4K Ultra HD (ultra high definition) is the resolution that brings you more pixels than ever to your home TV. But what is 4K, why do you need more pixels, and why does it matter whether you have a flashy 4K TV or simpler HD display?
Not so long ago, Full HD (full high definition) was the sharpest picture you could get. But now, 4K resolution is on the scene, bringing a whole new world of visual detail and clarity to our screens.
It's pretty hard these days to get a TV that isn't 4K, with even budget small TVs opting for the detailed resolution to entice viewers. And while some of the truly premium sets out there are now opting for 8K resolution instead, 4K is still the king for now, and near enough all the new sets announced at this year's CES 2020 expo are pushing the Ultra HD resolution.
At the end of the day, though, it might not be the raw resolution of 4K that tempts you into your next TV purchase, but the inclusion of other cool technologies like High Dynamic Range (HDR), Quantum Dot and OLED panels.
But before we get into the specifics of each technology, here's a video outlining 4K in a nutshell.
What is 4K?
Put simply, 4K means a clearer picture. To achieve this, it's more pixels (8,294,400 to be exact) on the screen at once being used to create images that are crisper and capable of showing more details than standard HD. That's it.
What is the resolution of 4K?
4K resolution, at least the way most TVs define it, is 3840 x 2160 or 2160p. To put that in perspective, a full HD 1080p image is only a 1920x1080 resolution. 4K screens have about 8 million pixels, which is around four times what your current 1080p set can display.
Think of your TV like a grid, with rows and columns. A full HD 1080p image is 1080 rows high and 1920 columns wide. A 4K image approximately doubles the numbers in both directions, yielding approximately four times as many pixels total. To put it another way, you could fit every pixel from your 1080p set onto one-quarter of a 4K screen.
Why is it called 4K?
Because the images are around 4,000 pixels wide. And before you ask, yes, the industry named 1080 resolution after image height, but named 4K after image width. For extra added fun, you also might hear this resolution referred to as 2160p. Welcome to the future. It's confusing here.
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Do all of those extra pixels matter?
That's where it gets sticky. We're talking about a similar jump in resolution as the one from SD (480 lines high) to HD (1080 lines high). And 4K screens are noticeably sharper than 1080p screens.
But if you're sticking with roughly the same size of television, and are used to sitting pretty close, you may not see that much of a difference – especially if you're still mostly watching HD content rather than 4K video.
How close do I need to sit to a 4K screen?
Remember when Apple made a big fuss about "retina" displays a few iPhones back? "Retina" refers to screens that have sufficient resolution that at a normal viewing distance your eye can't make out individual pixels. Get far enough away from a 1080p set and, hey presto, it's a retina display!
More importantly, at that same distance, your eyeballs won't be able to squeeze any more detail out of a 4K image than a 1080 one. If you're at "retina distance" from your 1080p set now and don't plan on moving your couch closer, upgrading to 4K may not make a big difference to your experience. This chart shows how close you need to sit at any given screen size to see the difference.
Difference between Ultra HD and 4K
Technically, "Ultra High Definition" is actually a derivation of the 4K digital cinema standard. However while your local multiplex shows images in native 4096 x 2160 4K resolution, the new Ultra HD consumer format has a slightly lower resolution of 3840 x 2160.
This is one reason why some brands prefer not to use the 4K label at all, sticking with Ultra HD or UHD instead. However, the numerical shorthand looks likely to stick.
Why should I care about 4K Ultra HD?
There are many reasons why 4K should make you rethink your next TV purchase (actually, there are eleven and you can read about them here), not all of them immediately obvious.
Photographers who routinely view their work on an HD TV are seeing but a fraction of the detail inherent in their pictures when they view them at 2160p.
A 4K display reveals so much more nuance and detail – the difference can be astonishing. While 3D has proved to be a faddish diversion, 4K comes without caveats. Its higher resolution images are simply better.
The higher pixel density of a 4K panel also enable you get much closer without the grid-like structure of the image itself becoming visible –this means you can comfortably watch a much larger screen from the same seating position as your current Full HD panel.
What is Ultra HD Premium?
If you're sitting there thinking that all these new technologies and acronyms sound confusing, you'd be right. That's why a group of companies decided to form the UHD Alliance with the expressed aim of defining what technologies should be included in the next generation of TV sets.
The UHD Alliance is comprised of 35 companies including television manufacturers such as LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Toshiba, Sony, Sharp, audio companies such as Dolby, and film and television production companies such as Netflix and 20th Century Fox.
The idea then is that if everyone can agree on what features they think UHD should include, then Disney (an example member of the alliance) can produce a movie that Netflix will be able to stream through a Samsung TV, and the eventual image will be exactly what the director at Disney intended.
The result of this alliance was the UHD Premium specification announced at CES 2016. The specification comprises a list of features that should be included in products like TVs and Blu-ray players to ensure maximum compatibility with other content and hardware produced.
Currently, in order to adhere to the UHD Premium specification a product must have:
- A resolution of at least 3840x2160
- 10-bit color depth, allowing for 1,024 shades of each of the three primary colors red, green and blue, as opposed to the 256 allowed by the current 8-bit standard.
