Cord Cutters News Guide to 4K (aka Ultra High Definition) Video

When it comes to streaming and entertainment in general, the subject of 4K has certainly become increasingly popular. We’re no strangers to the subject, whether it’s discussing services that are adding 4K support, or ones where the option is still missing. But we’ve heard from some of our readers who would like to know more about what 4K is and why it’s important, or at least why it could be important depending on the consumer. So in this guide, we’re going to take a look at the standard, what it means, what are the benefits and where you can enjoy 4K content. This is the Cord Cutters News Guide to 4K.

What is 4K?

In short, 4K is a generic term used to describe a video resolution also known as Ultra High Definition. For most of you reading this guide, whether you’re your phone or iPad, or a laptop screen, your display is composed of a grid of pixels. Each pixel can be assigned a color value and together, they produce the words and images you’re seeing right now.

And one way to describe the total number of pixels on your screen is to discuss it in terms of “resolution,” often listed as the number of horizontal pixels per row times the number of vertical pixels per column.

Those resolutions are used to discuss not just the displays themselves, but also the various types of content you watch on them. When DVDs came to the market, you might’ve seen resolutions like 720 x 480 mentioned, meaning video available on that DVD offered up a grid of 720 pixels wide by 480 pixels tall. In the high-definition, or HD era, we started seeing resolutions like 1,280 x 720 and 1,920 x 1080, which offered more detail and clarity compared to earlier, lower-resolution videos.

Fast-forward to today, where 4K is gaining in popularity among content creators, services, and consumers. Now, there are a couple different resolutions that fall under the generic “4K” umbrella, but for home media and the typical consumer, 4K can be generally understood as 3,840 x 2,160.

When we talk about 4K video, we’re generally describing videos with a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160 pixels.

And if you’re wondering why it’s called 4K — it’s because the number of horizontal pixels comes out to around 4,000 pixels. The movie projection industry’s version of 4K actually comes out to 4,096 x 2,160 pixels.

Now you might be looking at those resolutions and thinking to yourself, “Those look a lot like math equations.” And you’re right. We can complete those equations and show off another way to think of video resolution.

So 1,280 x 720 equals 921,600 total available pixels. Moving up to 1,920 x 1,080, and we get 2,073,600 pixels. And then there’s 4K, with just under 8.3 million pixels, or four times the resolution of 1080.

One other popular way of describing video resolution focuses on the vertical number, or the amount of pixels per column. So 1,920 x 1,080 is also known as 1080p. And by the way, that “p” refers to progressive scan, which basically means each line of video is being displayed in order. This is an improvement of what’s known as interlaced video, as seen on older analog TVs, where first the even rows were displayed and then the odds rows. Progressive scan is extremely widespread nowadays and offers smoother and more natural movement in video.

Moving on, 4K video, like 3,840 x 2,160 can also be described as 2,160p since it offers 2,160 pixels per column. In general, higher resolution offers at least the potential for better video quality and improved detail, but of course, it also depends on the quality of the source material, how much the video data is being compressed (especially for streaming services where bandwidth can be variable), and other factors.

How Does 4K Compare to Other Resolutions?

Time for a visual aid!

OK, so say the screen above represents a 4K display, meaning we’ve got 3,840 pixels across and 2,160 vertically. How do other, older resolutions stack up? Let’s start with good, ol’ DVDs at 720 x 480. Now that’s 1/24th the resolution of 4K. Then there’s 1,280 x 720, or 720p and you can see how it compares. In terms of total pixels, 4K offers up nine times the resolution of 720p.

Finally, let’s bring in the previous gold standard, 1,920 x 1080, aka 1080p, aka the resolution your favorite Blu-rays are probably presented in. And you can see 4K offers up four times the resolution of 1080p.

So yes, videos presented, or encoded, in 4K can offer a lot more detail than earlier resolution standards, but you need the right equipment to truly enjoy those benefits.

