4K vs 1080p

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Updated January 25, 2023

With the now apparent push for a 4K capable video game console by Sony and a rumored update on the way for the Xbox One, the battle of 4K vs 1080p is becoming more and more relevant.

While the image quality and picture quality of a 4K display are impressive, there is no denying that an increase in display quality comes with a cost. With higher resolutions come increased hardware needs and bigger image files, both of which can be harmful to performance or storage capacities if not adequately managed.

And now that the best 4K TVs are beginning to drop in price (as new technology often does a short while after its initial inception), there’s that much more fuel on the fire for a big rise in the popularity of 4K TVs. Televisions aren’t the only bit of tech relevant to the 4K discussion, though, as cameras (including camera drones), tablets, and computer monitors have also entered the 4K market.

So, what is the difference between a 1080p vs 4k picture?

4K vs 1080p

Pixels4,096 x 2,1601,920 x 1,080
3D Compatiblegreen-check-markgreen-check-mark
Surplus of Compatible Contentred-x-icongreen-check-mark
Ideal for Screens 70+ Inchesgreen-check-markred-x-icon

What is 4K

Ultra HD, otherwise known as 4K, is basically a measurement of how many pixels are on the screen, and anything 4K has a resolution of at least 3,840 x 2,160 pixels. It offers at least four times more pixels than the 1080p format, which is why it’s named 4K (admittedly, we think 4X would have been better). 

Standard video resolution is defined by the number of horizontal pixels multiplied by the number of vertical pixels. This means the more video resolution, the sharper and clearer an image will be. Image resolution refers to the amount of detail an image holds.

We do have to be careful when using the Ultra HD interchangeably with 4K, though, as they’re not exactly the same thing (although the TV marketing would have you believe otherwise). Ultra HD has a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160, while true 4K has a slightly higher resolution of 4,096 x 2,160.

4k vs. 1080p
Glorious 4K resolutions provide stunning visuals.

The more pixels (or dots that make up an on-screen picture) that are on a screen means, the sharper and more realistic the images will look. Conversely, if you compare a close-up image of a 4K image and a zoomed-in image of a 1080p image, you can see how the 1080p image is blockier and less lifelike. Many consumers believe that the 4K jumps from 1080p isn’t noticeable to the naked eye, but as far as pure science is involved, there’s a huge difference between a 4K image and a 1080p image (6,773,760 pixels, to be exact). So, I’ll point out that even if you don’t believe there to be a difference in the provided visuals, there definitely is. Of course, when you’re talking about 4K vs 1080p camera resolutions, the spec sheets for cameras aren’t referring to the mini LCD screens on the back of the camera when they mention 4K. Instead, they’re referring to the image that is created by the camera.

For now, the biggest hurdle facing 4K is that there isn’t exactly an abundance of 4K quality content out there. Netflix is the biggest media outlet giant to jump aboard the 4K revolution train, allowing its users to stream Ultra 4K HD TV for a premium price ($11.99 vs $9.99). For now, even Netflix’s 4K content is limited to a handful of television series, including House of Cards, Breaking Bad, and The Blacklist.  As well as a handful of movies, including Jerry Macguire, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Smurfs 2, and the Oceans, Forests, and Flowers documentaries. There’s also Amazon Prime, which has a few series (Mozart in the Jungle, Transparent, and Alpha House) and as well as 33 movies in total, including The Martian, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Hitch.

It’s also important to note that 4K does not have anything to do with 3D technology. Many consumers assume because 4K is considered the best type of television available, that they automatically get 3D along with it. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, although the best 4K TV of 2018 is actually 3D capable.

4K vs 1080p
The visual differences between SD, HDTV, and Full HD.

What Is 1080p

1080p is the current HDTV standard that you’ll find in most homes nowadays, and it refers to any TV with a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. The visual upgrade when you talk about going from 720p to 1080p is much more noticeable to the naked eye than the jump from 1080p vs 4K. The same can be said when comparing WXGA vs full HD TV. Oddly enough, although 1080p doesn’t have nearly as many pixels as 4K, the majority of companies who manufacture or sell televisions refer to 1080p as “Full HD.”

There is a plethora of options for finding 1080p content, with numerous Blu-Rays available at a retail level, virtually unlimited options for streaming content on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, and more, as well as over-the-air broadcasts that can be picked up with an HDTV antenna. In fact, in 2016, it’s safe to say that the vast majority of video content providers allow you to consume content in 1080p. However, you won’t find any 4K broadcasts OTA, so all of you cord-cutters need not worry just yet. So if you need a new TV, why not check out the top-rated 1080p TVs to see if they are for you?

4k vs. 1080p
A 1080p picture still looks good.

When 4K Becomes More Beneficial

As I stated above, and as we mention in our numerous HD 4K TV reviews, the difference between 4K vs 1080p to the naked eye is minimal, and most people claim to not even notice a difference. So when you’re talking about a 4k vs 1080p monitor, for example, the differences are negligible, and unless you’re buying an extra large monitor, it’s probably not worth it for the price upgrade.

However, the visual differences become much more noticeable when the TV screen is larger (over 70 inches or larger) or when the watcher is further away from the television. If you look at a 1080p image from a projector with something like a 120″ image area and compare it to a 4K projection of the same size, you’ll notice quite a big difference in the image clarity. However, if you compare a 1080p image on a 50″ screen and a 4K image on a screen of the same size, the visual differences are minimal (although, science tells us they’re still there). The differences are also more noticeable when you talk about 4k vs 1080p gaming, as the gaming community has a trained eye for noticing visual fidelity. Alternatively, you can check out this guide to the top 55-inch 4K TVs.

As far as distance is concerned, it has a lot to do with the apparent image clarity. There’s less strain on your eyes with a 4K television compared to a 1080p HDTV when you’re viewing from 20 feet away, simply because the 4K picture has more, smaller pixels to make up the image.