YouTube test drives ultra-HD videos

YouTube is experimenting with 4K videos running at 60 frames per second. Only six videos are available in the new format so far, and you'll need a powerful computer and a fast Internet connection to be able to watch them.

When YouTube first launched in 2005, users could view videos in only a single size – 320x240 pixels – with a single channel of MP3 audio. Those videos look pretty underwhelming by today’s standards (if you need proof, just watch “Me at the zoo,” the first video ever uploaded to YouTube, at full-screen size).

But as home data networks have gotten faster over the past 10 years, they’ve been capable of smoothly playing videos at higher resolutions, and YouTube has improved its supported formats accordingly.

As of 2015, the highest resolution supported by YouTube is 4K, which measures 3840x2160 pixels, or 90 times the density of YouTube’s original format. Now the video site is running some experiments to see if it’s feasible to host videos that are better-looking still.

YouTube now hosts six specially selected clips at 4K size that play at 60 frames per second (fps), giving them a silky-smooth look. If you want to see what it looks like, watch this clip of Secret, a South Korean girl group, singing “Yoohoo” in resolution so high it’s almost unsettling. You’ll need a high-end computer, monitor, and graphics card to run it smoothly, since the 60 frames of 4K video per second is a huge amount of data to process.

YouTube has hosted 4K videos since 2010 and has allowed 60-fps videos since June 2014, but this is the first time it’s allowed 4K videos at the higher framerate – the vast majority of YouTube’s content plays at the standard 24 fps. 60 frames per second is considered the rate at which computer graphics cards ought to be able to power video games, so being able to watch replays on YouTube at the same rate is a boon for gamers. Only high-end video cameras are capable of capturing live action at 60 fps.

Regular users can’t upload 4K 60 fps videos yet, since the format is still experimental and restricted to the six videos in this playlist. Still, YouTube is way ahead of the curve in even experimenting with these high-end formats. Most people don’t have 4K screens yet, so they’ll miss out on the higher resolution. And most computers aren’t capable of decoding 60-fps video at such high resolutions, either, so the videos will play smoothly on only the highest-end rigs.

Finally, these super HD videos consume an incredible amount of bandwidth – 4K at the standard 24 fps requires a connection of 35 to 45 megabits per second, according to YouTube, and bumping up the framerate increases that requirement even further. The average download speed in the US right now is 34.2 Mbps, according to Internet analysis firm Ookla, so hardly anyone’s connection will be able to download data quickly enough to allow them to watch videos in this new format.

Still, processors and data connections will get faster, and screen resolutions will continue to improve. YouTube’s experiment is looking forward to the day when most people’s computers will be able to handle ultra-HD video at a high framerate – and anything less than that could look as dated as 320x240 videos do today.

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