What is 4K Resolution: Ultra HD Explained

Today’s monitors boast an unprecedented level of detail. Thanks to the high-detail textures and fantastic lighting, monsters from many video games almost pop out from the screen.

4K, also known as 4K Ultra HD (UHD), is a digital video format with a resolution of 3840×2160 pixels. Due to its highly demanding nature for real-time rendering, 4K resolution is still in the early stages of gaming adoption, but the display format already offers many exciting possibilities in movies and home entertainment. So, what is 4K resolution, and how can you benefit from it? Let’s find out.

The 4K Package

A resolution is the number of pixels on a screen. It is determined by the width and height of the screen in pixels. The more pixels there are, the higher the resolution and the sharper the image will be.

The 4K in this resolution refers to the horizontal display of pixels. The term 4K denotes that this display resolution has around four thousand pixels horizontally.

But while it’s quickly becoming the new standard for highest definition content on TVs, not that many computer monitors support it, and a 4K monitor resolution is still somewhat of a luxury for gamers.

A few years ago, technology with this resolution was expensive and reserved for the rich. However, 4K TVs, digital cameras, projectors, and even monitors dropped in price significantly. The only thing stopping wider 4K monitor adoption is the high price of enthusiast-level graphics cards needed to make the most of that resolution on computer screens.

4K content is also becoming more widely available, with major streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video offering a selection of 4K movies and TV shows. YouTube and Vimeo also support 4K videos, and there are several Blu-ray players on the market supporting 4K resolution size.

The most used term for the 4K resolution is Ultra High Definition (UHD), while the second term, 2160p, is less prevalent but still used, especially in computer terminology. Confusingly, the previous critical advancement in TV and monitor resolution, high definition or full HD, got its name from a vertical pixel count of 1080p.

UHD or 4K, on the other hand, is named after the horizontal pixel count, which is 3840p in most common applications (TVs and monitors) but 4096 for “true” 4K, or the DC movie format.

The Difference Between 4K UHD and DCI 4K

Contrary to what many gamers believe, there are two primary standards for the 4K resolution: UHD or Ultra HD and DCI 4K. The vertical resolution is the same for both, but they differ in the number of horizontal pixels.

4K UHD resolution is the standard display resolution for consumer TVs and computer monitors. It features 3840×2160 pixels.

DCI 4K, on the other hand, is the standard resolution for digital cinema. It was developed by the Digital Cinema Initiatives and features 4096×2160 pixels. The previous generation of digital cinema projectors used a resolution of 2048×1080 pixels. DCI 4K has twice the horizontal and vertical pixel counts, and the movie industry has accepted this resolution as a standard.

While both are technically “4K” resolution dimensions, there are some key differences between them. DCI 4K has a slightly higher horizontal resolution and uses a different aspect ratio (17:9) compared to 4K UHD (16:9).

These differences may seem small, but they can have an impact on image quality. In short: DCI 4K offers slightly better picture quality than 4K UHD.

For convenience, we will focus on the Ultra HD type of resolution when we talk about the generic term 4K screen resolution. The reason is that it was predominantly adopted by the commercial world, including movie streaming services and video games.

4K and Gaming

Ultra HD resolution is becoming increasingly popular in the world of gaming. Many gamers are upgrading to 4K TVs and monitors in order to enjoy the sharpest, most realistic visuals possible.

A standard gaming resolution is 1920×1080, or 2.1 million pixels. In contrast, although not a true 4K resolution, 2160p offers 3840×2160 or 8.3 million pixels. It means that textures in a  4K Ultra HD game are around four times as detailed as standard HD textures.

This huge difference is especially noticeable on large TVs or monitors, where the extra pixels make for a sharper, more detailed image. The extra texture detail isn’t the only benefit of 4K gaming: the increased pixel count will give a markedly improved image quality. Since more pixels are packed into the same screen real estate, individual pixels are less perceptible than at lower resolutions.

Even VR headsets benefit significantly from the superior-looking Ultra HD resolution. It brings greater visual fidelity that contributes to better immersion into virtual worlds.

