch of 4K content through Play Movies & TV in December, 2016. Since then, the available list of 4K content has grown although prices have remained high. In addition, while users could buy and rent new 4K content, there remained an issue for those who had already purchased content in an SD or HD format due to Google not providing any means for those users to upgrade their existing movies to a 4K version.
Technically, Apple had the same issue although last year the iPhone-maker announced it was solving this by upgrading existing purchases from HD to 4K for free. This is in essence exactly what Google has announced it’s now doing for its Android users, although there is one clear difference - SD. While Apple was happy to upgrade content from HD to 4K for free, those who had purchased content in SD remained in the status quo with no upgrade route available. Google seems to be looking to avoid the same issue arising as it has committed to upgrading all content it can regardless of whether it was first purchased in either SD or HD.
Impact: While the upgrading is certainly the headline aspect, the announcement as a whole focuses on Google’s intention to provide better support and access to 4K content in general. Which has been a long time coming and especially considering 4K devices are now far more commonplace than ever before with a number of TVs and streaming sticks now supporting the greater resolution. In part, the greater adoption of hardware has come through due to prices having decreased significantly over the last couple of years. For example, Xiaomi recently announced the launch of the Mi Box S in the US - an Android TV-powered box that supports 4K and can be picked up for just $59.99. With hardware entry-prices dropping as low as they have now, it was about time the selection of content optimized for those devices also becomes more affordable. Something that is likely to now improve thanks to Google's announcement.
One of the major questions that is likely to be asked now, is where does Movies Anywhere fit in with all of this. As Movies Anywhere provides digital content collectors the ability to collate all of their purchases in one easy-to-access location. In fact, multiple locations, as any digital content store who is signed up with the service effectively also acts as a master location. To put this into perspective, customers who have purchased content through Vudu can access content (as long as the movie studio is also a Movies Anywhere partner) through Play Movies & TV. Google did not specifically comment on this during the main announcement although the finer details in the help section on Google Play does make it clear that only movies purchased through Google Play or YouTube will be eligible for the free 4K upgrade. As a result, content purchased elsewhere, while remaining available for streaming through Movies & TV will remain at the purchase resolution level. It’s also worth keeping in mind that having access to 4K content is only one side of the equation as the viewing experience is also limited by the hardware. As such, those looking to take advantage of their recently upgraded movies will still need to have the hardware capable of displaying 4K content - this goes for smartphones as well as TVs. In terms of the latter, TVs, Google is now in the process of rolling out an update to the respective LG, Samsung and Vizio Play Movies & TV apps with what the company says will bring a “modern look and feel to provide a better experience.”