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1080 HD vs. 4K UHD: Is There a Difference?

4K UHD vs. 1080p HD Is There a Difference?

4K UHD offers greater resolution than 1080p HD. This article examines whether people will actually perceive this difference.

Technology products are often marketed by declaring technical specifications. It doesn’t matter whether the product is a smartphone, tablet, computer or garage door opener. Marketing experts love to tout specs, and a lot of consumers enjoy regurgitating them. Anyone who has read comments on tech sites is well aware of this. People get into angry, spiteful arguments over specs.

The problem is that corporations can often sell inferior products by marshaling technical specifications. They will only mention the specs that are superior to competing products. Other aspects of their products are ignored. Overall product quality goes beyond specifications. Design, build quality and system integration are often ignored. This is played up by marketers and fan boys alike. A smartphone’s megapixel count becomes its ultimate trait. This is a completely distorted and useless way to evaluate a product, but it’s simple and easy to understand — more is better, bigger is better. People feel intelligent when they regurgitate technical specifications.

The Internet has poured gasoline onto the fire. Click-baiting bloggers can easily marshal an enumerated and biased list of superior features. The comment sections boil over with vitriol and rage over products that are about as different as Tweedledum and Tweedledee. It’s a nightmarish synergy of consumer culture, narcissism and remote, depersonalized misanthropy. It reminds me a bit of when I was a kid and we discussed the merits and detractions of video game consoles (Atari vs. Intellivision) and home computers. But we were never so angry or extreme, even though the products differed much more back then.

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Long before the rise of smartphones and personal computers, televisions were marketed based on specifications. TV makers like Sony, Panasonic and Zenith touted statistics in an effort to attract customers. TVs even had standout features permanently labelled on the set itself. Labels like Trinitron and Tau Flat Screen were meant to inspire consumer pride in selecting the right product.

As TV technology continues to evolve, resolution has improved dramatically. The HD revolution has brought high-definition video into our living rooms. 4K UHD offers even better resolution, but do we really need it?

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Remember when broadcast TV transitioned to digital? There was a huge rush to buy new televisions and adapters before the deadline. Although there were some delays, most analog broadcasts ceased on February 17, 2009.

4K UHD is still an emerging standard. The FCC is discussing the future of over-the-air support for 4K UHD and HDR (High Dynamic Range) digital broadcasts. Currently, there are no TVs sold in the U.S. that support ATSC 3.0, which is the emerging standard for over-the-air digital broadcasts.

4K UHD HDR Over-The-Air Broadcasts Coming Soon

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You may be happy with cable, satellite or a TV device, such as Chromecast, Roku or Amazon Fire TV. If that’s the case, an existing 4K TV is compatible with any device that supports the technology. You still might want to hold off on buying a 4K TV. The next generation of over-the-air digital broadcasts will offer better reception. This means you can get a solid picture, even if you are farther away from a broadcast transmitter. A lot of cord cutters use over-the-air broadcasts to get sports, news and local channels. This supplements content from TV devices and allows them to cancel expensive cable or satellite service. When ATSC 3.0 goes live, perhaps by 2018, cord-cutters may have access to even more over-the-air channels, but only if they have compatible TVs. It’s all the more reason to wait for 4K UHD TVs to support the new broadcasting standard.

The Human Eye Limits Detail Perception

The human eye is a remarkable organ, however, it’s not perfect. As humans, we tend to believe we are superior to other, lesser animals, but not when it comes to eye site. Most birds have much better eye site than humans, as they have evolved to spot prey from the sky. Birds that couldn’t see well didn’t survive long enough to reproduce. Humans have never had the same natural selection process.

This means that there is a limit to what the human eye can perceive. It’s why Apple created the Retina display. Unfortunately, the corporation became more marketing-driven, due to leadership changes, and they came up with something better — the Retina HD display. I guess it’s useful if you lend your iPhone to a bird. Other smartphone manufacturers offer screen resolutions that are similarly superfluous. The human eye simply cannot perceive this level of detail. It doesn’t matter how great your vision is, if you notice a difference, it is likely due to the placebo effect.

This applies to TVs even more, because we watch them from a distance and most people do not have obscenely large televisions. Given the limitations of the human eye, TV screen size and viewing distance, most people cannot tell the difference between HD and UHD.

Screen Size and Viewing Distance Matter

TV screen size matters a lot when comparing HD to UHD. There are some circumstances where UHD can really shine, especially on a large screen. That’s because as screen size increases, pixel density decreases. They are inversely proportional. If you plan on getting a very large TV (over 60″), UHD may be a great option.

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Distance is also part of the equation. Right now, you are probably reading this article on a screen. Bring the screen close to your eyes and you may be able to make out individual pixels. If you do this on a standard HD flat screen TV, you can definitely see individual pixels. Pixels are less apparent on a UHD TV, even up close. Do you sit a few feet away from your TV? Probably not. Unless you have unusual viewing habits, UHD is superfluous.

