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Understanding TV Resolutions – Do You Need a 1080p or 4K TV?

Understanding TV Resolution - Do You Need a 1080p or 4K HDTV? - 4K made from TV screens

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We've all heard about a 1080p TV resolution, and now we have 4K and 8K resolution TVs. But, what does it all mean, and how important is it when buying a new TV?

The TV resolution is one of the things that you will often see quoted when you are looking to buy a new television.

But, you won’t always see it called this. You will just see terms like ‘1080p Full HD’ and ‘4K Ultra HD’ thrown about.

But with little explanation as to what they mean and why they are important.

So are they important?

Let us take a look and find out so that you can easily decide which is the best TV resolution to buy.

What Is the Native Resolution of Your TV?

All flat-screen TVs have a native resolution, including LED, OLED, plasma and LCD televisions.

It is defined as the physical size of the screen – measured by the number of pixels.

Every flat-screen TV is made up of a grid of tiny pixels – and each pixel can be independently switched on and set to a different color.

This is how the TV image is created.

In theory, the more pixels there are, the better the picture will be – as we will see more detail.

However, as we will see later, it isn’t quite as simple as that in reality.

Now, you don’t see each pixel at work as they are too small to see from a distance, but if you go up very close to your TV screen, you will see how the image is built from this grid of tiny colored dots.

When you walk away from the screen, these small dots merge into one, and all you see is one big image.

This is one of the essential concepts to understand about TV screen resolutions.

The further away you are from the screen, the less detail your eyes will see. More on this later.

So:

  • The native resolution of a flat screen TV screen is a fixed number.
  • It is defined by the physical number of pixels the screen has.
  • As a general rule, the more pixels a screen has (higher resolution), then the sharper and more detailed the picture will be.

High-Definition TV Screens

The most common native resolution for a high-definition TV screen is 1920 x 1080.

This will have a grid of 1,920 pixels across the screen (width) and 1,080 pixels down the screen (height).

In total, this means it has 2,073,600 individual pixels – which is the result of multiplying 1,920 by 1,080.

1920 x 1080 HDTV Resolution
1920 x 1080 HDTV Resolution

A TV screen with this number of pixels is often referred to as 1080p.

This means that it has a 1920 x 1080 grid of pixels – and that it can display a progressive scan image.

A 1920 x 1080 native resolution screen will often be referred to as ‘Full HD.’ However, there are also ‘HD Ready’ screens that will have lower native resolutions.

The shape of the pixels can be round, square or rectangle, and because of this, ‘HD ready’ screens can have different resolutions like 1280 x 720, 1366 x 768 or 1024 x 768.

These are all high-definition screens!

1280 x 720 Image Resolution
1280 x 720 Image Resolution

You will often see these TVs referred to by these various terms such as 1080p Full HD, HD ready, or HD ready 1080p rather than the pixel numbers.

These terms can be vague, so it can be better to double-check the actual number of pixels if this is important to you.

Ultra HD Resolution TV Screens

In recent years there has been a progression to even higher resolution screens. Welcome to the world of Ultra HD!

Ultra HD TV screens can be either 4K or 8K resolutions.

Now, you may see an Ultra HD resolution screen described in a fantastic array of ‘marketing’ terms.

You will see references to 4K, 8K, Ultra High Definition, Ultra HD 4K/8K, SUHD and many more.

However, they all refer to the same increased resolution of new flat-screen TVs.

If you find all the features of new TVs confusing, don’t forget to check out my buying guide to the best OLED and LED TVs in 2021.

3840 x 2160 4K Ultra HD TV Resolution
3840 x 2160 4K Ultra HD TV Resolution

4K Ultra HD televisions have a native resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels – which is 4 times the resolution of a Full HD screen.

A total of 8,294,400 pixels, to be precise.

7680 x 4320 8K Ultra HD TV Resolution Diagram
7680 x 4320 8K Ultra HD TV Resolution

8K Ultra HD televisions have a native resolution of 7680 x 4320 pixels. This is 4 times the resolution of a 4K UHD screen.

A total of 33,177,600 pixels.

What Is the Image Resolution?

The image resolution is the number of pixels in the picture that is being sent to the television.

If you want to understand the importance of your TV screen’s resolution, you should know that the image resolution is not the same thing as the native resolution of the TV.

Unlike the native resolution – which is fixed – the image resolution can be different depending on how it is recorded and transmitted.

TV and video image resolutions can be broadly split into three main categories:

  • Standard Definition
  • High-Definition
  • Ultra High-Definition

1. Standard Definition Video Images

A standard definition TV transmission used to be the most common type of TV picture, although it has been widely replaced by high-definition transmissions.

However, you will still have these video formats on DVDs and old video recordings.

Depending on where you are in the world, an SD picture will have a visible resolution of either 480i or 576i.

Therefore, a 4:3 480i image is 640 pixels wide and 480 pixels high.

A total of 307,200 pixels.

The ‘i’ at the end means that this transmission has an interlaced image, and this was a method introduced to cut down the amount of bandwidth required to transmit an image.

