Last week, we looked into the limited access and information for 4K Winter Olympics content in the United States—which was still confusing even one day before the opening ceremonies kicked off. This search included my own roadblocks to getting compatible service working in my home.
Since then, I've had 4K Olympics service installed and streaming for a few days. As such, I wanted to do my best to describe and even review the 4K content on offer. I do this for a few reasons: because 4K Olympics access is very weird this year, and because, despite some limits, it's still one of the more interesting test cases of whether sports are the true Trojan horse for wider 4K TV adoption.
Getting logistics out of the way
Let's start with the providers. As stated last time, DirecTV and Dish offer nationwide options, so long as you have a compatible 4K set-top box. You'll otherwise need to contact your local cable or satellite provider to see if its ecosystem of signals and set-top boxes is compatible with the broadcast signal being distributed exclusively in the US by Comcast, the owner of primary Olympics broadcaster NBC.
Want to watch this year's 4K Olympics content using a 4K-capable Internet streaming box or smart TV? Too bad. Comcast has kiboshed that option this year, in spite of operating a 4K Olympics streaming app for the Rio games in 2016. You must go through a broadcaster-specific option, which, as of press time, is only via TV set-top boxes.
I currently use Comcast for home Internet service, so I reached out to the company as a customer. To sum up what I said last time: I had to wait nearly 40 minutes on multiple phone calls to learn that my "regional network" didn't support the 4K content I'd been searching for. But within an hour of my article going live, a multiple-employee email chain kicked into gear to get 4K TV service installed at my home. (I had reached out to Comcast requesting comment about this "regional network" issue the day before the article went live and didn't receive a firm answer until the article had gone live.)
After I said that I wanted to review the 4K broadcast, I was quoted $69.95 per month, no contract required, for the bare-minimum TV content package required. This package includes a smorgasbord of live cable channels I'll probably never watch. (It also includes easy access to the CBC, at least, so when I want to watch breaking Olympics content, I can bypass NBC's tape-delayed nonsense.)
“I’ve never installed one of these 4K boxes before.”
My friendly Comcast technician plugged in and set up a 4K-compatible "X1" set-top box in roughly 20 minutes. As he finished, he pointed out that users must manually go into menus and change settings to receive a 4K image. He showed me how to select 2160p resolution and a maximum of 60 frames per second. I followed up by asking how to toggle HDR. "I don't know what that is," he admitted. "I've never installed one of these 4K boxes before."
I came to find that the X1 box—not to be confused with Xbox One or, jeez, Xbox One X—doesn't let users manually enable or disable HDR. It just sends out an HDR 4K signal by default. I didn't have a non-HDR 4K set handy to test what kinds of errors, if any, may play out in that case or if it's smart enough to see HDR errors and then revert to an SDR color gamut. (One "help" image I found hints at SDR automatically being detected.)
In my five days of testing, Comcast never rolled out the "Olympics in 4K" content tab that was promised on its original "how to watch 4K Olympics" instruction video. (Worse, Comcast has since deleted this instructional video from the Xfinity interface.) When you boot into a Comcast TV box, you're served lots of Olympics-branded tabs and menus, but none of them is 4K-specific. "Best of luge," "Wildest crashes," "Curling: full event replays"… those and more max out at "HD" spec (which is typically in 1080i resolution).
When looking online, I found one of Comcast's help pages about the content, which also begins and ends with directions to this nonexistent 4K content tab. So, what the heck could I do? I had to tweet at Comcast's support account to get advice to how it actually works: talk to your remote control. Any time I want to peruse 4K content, I have to hold down a microphone icon, say the phrase "show me 4K Olympics" out loud, and click to confirm. That's when I am served a tape-delayed collection of four event types: the opening ceremonies, figure skating, short track, and ski jumping. (As of press time, the other 4K-format sport—ice hockey—has yet to go live.) If I say "show me 4K sports," on the other hand, zero 4K Olympics options appear.
(Just before this article went to press, I double-checked the one helpful article I'd been linked to. This helpful "show me 4K Olympics" advice has since been deleted. What drugs are Comcast's webmasters freebasing?)
Oh, one last word of warning: every 4K- and HDR-format broadcast is delayed no less than eight hours before being made available to any American TV watcher, whether through Comcast's on-demand option or on Dish and DirecTV's 4K Olympics channels—which you'll need to DVR manually if you want to rewatch the content later. In Comcast's case, this particularly sucks because its X1 Olympic content aggregators—including menus, tabs, and a medal-counting app—love to flash results and medal counts in your face. Hashtag spoiler alert, Comcast watchers.