Understanding TV Resolutions: 720p, 1080p, 2K, UHD, and 4K

When shopping for a TV, the resolution specs are what you see most often; and probably what interests you the most before you pull the trigger on your new purchase. However, these resolution specs can also often make you scratch your head in confusion. It’s easy enough to figure though, that the higher the resolution number is, the better the TV resolution will probably be. Yet, what do these resolution numbers even mean? And what about an Ultra HD TV? Where does it fit among the TV resolution hierarchy?

We’re going to analyze these resolution numbers and specs one by one, setting aside the confusion that is circling, and find out what they’re all about. However, before we begin reviewing these different resolutions, let us first go over what TV resolution even is.

What is TV resolution?

TV resolution is best described as the number of pixels that exist in each dimension, both height and width, of a TV display screen. Each pixel is simply a square that lights up on the TV display in producing a specific color. Thus, we can see that the more pixels that exist on the TV screen, the better the picture quality and resolution will be.

For example, when you walk into the electronics department of a store, you can easily spot the difference in picture quality among the different TV resolutions; especially on large screen TVs – where if you stand close enough, the pixels in the screen can be seen. Thus, the better the resolution is, the less pixels you can see on the screen; until you get very close to the TV screen.

screen display resolution comparison graphic with varying pixel count

Let us now dive into the various resolutions and see what they’re all about.

4K or Ultra HD

At the top of the TV market food chain, we have 4K resolution. The 4K TVs will set the bar for all other resolutions we will go over; since for most consumers, a 4K TV is top of the line.

For starters, 4K TVs go by two names: ‘4K’ and ‘Ultra HD’ (or also known as UHD TVs). Therefore, if you see a TV that is labelled as a ‘UHD’, you will know that the resolution is the same as a 4K TV. It’s important to know, however, that 4K has a different meaning when you’re referencing a TV in your house compared to a theater projector.

If you notice at the theater, movies are displayed with varying aspect ratios, which is the image display rectangle that you see on the screen. Now, technically, 4K means a horizontal resolution of 4,096 pixels. And, since with movies a vertical resolution is not specified because of the varying aspect ratios, a vertical pixel figure is never included in the resolution ratio. So that is why with projectors in theaters the resolution is known as Cinema 4K, and the pixel screen ratio is referenced as 4,096x(unspecified). Here we have a chart that goes over the details of resolutions we are and will be discussing.

TV screen and projector resolution display chart

Going further into the matter, Ultra HD TVs are not technically 4K resolution, as their resolution is 3,840×2,160. Yet, it’s simply easier to say 4K; and also sounds better to be quite honest – versus saying “Ultra HD” or “2,160p”. Plus, because the pixel difference is not too different, the image quality is very difficult to tell apart between Cinema 4K and Ultra HD. So it’s no big deal.

Note: we will later learn why we referenced 2,160p here and not 3,840p to describe the alternative actual classification name that should be used.

2K

You may have heard of 2K TVs. If not, it’s because this resolution classification is most always only used for cinema resolution, and that’s where the term “master format” was coined. Most theaters were all 2K resolution; thus, were 2,048 pixels wide and again a vertical resolution not specified because of the varying aspect ratios of movies.

With the increased popularity of 4K TVs and 4K media, 2K gained steam, and then became short for 1080p resolution, which is used by HDTVs and Blu-ray technology. Like 4K, 2K is not completely accurate with the resolution classification, but like 4K, the classification simply works.

1080p or Full HD

Before we go over 1080p TVs, it’s important to understand that TV resolutions are described by their vertical resolution, and not by their horizontal resolution like a cinema, which we already discussed. Thus,  when you see a 1080p TV, you will know that 1080p is a vertical resolution reference.

Next, 1080p TVs also are referenced as Full HD. With that said, most all HDTVs have an aspect ratio of 16×9, so that means that the horizonal ratio calculates out to be 1,920 pixels. So a 1080p TV has a pixel ratio of 1,920×1,080.

Because TV resolutions have been described by their vertical resolutions, and then recently 4K TVs threw us a curve ball because of their resolution being classified by their horizontal resolution, the matter became very confusing. So again,1080p would be 2K, but most people just call this TV “1080p” or “Full HD” as we now know it.

720p

720p TVs are older and have poorer resolution compared to the other options we have discussed thus far. Horizontally, there are 1,280 pixels, and vertically there are 720 pixels on the TV display screen. Again, TVs are classified by their vertical pixel count and not by their horizontal pixel count. So, if your content is being watched on a small screen, the display quality of a 720p TV, versus a 1080p TV, will not be significant. Yet, on a large screen TV, the difference will be noticeable.

Now, let us take a look at all of these TV resolution dimensions in pixels, and compare them together.

TV screen resolution size comparison in pixels

What to consider when making your TV choice

  • If you’re getting a large TV, over 50 inches, then consider a higher resolution TV or sit farther away from the TV screen. Otherwise, the pixels on the screen will become highly noticeable.
  • If you are nearsighted, then a 720p TV may work for you. But, when you’re farsighted, you will better be able to see the TV screen; so a high resolution TV would work best for you as you avoid watching a pixelated display. Looking at the below graph, we can see what TV resolutions are acceptable, meaning they won’t hurt your eyes, given a TV size and the distance you will be watching the TV from.

Optimal viewing distance versus TV size and resolution

Over to You

These days 1080p, or even 4K TVs, are affordable. But the choice in what to buy comes down to what you will be using your TV for, and how large of a TV you want to purchase. We now know that the larger the TV, the better resolution you will want it to have. Otherwise, the pixels on the screen will become more visible, and the picture quality will suffer as a result. A 4K TV has four times the number of pixels as a 1080p TV, and the difference in picture quality can be significant on a large screen TV. In addition, you need to consider what the format of the media content will be. Thus, see what works best for you and make the smartest choice.

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