1080p vs. 4K: Is It Worth Upgrading Your TV?

Today, we’re going to look at comparing 1080p TV’s vs 4K TV’s, but we’re going to be taking a different angle than you’re used to seeing.

Most people will quickly say that 4K is better than 1080p and end the discussion there. Not very helpful, right?

In this article, we’re going to assume that you’ve already got a 1080p TV, and you’re wondering if it’s worth it to upgrade to a new 4K television.

We’ve done something similar in the past, looking at 720p vs 1080p, but I think that discussion is much easier. 720p televisions are either much older, or smaller than 1080p sets, so the jump in resolution will be more noticeable.

There’s a lot of confusing jargon when you’re shopping for a new TV.

In general, most people know that a 4K monitor has more pixels, and so it’s probably the better choice than 1080p.

But can you really see the difference?

When is it time to upgrade?

Let’s dive in and find out.


What Is Screen Resolution?

Real quick, before looking into the details of these two screen resolutions, let’s discuss what screen resolution actually is.

Resolution refers to the number of pixels a screen can display. You’ll often see it represented as (horizontal resolution) x (vertical resolution). The total number of pixels on the screen is simply those two numbers multiplied together.

In general, a higher resolution monitor or TV will let you see more detail, like individual hairs on an actor’s face, or complex patterns on a butterfly wing.


1080p vs. 4K: Screen Resolution

At its core, comparing 1080p and 4K all comes down to comparing screen resolution.

Even though they’re written differently, 4K and 1080p both represent the number of pixels on the TV screen.

Because of the way that each image was ‘drawn’ on your TV screen, the vertical number was more prominent in older TV’s. Manufacturers often shortened resolutions to either 1080, 720, or 480, for the really old TV’s.

Initially, 4K TV’s were marketed as 2160p TV’s, but that didn’t have as good a ring to it as 4K. So the industry soon adjusted to use the number of horizontal pixels instead of the vertical pixels.

For example:

1080p resolution = 1920 pixels x 1080 pixels = 2,073,000 total pixels.

4K resolution = 3840 pixels x 2160 pixels = 8,294,400 total pixels.

One thing to keep in mind is that the quality of the picture display is also dependent on the size of the TV.

A 85″ 4K TV has the exact same number of pixels on it as a 44″ 4K TV.

The same holds true for 1080p TV’s and 720p TV’s as well.

That’s why it’s important to understand the ideal resolution for different TV sizes, based on how far away you sit from it.

But we’ll get into that in more detail in a later section.

1080p Resolution

1080p televisions have 1080 pixels vertically and 1920 pixels horizontally, which is over two million pixels on the screen.

First released in 1998, 1080p TV’s, also called Full-HD (FHD) TV’s, didn’t become affordable until the mid-2000’s. But by 2010 they’d become the standard as most streaming content on Netflix and YouTube, as wells as Blu-ray movies will be in 1080p resolution.

4K Resolution

If you think that the 2 million pixels in a 1080p TV is a lot, 4K televisions have over four times that number!

To put that in more concrete terms, a 4K screen has a horizontal resolution of 2160 pixels by a vertical resolution of 3840 pixels.

In addition to switching the naming convention from the horizontal pixel number to the vertical pixel number, it’s worth noting that 3840 pixels is not 4000 (4K).

Consumers were hesitant to upgrade to 4K after they’d only recently upgraded to 1080p TV’s. Marketing played a huge factor in helping to convince consumers to but new televisions.

Plus, as wide-format televisions became more popular, it made more sense to consumers to make the switch.


Can You Tell the Difference Between 1080p & 4K?

With that big of a difference in the number of pixels on your TV, it should be easy to tell the difference between 1080p and 4K, right?

Not so fast.

It all depends on how big your television is, and how far away you’re sitting.

For example, my main TV is a 55″ Sony Android TV that I’ve got in my downstairs living room. We’ve got an off-center living room setup with a sofa that’s about 5′ away, and two chairs that are about 6′ away.

At that distance, does it make sense for my to have a 4K TV, or would a 1080p TV look just as good?

To find out, let’s take a look at this chart from Rtings.com.

source: rtings.com

This chart has TV sizes along the bottom, and the distance from your TV going up the left-hand side. To read the chart, find the size of your TV, and go up until you get to how far away it is.

In my case, I start at the 55″ line on the bottom of the screen (my TV size). Then I look up to the 6′ line on the left-hand axis and find the point where both lines intersect.

That point is solidly in the blue section of the graphs where “Ultra HD is worth it.”

In fact, I could move my couch back to 7′ away and still be able to see the difference between 1080p and 4K resolutions.


Other Differences Between 1080p and 4K TV’s

Resolution isn’t everything, however.

Manufacturers will usually keep their best technology for their higher-end products. That’s especially true for televisions.

Depending on what you watch, resolution might not be the biggest selling point for that new TV you’ve been eyeing.

Let’s cover some of the other differences.

Color Dynamics (HDR\Dolby Vision)

HDR, or High Dynamic Range, is only found on 4K televisions, but it has nothing to do with the resolution.

It actually deals with the colors you see on the screen.

If you’re a movie buff, getting a beautiful image with colors that jump off the screen may be more important than the resolution itself. Even if a 1080p TV would work great in your living room, the better picture quality of an HDR TV may mean it’s better to upgrade to a 4K television.

I go into more detail whether it’s better to focus on 4K UHD or HDR in this article.

Additionally, newer screen technologies like the organic light-emitting diode (OLED) and liquid crystal display (LCD) allows you to get more realistic colors and better contrasts. These advanced screens may only be found on 4K TV’s, depending on the manufacturer.

