What Is 4K Resolution?

Updated: August 17,2022

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4K is the next big thing in display resolution. In a purely technical sense, it represents a horizontal pixel count of around 4,000, with resolutions ranging between 3840 x 2160 and 4096 x 2160 pixels. 

It offers a level of detail and clarity that is unmatched by other display technologies. Movies, television, and streaming content are all starting to support the 4K standard, and for a good reason. If you're wondering: “What is 4K’s biggest advantage and is it for me?”, here's what you need to know.

The True Meaning of 4K

4K resolution is the latest standard in high-definition viewing and is 2160 pixels wide. It offers four times as many pixels as traditional 1080p HDTV and nine times that of 720p. This increase in resolution results in a much sharper image, with more detail and clarity than ever before. 

Originally, IT professionals labeled this display resolution 2160p, but it’s tough to market something that rolls off the tongue so clunkily. Marketing teams solved this issue by coining the term “4K HDTV.”

Let's compare the previous most popular option with 2160p resolution (4K) to see what this technology brings to the screen. Until a couple of years ago, the Full HD 1080p display with 1980 pixels horizontally and 1080 pixels vertically was the most accepted resolution. It had around 2 million pixels in total, while the current 4K display has approximately 8.3 million pixels, which is four times that of a 1080p HDTV. 

This massive increase in pixel count means that you can sit much closer to a 4K TV and clearly see all the details. It also results in a more immersive viewing experience, as the image appears more lifelike. These are the main reasons for the technology’s quick adoption among consumers and the movie, streaming, and gaming industries.

As a result, there are now more widescreen TVs and monitors on the market that fully support 4K, and prices keep dropping. Additional pieces of equipment required for experiencing 4K - such as HDMI 2.0 cables - are also becoming easier to find. 

Of course, this increase in the pixel count also increases the bandwidth required to transmit. When the 4K standard appeared, it packed in many more details per frame per second. This dramatically increased the size of movies in gigabytes, sparking concerns that the heavy requirements of 4K video resolution would be too much for internet connections to handle. 

With the advent of compression encoding tools like HEVC that reduce the file transfer size with minimal impact on video and audio quality, 4K streaming has become more accessible for people with limited bandwidth capacity. Today, you can stream 4K UHD video content with a 25 Mbit/s connection.

The Difference Between 4K UHD and 4K DCI

Now that we know more about 4K resolution, let's talk about the difference between two types of this technology: 4K UHD and 4K DCI.

4K ultra-high definition, or 4K UHD for short, is the home standard for 4K. This standard has a horizontal by vertical pixel count of 3840 x 2160. The ultra HD (4K) resolution is widely accepted in video games, Blu-Ray movies, and streaming video content. And it’s becoming more and more popular.

Because of its quick and wide-scale customer adoption rate, UHD became the synonym for the entire 4K label. Due to mass production, you can now find 4K UHD-compatible monitors and TV screens for under $400.

4K Digital Cinema System Specification, or 4K DCI for short, is the standard adopted by 4K movie theaters. The DCI standard has a horizontal by vertical pixel count of 4096 x 2160. This form of a 4K definition offers a slightly wider field of view and different image detail than 4K UHD, since it doesn't rely on pixel shifting, resolution upscaling, burn-in prevention technology, which are prevalent in the UHD standard. 

Among the devices that work with 4K DCI, 4K projectors are the most sought-after. Due to their high quality of display and the fact that they’re designed for a niche audience, 4K projectors cost slightly under $10,000.

Aspect ratio is the main difference between 4K DCI and 4K UHD. Meaning, the UHD format has a 16:9 aspect ratio, which is the same as traditional HDTVs, while 4K DCI has a 1.9:1 aspect ratio. 4K DCI was designed for movie theaters, where the extra horizontal pixels are used to fill the wider screen. 

The most significant advantage of 4K UHD resolution over 4K DCI is that it's more widely available. Most 4K TVs on the market support 4K UHD, while 4K DCI is mostly used in professional settings, specifically movie theaters. 

How Does HDR Fit Into This Picture?

The term HDR is commonly mixed with 4K resolution size, despite these two technologies being completely different. High dynamic range, or HDR, is a display technology that significantly expands the range of color contrast. Combined with screens made from liquid crystal or organic materials that provide better brightness, HDR makes the image on the screen look more realistic. 

The human eye can see a dynamic range of approximately 1:100. This means that the ratio between the darkest color our eyes can perceive and the brightest color we can perceive is 1:100. HDR-enabled TVs and monitors can display a much wider range of color depth. 

The result is an image with more color vibrancy than 4K display resolution, therefore offering better image clarity. The expanded contrast ratio also makes colors appear more realistic. 