Do I Need a 4K Display to Watch 4K Content?

Well, yeah basically. In order to enjoy all 8.3 million or so pixels of a 4K video, you’re going to need a display that supports 4K resolutions, whether that’s a high-end phone, computer monitor, or 4K TV. A 1080p TV won’t get you the detail benefits even if the video you’re watching is in 4K.

It is possible you’ll get some improved video quality thanks to downscaling, where higher-resolution video is scaled down to match your display’s output, but it likely still won’t match the image quality you could get from viewing a video at its native resolution.

Conversely, when your display’s resolution is higher than the video content’s, that video will often be stretched or upscaled to fill the display’s screen. Upscaling video can make for blurrier, less detailed video and it often doesn’t compare to video that’s natively available at a higher resolution, but some upscaling techniques are fancier than others. We talked about NVIDIA’s AI upscaler in an earlier guide when we discussed the company’s Shield TV Pro streaming device.

An extreme example of upscaling a low-resolution image.

Do I Absolutely, Positively Have to Have 4K in Order to Enjoy Any Video Content?

No!

Sure, if you’re after the most detail and the highest fidelity, then yes, 4K might be rather important to you. But it really depends on how you’re enjoying your content and what types of content you’re after. If you prefer to watch TV shows on your phone or tablet, 4K might not be as important. If your main TV is an older 1080p model, 4K is probably less of a must-have than it might be for others.

It really depends on you, the type of content you like to watch, and how you’re watching that content. So as far as declaring 4K as an absolute must, a nice-to-have feature, or something that’s completely irrelevant, that’s all up to you!

OK, So Where Can I View 4K?

A number of streaming services offer certain shows and movies in up to 4K resolution, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu. Beyond that, many rental options allow you to select a 4K edition at checkout, often at a premium compared to 1080p versions.

On the physical media front, 4K Ultra HD Blu-rays can offer significant visual upgrades compared to the earlier standard Blu-ray, 1080p, editions. In some cases, movies can be remastered for 4K releases, leading to improvements in overall quality, especially when filmmakers use the opportunity to fine tune some aspects of the movie, as was the case with The Matrix and its 4K Blu-ray. Director of Photography Bill Pope worked with Warner Bros. to address some of the complaints from the older Blu-ray release, including what some viewed as an overdone green tint for large portions of the film.

So the 4K version not only boasts more detail and definition, but also color tones that more closely match what the filmmakers originally intended.

While 4K support is certainly popular, it’s by no means the universal standard. We recently discussed the launch of HBO Max and its lack of 4K support, despite packing some blockbuster movies in its debut library.

What’s Beyond 4K?

We’re just now getting to the point where 4K video is more mainstream than the realm of high-end, early adopters, but if you must know, beyond 4K video lies: 8K video, or 7,680 x 4,320. If you do the math, you might notice that is indeed four times the resolution of 4K video, or some 33 million pixels. We’ve seen TV manufacturers start to push higher-end, and higher-margin 8K TVs, but we’re likely several, several years away from 8K truly becoming mainstream. Still, if you’re curious what’s on the horizon, there you go!

Wrapping Up

In the end, 4K video can offer some incredibly detailed picture quality and give you the chance to rewatch old classics and perhaps pick up on details you may not have noticed before. Of course, everyone’s tastes differ, so while 4K does boast some significant benefits, some might be turned off by a few of the frequent disadvantages. For one, bandwidth requirements tend to be more demanding for 4K video. Netflix recommends at least 25 Mbps for 4K streaming, compared to 5 Mbps for its 1080p content. Ultra HD Blu-rays also typically cost more than their standard Blu-ray counterparts.

So again, it’s really up to you, the consumer, to decide whether 4K is a must-have, a non-issue, or something in between. Hopefully, this guide gives you a better understanding of what we mean when we say “4K” and please feel free to leave any comments or suggestions for future explainers in the comments below.

Until next time, happy streaming (in whatever resolution you choose)!

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