4k resolution televisions are now widely available and potential buyers are wondering if the extra resolution is worth it. In some cases it is, but in most, it’s not. The details below can help you decide.
What Exactly is 4K (and 8K) Resolution?
The existing 1080- HDTV standard has a resolution of 1920×1080 (2.1 million) pixels. The UHD resolutions are multiples of the 1080p resolution.
4k resolution is named for the approximately 4,000 (4k) vertical lines of resolution it contains. More specifically, the resolution is 3840×2160 (8.3 million) pixels, which is 4 times that of 1080p. (4k is sometimes called 2160p, and is also known as QFHD – Quad Full High Definition.)
8k resolution has about 8,000 vertical lines and 16 times the resolution of 1080p HD. The resolution is 7680×4320 (33.2 million) pixels. 8k is also called 4360p.
The ITU and the Consumer Electronics Association have officially dubbed both 4k and 8k resolutions as “Ultra High-Definition”, but to complicate things, they are also called Ultra HD, UHD, UHDTV, and even Super Hi-Vision.
HDMI 2.0 is required to fully support the 4k specification. However, the existing HDMI 1.4 spec does actually support 4k resolutions, but is limited to a frame rate of 30 frames per second. The problem is that most components with HDMI 1.4 don’t contain the electronics to support the 4k resolution, even if the connection does.
Will I be Able to Notice the Additional Resolution?
To be able to detect the additional resolution of 4k (or 8k), the screen must be quite large and you must sit fairly close. So how do you know if your particular setup would benefit? Here’s your answer.
Based on the resolving ability of the human eye, it is possible to estimate when 4k resolution will become apparent. A person with 20/20 vision can resolve 60 pixels per degree, which corresponds to recognizing the letter “E” on the 20/20 line of a Snellen eye chart from 20 feet away. Using the Home Theater Calculator spreadsheet as a base, I created a chart showing, for any given screen size, how close you need to sit to be able to detect some or all of the benefits of a higher resolution screen. (Click the picture below for a larger version.)
(Note for those of you not used to reading charts, just jump to the calculator below)
What the chart shows is that, for a 84-inch screen, 4k resolution isn’t fully apparent until you are at least 5.5 feet or closer to the screen. For a “tiny” 55-inch screen, you’ll need to be 3.5 feet or closer. Needless to say, most consumers aren’t going to sit close enough to see any of extra resolution 4k offers, much less 8k.
It’s important to note that research by Bernard Lechner (former VP of RCA Laboratories) found that the average viewing distance of American TV viewers to be 9 feet. This is substantially farther than the 5.5 foot distance required to fully resolve normal-sized 4k screens. I don’t see people rearranging their living rooms to take advantage of the otherwise unnoticeable UHD resolution benefits.
Verification of Calculations by Sony and THX
Sony lists identical required viewing distances in the Frequently Asked Questions section of their product description. Checkout the Amazon.com product description FAQ for the Sony 65X900A 4k Ultra HDTV. It shows the same distances I have calculated (i.e. 3.6 feet for a 55″ screen and 4.2 feet for a 65″ screen.) If you don’t believe my numbers, confirmation from Sony should help convince you.
Quote from Sony FAQ:How close to the TV must I sit to appreciate 4K?The short answer is that between 5 and 6 ft. is the ideal viewing distance for a 55” or 65” Sony 4K Ultra HD TV. However, on a 55“, you can now sit as close as 3.6 ft and enjoy a visibly smoother and more detailed picture (e.g you won’t see the individual pixels). On a 65“ TV, you can sit as close as 4.2 ft. to appreciate 4K.
On a 50-inch 1080p HD display, most consumers can begin to distinguish individual pixels only when standing within six feet of the screen. Therefore if your viewing distance is 10 feet or greater, an Ultra HD 50-inch display will likely have little perceived benefit in terms of image clarity and sharpness [source]
Can you even get 4k and 8k Content?
If you are among the rare few who has a giant screen and sits close enough to it to benefit from 4k resolution, you still need UHD content. Good luck finding it.
As of this writing, the only readily available content source for 4k is the Sony PlayStation 3, and it can only display static pictures (not moving video) using the HDMI 1.4 connection (which only supports a 24 or 30 Hz refresh rate at 4k resolutions.) This may be worthwhile for photographers, but probably not for anyone else. Sony is also offering a UHD movie server that downloads certain Sony Pictures titles in 4k resolution. Due to the limited amount of content, high price, and low adoption rate, this would seem to have only marginal impact on availability of UHD content.
Netflix is offering some material in 4k resolution. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t comment on the quality, but I can say that the bit rate is fairly low for a resolution this high. If 4k is like their 1080p streams, the resolution is OK, but the color banding and color depth are noticeably deficient. Hopefully their 4k streams are of better quality and become more widely available.
The benefits of 4k and 8k are marginal at best. You have to sit unrealistically close to see the full detail and you need 4k source material, which is virtually non-existent. If you use it as a computer monitor to view high resolution source material, you could benefit. Other than that, save your cash and purchase 1080p instead. Or better yet, purchase 1080p OLED TV instead – the near infinite contrast ratio will offer a vastly superior quality image versus 4k resolution on an LED/LCD panel.
ISF states the the most important aspects of picture quality are (in order): 1) contrast ratio, 2) color saturation, 3) color accuracy, 4) resolution. Resolution is 4th on the list, so look at other factors first. Also, be sure to calibrate your display! I recommend the following calibration tools.
Recommended Calibration Tools
- Free Burn-your-own Blu-ray: AVS HD 709 – Blu-ray & MP4 Calibration
- Blu-ray: Spears & Munsil High-Def Benchmark Disc (my favorite)
- Blu-ray: Digital Video Essentials: HD Basics (most popular)
- Automatic Calibrator: Datacolor Spyder 3
“Just tell me what resolution HD TV to get”
If you don’t like reading charts and are looking for a quick answer, enter you screen size below to see how close you’ll need to sit to fully appreciate various screen resolutions.
Note about “or closer” viewing distances calculated above: if you sit closer than the distances shown above, you will be able to see some (but not all) of the detail offered by the next higher resolution.