To take advantage of HDR, you need both an HDR-compatible display and HDR content. The good news is that there are now plenty of both on the market. You can find HDR TVs from all the major manufacturers, and there is also a growing number of HDR video games, Blu-Ray movies, and streaming content.

Do I Need Special Cables for 4K?

You don't need special cables for the standard 4K resolution. Any HDMI cable that is capable of carrying an HD signal will also be able to carry a 4K signal. 

You might only need special cables if you're using older cables that are not HDMI 2.0 compatible. HDMI 2.0 is the latest version of the HDMI standard and supports 4K resolution at 60 frames per second (FPS). If you're using an older cable, you'll be limited to 4K at 30 FPS.

On the other hand, DisplayPort cables fully support 4K UHD from out of the box. These cables transfer 4K audio and visual signals without any degradation of the 4K pixel count. The latest version of DisplayPort, which is 1.4, supports 4K resolution at 120 Hz.

4K Availability in Streaming

4K video streaming is becoming more and more available as the technology improves. Netflix was one of the first companies to offer 4K streaming, and the platform now offers a large selection of 4K UHD content. Amazon Prime Video and Hulu are also starting to offer 4K video content.

YouTube was the earliest mainstream adopter of 4K video; it began streaming such content in 2010 and now has a large library of 4K content. You can also find 4K videos on Vimeo and a few other video streaming sites that support UHD resolution.

One advantage of streaming 4K content is that you don't need to store it on your device. This is important, as 4K video files are huge and can take up a lot of space. 

4K Availability in Movies

There are now plenty of movies that are available in 4K UHD, either on standard Blu-Ray discs or streaming. If you have a 4K TV and UHD Blu-Ray player, you can enjoy the benefits of much higher resolution. 

Sony has been the biggest proponent of 4K UHD content since 2013. The company’s catalog features hundreds of movies that support the UHD standard, with movie file sizes reaching around 40 GB for ultra HD definition. Some of the latest movies that are available in 4K ultra HD include Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, and The Revenant.

4K Availability in Television

There is a growing number of 4K TVs on the market, and more TV channels are starting to broadcast in 4K. However, the adoption of 4K is the slowest in this area as most channels, and most homes, still operate in HDTV. 

One advantage of 4K TVs is that they can upconvert HDTV content to near-4K quality. So even if your favorite channel isn't broadcasting in 4K screen resolution yet, you can still enjoy improved image quality.

4K Availability in Games

The PlayStation 5, Xbox Series S, and Xbox Series X are all capable of 4K gaming. The PS5 and Xbox One Series X support full-scale 4K UHD resolution due to their teraflops of power, while the Xbox Series S runs games at 4K by upscaling lower resolutions to the UHD standard. 

The PlayStation 4 Pro was the first console that supported 4K gaming by using smart upscaling. PC gamers have had access to 4K gaming for much longer as most high-end graphics cards are capable of running games in 3840 x 2160 resolution. Today, hundreds of games partially or fully support 4K ultra HD.

4K Availability on Mobiles

4K is slowly making its way onto mobile devices. Released in 2015, the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium was the first 4K Android smartphone. The iPhone 6S and 6S Plus were the first Apple phones to support 4K. 

Because phones have small screens, many people think that their phones can display 4K content by default. However, it's important to distinguish between mobile screen size and resolution. The screen size refers to the dimensions of the phone display, while the resolution is the number of pixels on the screen. Hence, not every phone supports the 4K monitor resolution, even if it has a relatively large screen.

Should You Make the Move to 4K?

4K is becoming more and more common, to the point where it's now considered the standard. If you're looking to buy a new TV or monitor, 4K is the way to go. This resolution provides a significant increase in image sharpness, and it's only going to become more prevalent in years to come.


Is 4K better than 1080p?

4K resolution contains four times as many pixels as 1080p, so it's technically better. However, the difference in picture quality between 1080p and 4K can be subtle. You might not even notice it unless you have a 4K TV or a compatible widescreen monitor.

What is 4K best suited for?

4K provides a highly detailed quality of image on movies, video games, and streaming content thanks to its increased pixel count.

What is the difference between HD and 4K?

The main difference between HD and 4K is the resolution. HD has a resolution of 1080p, while 4K has a resolution of 2160p. 4K is also known as UHD or Ultra HD.

Is 4K HD better?

There’s no doubt that 4K is the next evolution in visual fidelity. It’s becoming commonplace thanks to 4K devices getting more affordable every year. This technology offers sharper image quality and better overall clarity.

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With a degree in humanities and a knack for the history of tech, Jovan was always interested in how technology shapes both us as human beings and our social landscapes. When he isn't binging on news and trying to predict the latest tech fads, you may find him trapped within the covers of a generic 80s cyberpunk thriller.

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