While older consoles and games cannot take advantage of 4K pixel resolution, many new consoles and games are designed with 4K in mind, so we can expect more PC builds to start targeting that resolution. We just need the graphics card prices to drop a bit.

Higher-end Apple laptops have had 4K screens for a while now. It helps with the Apple drawing app, making more delicate paint strokes easier to do.

Sony started implementing Ultra HD first in PS4 Pro by employing a cutting-edge type of upscaling to show a pseudo- 4K image. The upscaling included advanced techniques to stretch pixels enough to not sacrifice visual fidelity and clarity much. Microsoft joined the fray later with the Xbox One S and its version of upscaling.

Xbox Series X was the first console that brought native support for 4K ultrawide resolution and Ultra HD gaming with a few titles that used this technology. Sony followed a few days later with the PS5.

The higher resolution allows for more detailed images, crisper text, and smoother animations. This enhances the gaming experience and allows for more immersive gameplay. However, 4K gaming requires powerful hardware, so gamers will need cutting-edge PCs or consoles to take advantage of faster frame rates and higher graphic settings.

4K and the Movie Industry

The advent of 4K video technology has had a huge impact on the movie and home entertainment industries. In fact, these markets were among the first to embrace 4K picture resolution and its benefits. Digital Cinema Initiatives adopted 4K projectors back in 2003. The higher resolution and more vivid colors make for a more immersive viewing experience.

On the production side, this has led to an increased demand for high-quality cameras, filming equipment, and specialized post-production software to process increased amounts of data faster.

In addition, as 4K TV resolution gained popularity among home entertainment consumers, movie studios have been forced to rethink their distribution strategies and make changes to keep up with the growing demand.

Streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime introduced a separate 4K resolution TV subscription that allows users to stream and watch 4K films and series. These sites already have a sizable library of streaming content compatible with the Ultra HD resolution, with new titles constantly being added.

2016 saw the first release of Ultra HD Blu-ray players and disks. Blu-ray uses triple-layer discs with a capacity of 100 GB. Right now, there are over 1,000 Ultra HD Blu-ray titles.

4K and the Internet

Better resolutions bring more clarity and visibility to websites, and nowhere is this better seen than with Google Maps and YouTube. With the 4K resolution and more pixels, Google Maps becomes much nicer to navigate, especially on mobile devices.

Vimeo and YouTube introduced 4K upload support in 2010, with the maximum upload resolution of 4096×3072. And while Vimeo mainly streams content about tech coverage and nature documentaries in 4K, YouTube offers a vast selection of videos in 4K TV resolution.

This video giant changed how users watch Ultra HD in 2013 with VP9, a Google-developed video compression standard. Previously, to watch in 4K, users would choose “Original,” but after this change, they could select 2160p from the resolution menu to get compressed 4K content.

Other streaming sites, including Netflix, rely on another video compression tool, the High-Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC). These compression standards reduce the size of the streaming video to ease up the transfer bandwidth while maintaining video quality.

The Difference Between UHD and 2K

We’ve discussed the differences between the full 4K resolution (DCI 4K) and UHD while also mentioning full HD or 1080p. But what about the 2K resolution, also known as 1440p?

The main difference between UHD and 2K is their pixel count or the number of individual pixels they use to create an image. Compared to 2K, UHD has a much greater resolution, 3840×2160 pixels, versus the 2560×1440 pixels of 2K.

This increased resolution also allows for better coluor fidelity and a wider dynamic range, resulting in more vibrant visuals. Additionally, because UHD in TV content and games requires more processing power than 2K, it is generally more demanding on the hardware, especially in gaming scenarios.

Benefits and Drawbacks of 4K Resolution

Whether you’re a casual user or a serious content creator, ultra-high definition resolution has many benefits that can improve your experience and enhance your visual output. Some of the key advantages of the ultra HD or 4K resolution include:

  • Sharper, more detailed images with higher colour accuracy and contrast. With a resolution of 3840 x2160 pixels, monitors are capable of displaying much sharper and more detailed images than their lower-resolution counterparts. This makes them ideal for activities such as graphic design, video editing, and gaming.
  • More accurate representation of colours and shadows, particularly when viewed on a large screen. Another key advantage of 4K devices is their improved colour fidelity, or ability to reproduce colours accurately. This is thanks to the increased number of pixels, which allows for a wider colour gamut and more accurate colour reproduction.
  • A 4K resolution monitor offers a better streaming experience with high-resolution video content. Icons and general user interface will be much easier to manage on platforms that support 4K display resolution.
  • 4K is better in applications that require high levels of visual processing, such as 3D modelling or virtual reality. Higher resolutions displayed on larger monitors allow for a more ergonomic and functional work environment.

