Microsoft adds support for Netflix 4K in Windows 10, but with hardware strings attached

Netflix recently announced a Gilmore Girls special.

Microsoft revealed that Windows 10 Netflix users now have the option of watching 4K content, but the Ultra HD service only works on the newest devices sporting both the latest Kaby Lake Intel Core processors and 4K-capable screens.

Netflix stands out as one of the few committed providers of programming in the 4K standard, but beyond smart TVs, compatible platforms are limited. Microsoft’s announcement that Windows 10 will now support Netflix 4K streaming removes some compatibility barriers, but only new computers with 7th generation Kaby Lake Intel Core processors and 4K-ready monitors can support the new Windows 10 feature.

Microsoft cleverly launched its new 4K streaming service a few days before the anticipated revival of the 2000s-era television show Gilmore Girls, but Microsoft Edge is the only browser that supports Netflix 4K content. Apple computers currently don’t support the service at all. And the digital rights management software protecting the 4K streams from being recorded are also only supported by the Microsoft Edge browser.

Without the 4K-ready hardware, Netflix quality maxes out at 1080p streaming, Tech Times reports, and that’s on the Edge browser; other browsers max out at 720p. Microsoft’s announcement also warns that 4K streaming can affect device battery life.

PCMag reports that Netflix uses the 10-bit high-efficiency video coding (HEVC) video-compression standard, also known as H.265, a successor to the widely used H.264 video-compression standard, which provides higher quality video at the same compression rate. H.265 content requires hardware decoding support, and the 7th generation processor offers full support for encoding and decoding. Older processors would hog the CPU and use significantly more battery power to decode the streams, but the newest Kaby Lake processor provides extra energy efficiency and 10-bit HEVC support.

Microsoft also announced last week that Xbox One game streaming using the Oculus Rift virtual reality system will be available on Dec. 12, via a new free app for Windows 10 PC devices. The new app connects to the Xbox One, and then the console’s video output is streamed to a Rift headset and projected onto a larger screen with three VR environment options.

Microsoft and Netflix aren’t the only companies working to support 4K content, of course. Amazon, AT&T’s DirecTV, Comcast and others are also moving to support high-definition 4K content. For example, DirecTV launched three 4K channels in April, Comcast offered 4K coverage of the Summer Olympics, and Netflix itself has promised it will deliver 600 hours of 4K video on its platform by year's end.

Indeed, research firm Strategy Analytics reported earlier this year that sales of Ultra HD/4K TVs have surged by 70% this year. The firm said it expects fully 11 million homes to own such TVs by the end of 2016.

Nonetheless, 4K content poses a range of challenges, from the expensive equipment required to record 4K content to networks capable of distributing it.