- Be capable of displaying pixels at a certain brightness and darkness for HDR purposes (technically this light level is from 0.05 to 1,000 'nits' for LEDs and 0.0005 to 540 'nits' for OLED sets for all you number lovers out there). Adhering to these standards means blacks should look truly dark as opposed to just milky black and whites should really pop.
Samsung and Panasonic are embracing the new standard, with both of their flagship lineups wearing their UHD Premium badges with pride. Sony however have decided to go down a more confusing route and have decided to stick with their internal '4K HDR' label despite their sets all actually meeting the required specification. Philips won't be using the alliance's badge, but its sets don't currently meet the specification anyway.
It's only natural that while a technology is still emerging these problems will continue to exist, but we hope that soon we'll be able to recommend looking for a UHD Premium set without reservation. Until the whole industry unambiguously backs the standard however, we'd still recommend you tread carefully to ensure maximum compatibility.
And what about 8K?
We thought that might come up. You may have heard some of the buzz around 8K resolution – a new visual standard with four times the number of pixels of 4K.
Basically, it doubles the pixel height and width again to yield approximately 32 million pixels. The 8K standard was, until recently, still primarily for the exhibition market (aka movie theaters). To make that many pixels matter, you need to be feeding a pretty big screen and sitting close enough to tell the difference.
We're starting to see commercial 8K televisions come to market, though they'll cost you – and there isn't much in the way of 8K content to truly recommend them. You'll still get the benefit of advanced upscaling from HD or 4K, though, and if you fancy being at the cutting edge of TV technology, an 8K TV is probably what you want.
Confusingly, an 8K display would also be considered 'Ultra HD'.
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My friend told me about 4K OLED. What's that?
More acronyms! Isn't this fun? OLED - organic light emitting diodes - have been around for some time, but producing big screens using this technology has proven to be prohibitively expensive, something which has so far prevented OLED television from being a mainstream proposition.
It's a real shame because OLED technology can be stunning, offering vibrant colors, deep blacks and bright whites. But don't give up hope just yet. Several companies (most prominently LG) are laboring away to bring OLED to 4K televisions. They're certainly gorgeous, though pricing remains high years after they first came to market - and it's generally accepted that they don't have the longevity of LCD screens.
Is Netflix in 4K?
Yes – if you pay for it.
Netflix has tiered pricing plans, with 4K films and TV shows becoming available on the Premium tier. Not everything on the service will jump in resolution, though there's a decent amount of 4K content available – including Dark, Star Trek: Discovery, Altered Carbon, and much more. The selection might be more limited than the amount of HD content, but it's increasing day by day.
Netflix isn't an outlier, either. Amazon has gotten into the 4K UHD streaming game by offering some of its highest-rated shows – Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle, Man in the High Castle, The Grand Tour and Mad Dogs – in Ultra HD.
You'll also find 4K content on Disney Plus, Hulu, Rakuten TV, and other TV streaming services like them – everybody's doing it! Not that some services allow 4K streaming for all subscribers, such as Disney Plus, rather than Netflix's tiered model.
Are 4K and HDR the same thing?
No. There's no shortage of acronyms in home entertainment, and it can certainly get confusing though.
HDR, or high dynamic range, essentially increases the difference between the lightest and the darkest portions of an image. Blacks get properly dark rather than milky grey, and whites get blindingly light.
This means that images have more depth to them, and you should also be able to perceive more detail in the lightest and darkest portions of the image.
Netflix was the first content provider to release HDR video in 2015, but Amazon Prime Video also offers high dynamic range content. HDR has also been included in the new Ultra HD Blu-ray standard. You can read our full explainer on High Dynamic Range here.
Why isn't broadcast TV all in 4K?
Because every 4K frame contains four times the information of HD, 4K content is four times more bulky than regular HD content in terms of its raw file size. That makes it a challenge to get it to you.
On the streaming side, bandwidth is a definite issue. The internet's bandwidth is already dominated by Netflix's traffic, prompting ISPs to go after them for extra cash, and that's with most of its streams at SD and HD levels. Upping everything to 4K doesn't sound like a reasonable option just yet.
Even if it were possible to stream 4K content to everyone without breaking the internet, streaming 4K content requires a 25Mbps or faster downstream internet connection, which is faster than most people have at the moment.
What about gaming in 4K?
We had 4K gaming on the PC for a while before consoles, but the more advanced versions of Sony and Microsoft's gaming machines can certainly compete.
Sony got the ball rolling with the PS4 Pro, which uses an advanced form of upscaling to generate a 4K image. It might not be native 4K, but we think the results are excellent.
Although Microsoft dipped its toe in the 4K water with the similarly upscaling Xbox One S, things got serious with the release of the Xbox One X – a powerhouse console which offers native 4K resolution on a handful of titles. We'll be sure to get 4K gaming on the next-gen Xbox Series X and PS5, too.
What kind of cables will I need for 4K?
The two standard cables you're most likely to use are either a standard HDMI, or if you're connecting a PC to a Ultra HD monitor, DisplayPort.