The best thing you can do is to go to the local appliance or big box store and look at the TVs. This is how I bought my first HD TV. It’s not all about marketed specs. Modern TVs are computers, and like computers, processing power is important. You will rarely learn details such as a flat screen TVs processing power or what operating system it runs (usually Linux). You can still gauge a TVs processing power by comparing it to other TVs in the showroom. Make sure they are playing the same program, so you can compare. Cheaper TVs will exhibit visual artifacts and motion trails. This is because they simply don’t have enough processing power to produce the best image.

I came to the conclusion that HD and UHD are not very different by looking at HD vs. UHD models. My local Costco store had an HD and UHD model, side by side, playing the same program in both formats. I was surprised that I just couldn’t see much of a difference, even close up on 60″ screens. That’s because the human eye can only perceive a finite level of detail. UHD has four times as many pixels as HD, yet you probably won’t notice much of a difference. See for yourself!

UHD Uses More Bandwidth, Processing Power and Electricity

What’s the harm in buying a UHD TV? They’re really inexpensive, and even if one can’t tell the difference, it is better. There’s no disputing the fact that, in terms of specifications, UHD trumps HD. It simply offers much greater resolution. But this comes at a cost. It takes more bandwidth, processing power and electricity to deliver UHD content.

If you have a UHD TV, you may notice that there’s not a lot of content. This is because most television programs were not produced using UHD cameras. It’s starting to change, but there still isn’t a wealth of programming produced in UHD. What does exist takes up a lot of bandwidth when streaming, which is the main delivery mechanism for UHD content. On Netflix, UHD content uses up 5 times as much bandwidth as HD. An HD Netflix stream requires 5 Mbps, while the UHD version needs 25 Mbps. That’s a lot of bandwidth, and not everyone has it. Even if you do, you can’t multitask. If one family member watches something in UHD, it will choke off bandwidth for the rest of the household.

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Netflix also charges more for a UHD subscription. After all, they have to stream 25 Mbps of data from their servers, for each UHD program. In general, UHD content costs more than HD, but most people can’t tell the difference.

Bandwidth isn’t the only resource hogged by UHD. The technology requires much more processing power, both in the TV appliance (streaming device) and television. Increases in processing power tend to use more energy. Even your WiFi router will be using more energy to steadily stream 25 Mbps of data for hours.

UHD is a resource hog. It gobbles up bandwidth and energy, to deliver an improvement in video quality that few will actually enjoy. At best, users may be dazzled by a placebo effect. If the specs are better, they may psychologically perceive better video quality. Unless you have a very large screen or are sitting close to your TV, you will not notice a difference.

Why You Should Buy a UHD TV Anyway

Reading this article, you may get the impression that buying a 4K UHD TV is foolish. The reality is, there are some good reasons to buy a 4K UHD TV. For one, they’re inexpensive. You can buy a decent 55″ UHD TV for less than $700. They have really come down in price. In fact, most home appliance stores have more UHD TVs on display than HD ones.

Although HD TVs are much cheaper than their UHD counterparts, there’s a good reason to spend a little more money. UHD will eventually be the new standard for television. This will probably take several years, but UHD content is become much more available. In time, it will be the new standard. Buying a UHD TV now will help “future proof” your purchase, ensuring that it will be compatible with the next standard.

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Most of the new TV appliances, such as Roku, Chromecast and Amazon Fire TV, support 4K resolution. Unfortunately, Apple TV still does not support UHD. I can’t be too critical of this deficiency. After all, there isn’t a lot of UHD content. The processing power would also slow down the overall performance of the TV appliance, at least while 4K video is being played. Furthermore, most households don’t have 25 Mbps of bandwidth to spare. I recently got upgraded to just under 30 Mbps. If everyone in your household is watching UHD programming, you’ll need a really fast Internet connection, which simply isn’t available in many regions.

In theory, Apple could enable UHD on Apple TV 4 through a software update. They may also defer this upgrade to a later model. I personally don’t care. I still have an HD TV. UHD hasn’t impressed me to the point of replacing my television. I’ll keep the one I have until it is no longer useful. If, however, you are in the market for a new TV, it’s probably a good idea to go for UHD. You can watch HD content on a UHD TV, but most importantly, you’ll be ready for when UHD becomes a standard.

We already have 8K TVs on the market now. This is where it all starts to get a bit silly. The difference between HD and UHD is barely perceptible. Going up to 8K resolution is idiotic. Most people are not going to have a 120″ screen in their living room, and watch it from one foot away. It all goes to show how ridiculous this is.

The compelling evolution in technology is HDR — high dynamic range. This technology dramatically improves contrast and color reproduction. This is far more meaningful and perceptible than resolution, but maybe not as marketable. My hope is that the industry stops focusing on how many pixels they can cram onto a screen. Instead, the pixel’s quality and dynamic range should be the new frontier of TV technology. 8K? No way!


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