However, despite the many benefits of the 4K resolution aspect ratio, there are also some potential drawbacks to consider. Some of the main disadvantages include:

  • Higher cost and system requirements for devices, such as TVs, computers, and smartphones. Due to the increased resolution and advanced features, these devices typically cost more than their lower-resolution counterparts.
  • Standard 4K resolution increases bandwidth requirements for streaming video content and makes downloads take longer to complete. UHDTV content, on average, takes around 40 GB due to the improved image fidelity leading to larger file sizes.
  • More graphics processing power is needed, so there’s a higher minimum requirement for your computer specs if you want to run any demanding software. Another potential downside of 4K display resolution is that monitors that support this resolution require more graphics processing power in order to run properly.

This means that you may need to upgrade your computer’s graphics card or processor to take full advantage of what a 4K display resolution offers.

  • Potential compatibility issues with older devices or software that may not support 4K resolution. When we talk about 4K resolution vs. 1080p, older games and applications that do not have an official 4K support won’t display properly on such high resolutions.
  • Longer load times for applications that require high levels of processing power or memory. This resolution demands more graphical details that take more time to load and display.
  • Limited availability of content created in 4K format, particularly compared to 1080p content. The number of movies, series, games, and programs that work natively in 4K is constantly growing. However, there is still a number of older digital content that goes only up to 1440p resolution vs. 4K.

Pixel Overload

The debate on whether 4K is actually necessary rages on. While there are benefits to having a 4K monitor, such as the increased level of detail, many people argue that the human eye cannot see the slight difference between 1080p and 4K from certain viewing distances.

However, this new technology has already proved itself among IT professionals, researchers, and enthusiast gamers. The number of 4K content and devices grows every year, making it the future of digital content.

There’s still the UHD vs. 4K resolution issue, with the slightly sharper-looking DCI 4K standard being almost non-existent outside of cinematography. With that said, what most people call 4K (2160p) has already established itself as a new standard across the entertainment industry, and people are already looking toward the next big resolution jump.


Is 4K resolution better than 1080p?

Some people may notice the increased level of detail and clarity that this resolution provides, while others might not be able to see much difference compared to 1080p. It’s certainly more evident than when we talk about UHD resolution vs. 4K (or rather, 2160p vs. DCI 4K), but if you sit far enough away from your screen, the difference becomes much smaller.

Ultimately, what matters most is what works best for your needs and preferences. For example, if you are a gamer, you may find that ultra high definition resolution provides more detailed visuals and smoother gameplay than 1080p.

On the other hand, if you primarily watch older content or run older games on your computer monitor, then 1080p is likely to be sufficient for your needs.

Is 2560×1440 considered 4K?

No, 2560×1440 is not considered 4K. 4K resolution refers to 3840×2160 (UHD), while 2560×1440 is known as 2K.

Is 4K resolution 1080p?

No. 1080p refers to 1920×1080 (Full HD)/ and 4K resolution is either 4096×2160 (DCI 4K) or  3840×2160 (UHD). The problem with the classification is that 1080p refers to the number of vertical pixels in a picture (1080) while 4K looks at the horizontal pixels (3840 in 2160p or 4096 in “true” DCI 4K). We answer the question “What is 4K resolution?” in more detail in our article above.

Is Netflix 4K really 4K?

Netflix 4K content is encoded in the HEVC (High-Efficiency Video Coding) format and has a resolution of 3840×2160, so it’s 4k by modern computer and TV standards, but not “true” 4K in the DCI movie format, which would have 4096 horizontal pixels.

Milica Milenkovic
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