HDMI cables now come in four flavors: high speed with ethernet; high speed without ethernet; standard speed with ethernet and standard speed without ethernet. Standard speed cables are capable of 1080i, but aren't able to handle the bandwidth of 4K. High speed cables can do anything higher than 1080i.
Now, as long as you're using the same class of cable, there is no distinguishable difference in terms of performance between one manufacturer's set of cables and another's.
The speed of your connection, however, will depend on the types of connectors. HDMI 1.4 connectors support a 3820x2160-resolution at 30 frames per second (fps), while HDMI 2.0 can output video at Ultra HD resolution at 60 frames per second, and HDMI 2.0a is capable of HDR.
The latest spec, HDMI 2.1, goes that bit further with 4K at 120fps, or 8K at 60fps.
The bottom line is that if your HDMI cable is able to handle 1080p (the standard for a number of years now) then it should be able to also do 4K. Don't get conned into buying expensive cables.
The other type of cable you can use is DisplayPort. DisplayPort carries 4K image and audio signal from most high-end graphics cards to monitors without any noticeable artifacts or delays.
So should I buy a 4K set now or should I wait?
If you're buying a TV that's 50-inches and above you should absolutely think about investing in 4K. All of the major players are embracing it as the new standard, and the amount of content is only going to increase over time.
If you're buying a TV smaller than 50-inches, the answer is less obvious.
The problem is not that 4K doesn't make enough of a difference at these sizes, but instead that the additional technologies that have been combined with 4K in most sets haven't trickled down to the smaller models just yet.
As a result, while it's totally possible to get a 4K TV that's as small as just 40-inches, at this point it's unlikely to have a decent level of HDR (which we'd consider as going as bright as 1000 nits or more), 10-bit color, or wide color gamut.
Sure you'll get the right amount of pixels, but they won't have the additional technologies to make them look really beautiful.
Eventually they'll make their way to small TVs, but for now 4K is at its best at 50 inches and above, where you can get all the bells and whistles that really matter.
Your first 4K TV: a step-by-step guide
Your step-by-step guide to watching shows and movies in 4K
Want to start your voyage into the world of 2160p but not sure where to start? Let us walk you through the process of getting a 4K UHD setup in your home.
Step 1: Throw out your old CRT or 1080p TV
This might be the hardest step of all. It's difficult parting with a trusty TV. Maybe you watched your first sitcom on it, or accidentally rubbed it with a magnet just to see what would happen and now you have this weird rainbow effect. No? Just us? OK. Regardless, the first step to embracing 4K is letting go of your old 1080p (or lower) screen. Don't worry 4K TVs can play 1080p content, too!
Step 2: Pick out a 4K TV
Right. Now that you tossed your old 1080p screen, we're going to have to get you something new, something flashy - something, well, with a 4K resolution. We have a number of buying guides dedicated to this sort of thing so we won't dive too deep into the process here, but all you need is a screen that's capable of 4K UHD. TCL and Vizio make some of the cheapest 4K screens on the market if you're looking to stay under budget, while Sony, LG and Samsung have some truly outstanding mid- and high-end screens.
Step 3. Get a subscription to Netflix's UHD package
Your TV supports 4K, yay! But now we're going to need something to watch. Most of the smart TVs purchased today will have access to Netflix - a subscription-based movie and TV show streaming service you've probably heard of before. For a monthly fee, you're able to stream anything from Netflix's massive catalog. It's great for binging on shows you missed last season, and great for the occasional movie night inside. Just make sure that when you subscribe to Netflix, you select the Four Screens + UHD package, otherwise you'll be stuck streaming videos in 1080p!
Step 4. If you want to upgrade your movie library, buy a 4K UHD Blu-ray player
While streaming movies and TV shows from Netflix is a great hot-fix for getting your 4K fix, physical media enthusiasts will need to upgrade their collection to 4K UHD. The first step in that process is getting a new 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player. There are a number of great models out there right now (Panasonic, Samsung and Oppo all make excellent 4K decks) and you can't really go wrong with any of them. Most 4K Blu-ray Players will upscale standard Blu-rays to 4K resolution but, if you want the full experience, you'll have to start investing in 4K Blu-ray discs.
Step 5. If you're a gamer, you're going to want a 4K console, too
Right now, you should have a pretty decent 4K setup. You can stream movies in 4K UHD, or load them into your new 4K Blu-ray player. But if you're a gamer, you're also going to want to play your games in the highest resolution possible, too. For that you're going to need a new console - either the Xbox One X, the PS4 Pro or the Xbox One S. The difference between these consoles is that while the PS4 Pro and Xbox One S can upscale content to 4K, the Xbox One X actually plays some games in native 4K resolution.
Step 6. Kick back and enjoy your new 4K setup
Phew! If you have your new 4K TV, your subscription to Netflix (or Amazon Video), a 4K Blu-ray player and your 4K gaming console, you have everything you need to sit back and relax some crystal clear content in the highest publicly available resolution today.
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Scott Alexander originally contributed this article.