CES2014: Google to show off 4K YouTube… and why it will stink

The buzz of the day is that Google plans to show off its VP9 codec at CES2014. This will allow for 4K YouTube streaming and supposedly it will use much less bandwidth than previous codecs, allowing more people to enjoy quality programming.

The problem is that there’s no guarantee that the “4K” quality it provides will really represent any significant increase in quality. We talked about this when Netflix said they were going to 4K, and it’s worth repeating. There is a lot of magic that you can create with super-high-end encoding and decoding. The sheer math involved will boggle the mind. There is, however, a 100% guarantee that you will lose something down the line.

Most likely, the picture will be 4K in name only, like Netflix’s “Super HD” streams which are nowhere near Blu-ray quality. Just sit and watch a real physical Blu-ray disc for a little while and you’ll be reminded why you bought an HDTV in the first place.

Blu-ray disc uses its own fairly aggressive codecs but it also allows for a 38Mbps stream rate that is about four times what anyone else can deliver. Math can do a lot but there comes a point where you are just not going to be able to preserve top quality if you are trying to put so-called HD content out at 5Mbps. Even assuming a level of mathematical wisdom far beyond what people use today, a decent 4K stream would have to be 20-30Mbps and if you want top quality you should be thinking 60-80Mbps at least.

People in the US simply do not have the ability to stream that quickly to the home. Even if you occasionally reach 40Mbps in speed tests, the infrastructure isn’t there to deliver that speed consistently and to multiple homes in the same neighborhood.

Google’s new codec should give ISP’s a break by streaming HD video with comparable quality at lower bitrates. No one really has a high expectation of quality from YouTube anyway. As far as bringing 4K to the home, though… that’s a bit of a stretch to imagine.