What is 4K? Your guide to the technology, products, content and where ultra HD is going

by on April 23, 2015

Stephan Jukic – April 23, 2015

4K technology has become more popular than ever before and now, for the first time, it’s genuinely entering the mainstream of major resolution formats.

For most people in the general public, 4K is at least something they’ve heard of and in many cases is also a level of resolution they’re intimately familiar with, usually because of 4K TVs but also often because of 4K PC monitors, cameras and even 4K projectors. Since 4K, or ultra HD as it’s also called, is found in all of these technologies and others, fans of each are quickly becoming more aware of it.

However, if you’re a complete newcomer to 4K ultra HD, or 4K UHD and UHD, as it’s also called, then this post is the perfect overview for quickly and easily catching up. In a moment we’re going to cover exactly what 4K really means, what technologies it’s used in, where you can find video content in 4K resolution and where 4K ultra HD as a whole is headed.

What exactly is 4K ultra HD and what do all the different names for it mean?

Right off the bat we need to clarify that while 4K is definitely ultra HD, ultra HD doesn’t necessarily have to be 4K. If this seems confusing, then this section is going to clear up all your doubts in a second.

Ultra HD is a catch-all term that usually describes the resolution known as 4K, which can range in pixel dimensions from 3840 x 2160 all the way to 4,300+ x 2160. However, Ultra HD itself can also cover any resolution scope that goes significantly above the now well-known Full HD resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels.

Thus, while 4K involves resolutions around 4000 x 2000 pixels, there also exists (still in a highly experimental stage) 8K resolution technology that is also called ultra HD but which involves enormous dimensions of 7680 x 4320 or even more pixels. Furthermore, there are slightly smaller resolutions of 6K, 6.5K and even less-than 4K resolutions of 2K or 3K which can all be considered “ultra HD”.

However, all of these other resolutions that go beyond 4K are very uncommon or still highly experimental and the vast majority of ultra HD TVs, PC monitors, cameras and UHD display devices on the market offer a 4K resolution of either 3840 x 2160 pixels or the slightly less common “Cinema Grade” 4K resolution of 4096 x 2160 pixels.

When you buy a 4K TV, projector, PC monitor or 4K video camera of any kind, it’s almost certainly going to come in one of those two last resolution dimensions.

Basically, 4K resolution is HD taken to extremes because it offers slightly more than 4 times the pixels of normal Full HD. So instead of the slightly more than 2 million pixels found on a 1080p Full HD screen, your average 4K TV will give you between roughly 8,200,000 pixels and nearly 9 million pixels depending on whether it’s a 4K ultra HD screen (3840 x 2160) or a “Cinema Grade 4K screen at 4096 x 2160 pixels.

So which devices and technologies use 4K?

4K is being developed in more and more technologies than ever before. While some of the first 4K video specs ever were found in high end digital cameras from even as far back as a few years ago, 4K video resolution is now becoming common in many digital camcorders, DSLR cameras, action cameras and even cell phone cameras. Basically, virtually every digital video shooting camera type in the world now has its 4K ultra HD versions and some professional video production cameras are now even coming out with 6.5K and even 8K video shooting capacities.

4K cameras like this Blackmagic 4K studio camera are becoming dominant in film production

4K cameras like this Blackmagic 4K studio camera are becoming dominant in film production

We mention cameras first because they’re the first and most crucial piece in the chain of other display technologies which involve 4K UHD resolution. They increasingly capture the professional or amateur digital content which is now being delivered by content providers and studios to 4K TVs, and 4K theater projectors all over the world.

Thus, 4K resolution is also being found on more and more of the latest TVs from many of the major manfucaturers and this is a trend that’s definitely here to stay. Some of the biggest brands, like Samsung, Sony or LG are now even dedicating their TV manufacturing to 4K to such a degree that virtually all of their new higher end models come with the resolution as an essential feature. This will only expand.

Naturally, placing 4K in display technologies has evolved still further and now you can find UHD pixel counts in many new top-shelf PC monitors, laptops and even in tablet screens.

Soon (probably within the next year) smartphones with 4K displays will also be coming out to the consumer market.

Naturally, we should also mention that if 4K TVs are a big thing, then projectors and especially professional movie theater projectors are definitely starting to become increasingly oriented towards ultra HD resolution and this is becoming noticeable in many theaters all over the world.

Finally, we’re also starting to see the application of 4K video recording and display in even more exotic applications such as surveillance cameras and digital signage display screens for commercial advertising. 4K resolution is steadily becoming more widespread even in these areas.

What about the 4K content?

If you have 4K TVs, 4K projectors and 4K cameras lying around, then naturally somebody is going to start creating 4K content for people to watch right? Well yes but also not quite as quickly as many of us would hope.

There is a large and constantly growing selection of movies, TV shows, documentaries and amateur videos which are indeed being increasingly shot and delivered to audiences in 4K resolution, either directly to homes or to movie theaters all over the world with 4K projection technology.

Interestingly, the majority of this professional entertainment content is being developed with particular zeal by online streaming content producers like Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video, both of which make their own shows and even movies now and then offer them via their streaming services to subscribers who own a 4K TV and also happen to have the 20 or more Mbps of internet connectivity necessary for streaming the heavier data-loads of 4K smoothly.

However, broadcast studios and Hollywood film studios are also getting aboard the bandwagon, although with some hesitation. We’re now more often seeing major Hollywood films being filmed with professional 4K digital production cameras and then released in a reduced Full HD or 2K resolution or released in 4K but only to select audiences. This is changing though and a greater percentage of studio movies are by default at least being filmed in full 4K resolution for eventual release to the public in UHD, as it becomes more popular.

Netflix is a major source of 4K streaming content and one of the biggest creators of new 4K UHD movies and shows

Netflix is a major source of 4K streaming content and one of the biggest creators of new 4K UHD movies and shows

Then there are also YouTube and Vimeo. Both of these two dominant online video streaming and sharing websites not only allow users to upload their home movies in 4K resolution, they also now both stream them in 4K too. Since so many people now own 4K video cameras (in some cases because of the default video resolution in their cell phone cameras), they’re naturally filming more and more ultra HD content and sharing it where they can.

For the most complete list on the web of all available 4K ultra HD content sources, you should actually also check out this page, which goes into details about each kind of 4K content and where it can be found.

What does 4K mean for the future?

Without any shadow of a doubt, 4K ultra HD is here to stay as the next gold standard for display resolution. Basically, 2160p ultra HD (4K in particular) is now taking the same spot that 1080p Full HD took over several years ago when it arrived to displace the 720p HD resolution which was the best consumer standard of the 90’s.

We’re not only seeing the entire spread of products and technologies which use 4K UHD expand, we’re also seeing sales of these products grow almost exponentially while professional and consumer recognition of 4K technology and its needs becomes much more widespread.

Eventually, 4K will likely be replaced by even greater resolutions like 8K but for at least the next 5 to 10 years, it will turn into the absolute worldwide de facto standard for top-shelf resolution in video and display settings.

Story by 4k.com

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