However, it also compromises the quality of the picture.

Standard definition DVDs in NTSC regions have a similar 480 lines of vertical resolution (576 lines in PAL regions) – but are transmitted with progressive scan, so this resolution is known as 480p.

NOTE

People ask a common question before they buy a new high-definition TV: Can they still watch things that aren’t in high-definition? The answer is – of course you can!

You can connect any type of playback device to your TV, and it will show it. Any images that aren’t actually in high-definition will just look slightly ‘softer’ and lack the sharpness you get with an HD image.

The non-HD image will have always looked this way – it is just your new big-screen high-resolution TV that will highlight the low image resolution, and you will just notice it more.

2. High-Definition Video Images

One of the best quality high-definition resolution images is known as 1080p, and this is common for Blu-ray players and some streaming services.

This image will be recorded with 1920 horizontal pixels and 1080 vertical pixels of information.

The result is over two million pixels of resolution, which means it will be much sharper and clearer than the 480i image – which only has 307,200 pixels of information.

The ‘p’ means that the image is also recorded using progressive scan, which results in better image quality than with interlaced scan.

Even though we now have even higher resolution content, true 1080p images are still not that common. They can still only be transmitted by a relatively small number of sources:

  • Blu-ray players
  • Game consoles – Sony Playstation, Xbox, Wii U/Switch
  • Streaming services – Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube

Therefore, even if you buy a 1080p resolution TV, many of the sources of television that you will be watching will not be transmitting a full 1080p image.

So, you won’t get the best out of your screen unless you are watching Blu-ray, gaming or streaming from certain online providers.

There are three types of high-definition images:

  • 1080p – 1920 x 1080 pixels and progressive scan
  • 1080i – 1920 x 1080 pixels and interlaced scan
  • 720p – 1280 x 720 pixels and progressive scan

These are all regarded as high-definition image resolutions, and they will all look fantastic on your HD flat panel TV – even though they have different amounts of pixel information.

Due to the bandwidth required, many high-definition TV transmissions are restricted to either 1080i or 720p.

3. 4K UHD Video Images

Ultra high-definition 4K resolution images are known as 2160p.

A 4K image will be recorded using progressive scan and have a minimum resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels – so 8.3 million pixels with a 16:9 aspect ratio.

However, 4K video is still somewhat limited at present.

The Ultra HD Blu-ray specification allows Blu-ray technology to provide full 4K video on your Ultra HD 4K TV.

This is the best way to experience a high-quality 4K video.

A few Ultra HD Blu-ray players are now on the market, like the Sony UBP-X700 4K UHD Blu-ray Player pictured below.

Sony UBP-X700 4K Blu-ray Player
Sony UBP-X700 4K Blu-ray Player
Image Credit: Sony

Other than that, we are limited to a few streaming services with some 4K content – Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube and Vimeo.

However, these won’t be able to provide the consistent high-bitrate video quality of a Blu-ray disc, although it can still look pretty good.

In August 2015, BT Sport in the UK launched a 4K channel showing their Premier League and European football matches in Ultra HD.

So, while there are now some cable TV channels transmitting in 4K, they are still relatively rare.

How Important Is the Resolution of My HDTV?

Great, now that you understand the difference between the resolution of your TV and the resolution of the video displayed on it, we can answer this question.

The simple answer is that the native resolution of a particular HD screen isn’t that important in many cases.

Why?

In short, because to see the best quality image on your TV, the transmitted image resolution should be the same as the native resolution of your TV.

And, much of the time, it won’t be.

Also, you will need to sit relatively close to the TV to appreciate the increased resolution.

The factors that make a difference in how good your TV picture looks in your room are:

  • the size of the screen
  • the distance you sit from the screen
  • the resolution of your source images
  • the quality of the TVs processing
  • the contrast ratio and color accuracy of the picture

To get the full benefit from a 1080p or 4K native resolution screen, you need to be watching a true 1080p or 4K source.

And even then, you still need to be sitting relatively close to the screen, or you need to have a giant screen.

Or both!

Image and Native Resolution

Just remember that most of the images you watch on your 1080p screen will not be transmitted in 1080p, so they will have to be processed by the TV to display correctly.

Similarly, you may have a 4K TV, but most of the images you watch will not currently be transmitted in Ultra HD.

When the image resolution is different from the native resolution of your TV, your television will scale the image to fit the screen.

This scaling is performed better by some TVs than others – and this will affect the quality of the picture you see.

If you have a 1080p screen, only Blu-ray players, Playstation/Xbox games and some streaming services send an actual 1080p image.

So, only these sources will benefit the most from a 1080p screen because there is no scaling or processing required.

The story is the same for 4K UHD TVs.

Because there are limited sources of 4K content, you may find that other factors are more important than the screen resolution.

The contrast ratio and color accuracy are widely accepted as more important to picture quality than purely higher resolutions.

This is why OLED TVs such as the LG CX 4K OLED TV pictured here are so well received as they have the best contrast ratios available today.

