Chalk this one up as mildly infuriating. In the past, we’ve covered Netflix’s 4K streaming limitations and how the platform was limited to handful of televisions, even though PCs are easily capable of handling 4K. Now we know that 4K content is officially coming to the PC with the release of some Gilmore Girls episodes in partnership with Microsoft, but chances are you can’t watch it in that mode. To view 4K Netflix, you’ll need a Windows 10 PC, Microsoft Edge, and a seventh-generation processor from Intel.
Given that Kaby Lake is so new that neither Microsoft nor Apple could be arsed to include it in their own recent hardware refreshes, making 4K Netflix content depend on it is icing on the cake — particularly given that there’s going to be essentially zero benefit from stepping up to 4K as opposed to 1080p on an 11-15-inch laptop display. (As always, the benefits of higher resolution content depend on how close you sit to the display, but relatively small laptop and tablet screens won’t see dramatic gains). It’d be interesting to see how Netflix’s 4K compares with 1080p from Blu-ray, both native and upscaled to 4K, though that’s a question for another day.
Microsoft’s blog post on the topic directs readers to check the Microsoft Store for more information on which systems qualify as 4K capable. The link redirects to one system — the Lenovo Yoga 910. After Lenovo’s disastrous security issues, I no longer recommend Lenovo hardware for any reason. It scarcely matters. This is one capability that may technically exist today, but it’ll be months before hardware is widely available to take advantage of it — and it’ll never come to previous generation hardware at all.
In a word: DRM. There are strict new hardware requirements for 4K streaming, and while some of these features might come to desktops if GPU support is implemented by AMD and Nvidia, it looks as though content creators intend to lock them to CPU features, at least for now. There are unknown implications here — owning the latest Polaris and Pascal GPUs from AMD and Nvidia apparently isn’t enough to convince DRM authors to allow the content to play on that hardware, which suggests that CPU implementation may be mandatory. This, in turn, may mean that we won’t see support for PC 4K Netflix playback until Zen APUs ship — Bristol Ridge support isn’t mentioned anywhere on Microsoft’s page. For now, only Intel Kaby Lake chips appear capable of supporting Netflix 4K support, even though AMD and Nvidia have always implemented DRM support in their respective GPUs and APUs.
I wouldn’t spend too much time blaming content studios, however. Netflix is clearly locking off its own TV shows in the same fashion, and while it can’t mandate that Sony or Universal release content that supports 4K without DRM lockouts, it could release its own programs in a less-obnoxious format. And Intel and AMD aren’t going to complain either, given how the PC market continues to collapse. Giving people reason to upgrade their hardware has gotten difficult of late, and no manufacturer is going to cry if people have to buy equipment after 3-5 years, when replacement cycles used to be driven in half that time.