Birchtree

Talking tech since 2010
| 4 min read

4K is Almost Never 4K These Days

Yesterday I got thinking about 4K and it really hit me how hard is is to actually do anything in 4K and how the term “4K” is largely a marketing term at this point. It isn’t always, but I wanted to hit on a few situations where “4K” is a big selling feature, and whether you’re actually getting “a true 4K image.”

Computers

We’ll start with the good news, your computer can likely display a 4K picture with ease. If your display settings say 3840x2160 then that’s indeed what it is. Easy, yay!

Movies

This one may surprise you, but the vast majority of films made today are not made in 4K. As an example, Avengers Endgame was mastered in 2K resolution, not 4K. Yes, you can get get Endgame in 4K on digital media stores, but that’s an upscaled image. Some films are mastered at 4K (or even a bit higher) but they are still the exception, not the rule.

Why is this? Quite simply, 4K has four times as much data, and everything from editing to special effects is far more intensive and will move parts of the process from several day processes to several week processes, and computers today simply aren’t up to the task.

I know people will say “I can shoot 4K on my iPhone and edit the footage there, what’s the problem?” To which I can only say all 4K is not created equal.

So yeah, movies look great on your 4K TV, but they’re not actually native 4K. This video gets deep into it if you want to learn more.

Video Games

Video games are actually a place I think 4K works great, and I love playing the few games that can actually render at that resolution. Buuuuuut of course most games don’t display at a true 4K today. Even on the latest consoles, both of which advertise their ability to do 8K output, very few games actually render their scenes at 4K. Most will render somewhere between 1440p and 1800p, and some others will render at those same resolutions, but use upscaling technologies to render out at 4K. Tools like temporal upscaling and DLSS make this look better than it would have years ago, but the simple fact remains that consoles simply do not do a good job of rendering 4K gameplay in high end games.

This is why I roll my eyes whenever people bring up the idea of the rumored Switch Pro being a 4K machine. The Switch doesn’t even hit 1080p most of the time, so maybe let’s lock that down first, huh?

On the PC side of the world things are a little more positive, with the latest graphics cards (if you can find them) will output some games at 4K and things look great. I have an NVIDIA RTX 2070 Super and last weekend I finished the Resident Evil 3 remake and it played at native 4K at 60fps and it was a dream, but it’s the exception not the rule. I end up playing most AAA games at 1440p since 4K is just too taxing, and I know most gamers will lean towards 1080p or 1440p gaming and choose to play at higher frame rates (like 120-144fps) if they still have extra headroom in performance.

Even so, PC gaming is where you want to be if you want to play games in true 4K. It’s still tough for a lot of games, but it’s on the table.

YouTube

YouTube is a bit of a weird one, as you often will see 4K videos on the platform, but whether you’re actually watching native 4K content is hard to say. For example, I shoot all of my live action footage at 1080p because that’s what my camera does best. I also do screen shares at 4K, and then edit those together in a single video. The whole video exports at 4K so that I get the maximum quality for the screen share bits, but it’s not unreasonable for someone to start the video, see it’s in 4K, and assume my video footage is 4K too.

Likewise, lots of YouTube videos are shot in lower resolutions and then are exported in 4K from the video editor, so they’re technically 4K even though the original footage isn’t. Sometimes this is done maliciously (strong word, but it’s the best I’ve got) so that the uploader can put “4K” in the title to draw clicks) and other times it’s done just because those were the settings in the video editor and they didn’t bother changing them.

Ultimately, 4K on YouTube can be real, and there are some creators making great stuff at high resolutions, but the answer is indeed a bit complicated.

Takeaway

4K is great, and I want the highest resolution version of everything I can get my hands on. I’ve got nothing against the resolution, but I do think that it has become a bit of a marketing gimmick when the world was not quite ready to deliver it.

I think movies are the ones that are going to surprise people the most. Did you know that when you went into a movie theater to see a $100 million movie that the projector was showing you something at 2048x1080 pixels? I bet you didn’t. Would you believe that most theaters don’t even have 4K projectors?

If you have one takeaway I hope it’s this: judge the look of things based on how they make you feel, not on whether they’re 4K or not. After all, if 2048x1080 is good enough for the biggest movies of all time, it’s probably good enough for you…at least for now.

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