Refresh Rate & Motion Rate

When you watch TV, the screen is redrawing the image on the many times per second so our eyes perceive it as fluid motion.

This is called your TV’s natural refresh rate.

Many manufacturers will use software to enhance the screen’s natural refresh rate, and call that the TV’s true motion rate. I cover that, and some of the other differences between motion rate and refresh rate in this article.

In a nutshell, the faster your TV can redraw the image, the more fluid the picture. This is especially important for action movies and sports.

1080p TV’s are limited to a refresh rate of 60Hz, while it’s common for 4K TV’s to have a refresh rate of 120Hz, or higher.

Content

Surprisingly, 1080p content is still the industry standard.

Although you can stream 4K quality content from Netflix, YouTube TV, Amazon Prime Video, and several other popular streaming services, the majority of TV stations still broadcast in 1080p.

It’s worth noting that streaming in 4K might not be possible unless you have a fast Internet connection. That’s because streaming 4K content requires at least 20Mbps, which is not possible in many rural areas.

Things aren’t much better, even if you own your own media.

Blu-ray content is limited to 1080p resolution, unless you specifically buy a 4K UHD Blu-ray. DVD’s, by comparison are limited to 720p resolution.

Finally, a higher resolution TV screen will not necessarily display sharper images.

If you don’t believe me, hook up your old VCR to your big-screen and try to watch a movie. The picture will be grainy and fuzzy because the TV has more pixels than the source signal is outputting.

Some TV’s have AI upscaling to help correct that, but that’s usually found on higher-end 4K devices only.


1080p vs. 4K: Which Is Better For You?

In general, I recommend going with a 4K television if you’re already in the market for a new TV. It gives you a better resolution, HDR compatibility, and the possibility of a higher refresh rate.

More Reasons 4K Is Better Than 1080p

  • Availability: 4K TV’s are the standard for anything 32″ and larger. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly harder to find 1080p TV’s larger than 44″.
  • Better Picture Quality: A 4K display has four times the number of pixels as a 1080p display. That means you’re able to see more details when watching a movie or fast-moving sports.
  • HDR & Dolby Vision: To many people, HDR is more important than a higher resolution image. High Dynamic Range and Dolby Vision give you a much better depth of color than you can get on a 1080p TV.
  • Better for Gamers: Gaming has always been at the bleeding-edge of performance. Many major gaming studios are releasing 4K games to go along with the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X to give gamers an immersive experience.
  • They’re Becoming Cheaper: Although still more expensive than their 1080p counterparts, 4K screens are getting cheaper. That means it’s becoming more enticing to upgrade.

Reasons to Stick With 1080p

If you have a 1080p TV, there are several reasons why you shouldn’t be in a rush to upgrade.

Here are the main reasons you might want to stick with your 1080p screen instead of switching up to the 4K screens:

  • Money Factor: 4K monitors and TV’s are more expensive than 1080p screens. In some cases, the additional cost doesn’t make it worth the additional expense.
  • How Far Away You Sit: The farther away you are from the TV, the less our eyes are able to see the difference in resolution.
  • Content: If you’re big into Blu-ray and DVD movies, a 1080p TV still makes sense. Additionally, you only get access to Netflix 4K content with their highest-tier subscription. Eventually streaming services will completely shift to 4K, but we just aren’t there yet.

Frequently Asked Questions

Let’s wrap up our guide by answering questions around the 1080p vs. 4K debate:

Do 1080p Videos Look Blurry on 4k Screens?

People wonder whether videos shot on a 1080p camera will look blurry on 4K TVs. To answer this, we can say that 1080p videos will retain their quality on 4K TVs but won’t get to 4K quality. In other words, they will show as they would on a 1080p screen.

However, there are exceptions, boiling down to the scaling. If a 4K monitor lacks an inbuilt scaling process, it may fail to adjust to a 1080 resolution image, thereby making it look teared up. 

Can You Notice the Difference in Image Quality on 1080p and 4K Screen?

To answer this question, we can say that it depends on the size of the TV screen and the distance you are from the screen. A human eye will rarely notice any difference in image quality in small TVs (less than 40 inches).

However, 50+ inches screens using 1080p vs. 4K resolutions will have different pixel densities, leading to the lower pixel count on 1080p to be more noticeable on larger displays.

Are 4K and UHD Screens the Same?

For all intents and purposes, yes. Digital Cinema Initiatives defines ‘4K’ as one of several resolutions:

  • 4096 × 2160 (full frame, 256∶135 or ≈1.90∶1 aspect ratio)
  • 3996 × 2160 (flat crop, 1.85∶1 aspect ratio)
  • 4096 × 1716 (CinemaScope crop, ≈2.39∶1 aspect ratio)

While UHD (3840 pixels) technically falls short of true 4K (4096 pixels), consumer grade televisions are only manufactured in 3840 vertical pixels at this time.

Why Does My 4K TV Not Look 4K?

Most of the content online is in 1080p resolution, which means they lack the details shown in 4K. Therefore, you will be limited by the video’s resolution.

Tim Wells

Tim Wells got his first computer at the age of ten and hasn't stopped tinkering ever since. After discovering Android TV boxes in 2013, he created a popular Android PC Review website and guided it to over 8 million pageviews before stepping away in 2018. After a brief hiatus from the industry he's back at the helm of AndroidTVNews.com to bring Android TV and TV boxes to the forefront of the streaming world. When he's not writing, he spends as much time as he can with his beautiful wife and his bulldog.

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