LG CX 4K OLED TV
LG CX 4K OLED TV
Image Credit: LG

Many terrestrial, cable and satellite HDTV transmissions either come in 1080i or 720p formats.

So, to display them on the screen, the TV will either have to de-interlace for 1080i – or upscale for 720p.

Either way, both of these processes can affect the quality of the image you see, and how good these sources look on your 1080p TV are dependent on:

  1. the quality of the transmission
  2. the quality of processing in the TV

Much more than the native resolution of the TV.

Similarly, a standard definition image with 480 lines would have to be upscaled to either 720 lines or 1080 lines depending on the native resolution of your screen.

The TV effectively adds extra information to the low-resolution images to display on the bigger screen.

Therefore, because this image starts with a relatively poor resolution, you will not gain anything by having a higher resolution 1080p screen.

An upscaled DVD will look pretty good on any HD screen, regardless of the native resolution of the TV, but just not as good as a true HD source.

Distance from the Screen

The fact is that most people’s eyes won’t be able to tell the difference between a 720p and a 1080p image from more than about 6 or 7 feet. The same goes for 1080p and 4K.

A rough rule of thumb is that if you are further away than 1.5 times the diagonal screen size, you will struggle to tell the difference between the various HD resolutions.

So, unless you plan on sitting five or six feet away from the screen – or you have a huge TV – then your eyes just won’t be able to appreciate the extra resolution between different high-definition images on a 720p or 1080p screen.

Or, a 4K Ultra HD screen, for that matter.

The article on TV viewing distance covers this in more detail.

Conclusion

You can now see why the native resolution of a TV can make a difference. But, it is not something that should be your biggest concern when choosing which TV to buy.

The TV resolution can affect the picture quality, but this also depends on several other things.

Because a TV has to handle a few different image resolutions, the quality of the internal processing can be as important as the native resolution of the screen.

And, as most people will find it hard to tell the difference between different resolutions of HD material, you shouldn’t get too hung up on the number of pixels of the screen you buy.

It is widely understood that the contrast ratio and color accuracy of the TV are more important to picture quality than the native resolution of the screen.

And, there are also other factors to take into account, such as:

  • the distance you will be sitting from the screen
  • how big the screen is
  • how good your eyes are!

As newer television models are released, more and more of them are either 1920 x 1080 (HD) or 3840 x 2160 (UHD) resolutions as standard.

So, there are fewer choices to be made in this area than there used to be.

However, if you do have a choice to make, a 1080p or 4K resolution TV won’t necessarily give you a better image than one with a slightly lower native resolution.

So, don’t think you have to pay extra money just to get the ‘best.’

Frequently Asked Questions

If you want to know more about the resolution of TVs, check out the answers in this FAQ.

What Is the Resolution of a TV?

A TV’s resolution is the physical size of the screen – measured by the number of pixels. Every TV screen is lit by thousands of tiny pixels that create the picture you see, and each TV resolution has a different number of pixels. For example, a 4K resolution TV has 3840 x 2160 pixels – a total of 8,294,400 pixels.

How to Change My TV’s Screen Resolution?

You can’t change the resolution of your TV. The TV’s native resolution is the number of pixels that make up the screen area, which is fixed. However, you might be able to change the resolution of the video that is displayed on your TV. To do this, go to the video output settings of the device connected to your TV and see if you can change the output resolution.

How to Tell the Resolution of My TV Display?

The easiest way is to check the manual that came with your TV. This will list the TV’s specifications, including the native resolution. If you don’t have the manual, look for the TV’s model number on the television’s rear and search the internet for the manufacturer’s sales page. You may also find the TV has a system information page in the settings menu that displays the TV’s specifications.

What Is a Good Resolution for a TV?

Most modern TVs have a resolution of 4K – which is 3840 x 2160 pixels. This will give you an excellent level of detail. In fact, for most people, older HDTVs with lower resolutions like 720p and 1080p will still provide an awesome picture.

What Is a Normal TV Resolution?

The standard resolution of current TVs is 4K. There are still plenty of lower resolution 1080p TVs around, although only budget models will have this resolution if you buy a new television.

What Is a 4K Resolution TV?

A 4K resolution TV has a screen width of 3840 pixels and a height of 2160 pixels, and this is commonly displayed as 3840 x 2160.

What Is an 8K Resolution TV?

An 8K resolution TV has a screen width of 7680 pixels and a height of 4320 pixels, and this is commonly displayed as 7680 x 4320.

Can You Still Get 1080p TVs?

Yes, you can still buy 1080p TVs, although new TVs with this resolution will be cheaper models.

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TV Resolution: Do You Need a 1080p or 4K TV?

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About Home Cinema Guide

Paul started the Home Cinema Guide to help less-experienced users get the most out of today's audio-visual technology. He has worked as a sound, lighting and audio-visual engineer for around 20 years. At home, he has spent more time than is probably healthy installing, configuring, testing, de-rigging, fixing, tweaking, re-installing again (and sometimes using) various pieces of hi-fi and home cinema equipment.

I link to products I like. If you buy from a link marked with * in this post, I may get a commission: about ads