Tips and Tricks: How to Tell If You’re Watching 4K Content

Woman watches tv with 4k ultra hd resolution.
If you have a 4K TV but aren’t impressed with the image quality, you may not be watching 4K content. Here’s how to see if you’re watching in 4K.

The latest in at-home entertainment is 4K content, which is consistently hyped up across all forms of media. It’s driving consumers to buy new TVs and pay for increased internet speeds in order to stream it. Who wouldn’t want to watch content so crisp that you can see the blades of grass during a football game?

Unfortunately, many times people are disappointed when their viewing experience doesn’t really change with their new 4K setup. They may even doubt that they upgraded at all.

If this applies to you, don’t start reverting to your old setup just yet. The problem may just be that you’re not actually watching 4K content even though you have all the necessary components of a 4K system.

Read on to find out how to tell if you’re watching 4K content.

The 4K Screen

First, it’s important to understand what 4K actually is. As you may have guessed, 4K is short for 4,000. Some may think that this number refers to the height of the screen while others may believe it’s the length of the diagonal between two opposing corners of the screen. Others believe that 4K refers to the number of pixels that make up the screen.

In reality, none of these is true.

The 4K Standard

The standard resolution of a 4K screen is 3840 x 2160 for the digital television industry and 4096 x 2160 for the movie projection industry. As you can see, 4,000 is not the height, width, diagonal or number of pixels in the screen.

Why the Confusion?

The confusion surrounding the 4K designation exists because of the naming conventions used to describe 4K’s predecessors: 1080p and 720p, which have a 1920 x 1080 resolution and a 1280 x 720 resolution respectively.For both of these standards, the name refers to the height of the screen in pixels.

The diagonal size confusion comes from the ever-evolving mobile phone industry, in which screen sizes are measured from the top corner to the opposite bottom corner.

What Does 4K Stand For?

The term 4K refers to two aspects of the standard:

  1. The width of the 4K standard, which is approximately 4,000 pixels. Depending on the aspect ratio of the screen, it could be a little less or more.
  2. If you place four 1080p screens in a two-by-two formation, the resulting resolution is the 4K standard of 3840 x 2160. Here 4K refers to the screen being equal to four times the size of the 1080p screen.

So, in short, whenever someone mentions 4K videos or screens, it means that they’re roughly 4,000 pixels wide (or high if it’s a portrait orientation). This also means that a 4K TV has four times the number of pixels of an equal-sized 1080p TV.

Satisfied?

But you still find yourself puzzled.

The new display should be clearer, more vivid, more vibrant. You shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between your screen and that window opening towards the garden. However, the contrast is more than noticeable.

Why is there this discrepancy between what you see on the screen and what you expected to see when you bought your new TV?

You Aren’t Watching 4K Content

Sadly, upgrading your screen doesn’t automatically mean that all the content you’re watching on it is actually 4K.

To experience 4K content in all its glory, the content must have been recorded in 4K or converted to 4K after it was recorded. That should’ve been the norm by now, shouldn’t it? After all, the 4K standard was introduced more than a decade ago.

While this is true, unfortunately 4K has not yet become the norm for recording.

What you may not realize is despite the newfound popularity generated by Full HD and 4K screens as they became more economical for consumers, a lot of content has already been created for larger audiences, and a huge chunk of it is still being produced in lower resolution. This is to cater for the larger portion of the audience who are still using older screens.

This information leads us to two possible conclusions if you haven’t noticed a difference with your 4K TV: Either the content you’re watching isn’t 4K or the content is 4K, but your screen isn’t properly configured.

This is where it can get a bit tricky. How do you know which problem you’re facing?

The solution is simply to go through both cases step by step to understand your predicament.

Case 1: The Content Is Not 4K

Your digital TV allows you to get your content from several different sources. The most popular ones are: 

  1. Cable TV
  2. Memory devices
  3. Streaming
  4. Games

There can be many reasons why the content you’re playing from these sources may not be 4K. Let’s go through them one by one to find out what could be the reason.

1. Cable TV

First of all, let’s get this out of the way. Cable TV does not support 4K content.

If you source your content through cable TV, chances are that it may look different than before, but the transmitted content is not 4K. Most cable providers have not evolved to the point where they can support the bandwidth required to properly transmit 4K content. 4K files are significantly larger than files of a lower resolution.

The maximum resolution that cable providers provide is usually 1080p.

Your cable provider may have a fiber-optic connection, which has the ability to transmit 4K content. But even then, the source channel may not be broadcasting 4K content.

Some cable operators provide streaming services and the occasional option to download data. Let’s not confuse these options with their broadcasting programs. This streamable or downloadable content may be 4K.

2. Memory Devices

CDs or DVDs

If you’re playing the video from a CD or DVD and expecting better results, you’re going to be disappointed. CDs only hold around 750 MB of data. DVDs, on the other hand, have more space and can hold around 4.7 GB of data. The dual-sided ones can hold twice as much but still, this is not enough space to hold a 4K video.

A single minute of 4K video is approximately 375-380 MB. A dual-layer DVD may only hold around 10 minutes of 4K video.

Judging by this, you can simply discard the possibility of watching 4K content on a CD or DVD.

Blu-Ray Discs and Memory Sticks

On Blu-ray discs and memory sticks, the data storage limit is enough to hold a typical 4K video. You just have to make sure that the video on the disc or stick is in 4K resolution and that it’s optimized for 4K viewing.

Checking that the video is in 4K is easy. You can simply check the size of the file. Usually, a 4K movie is around 100 GB, depending on the run time and frame rate.

Looking at the file size is usually enough to determine if you’re watching 4K content or not. However, there may be a chance that you’re watching an old movie. If that’s the case, no matter the resolution you’re watching it in, if it’s not optimized for 4K, you won’t notice a difference.

Television screens on black background
Keep in mind that movies shot on old analog cameras had very high resolution even when compared to 4K standards.

Keep in mind that movies shot on old analog cameras had very high resolution even when compared to 4K standards. However, movies shot in the early days of digital cameras usually max out at 1080p. This is why there are a greater number of older movies re-released in 4K resolution compared to movies from the early 2000s.

There are a lot of websites that track of movies released in 4K. It’s better to check them out first before downloading their 4K version. Two good options are Blu-ray.com and DVDs ReleaseDates.

3. Streaming

With the rise of internet bandwidth, streaming services have gained unparalleled popularity in recent years.

All of the most popular streaming services, including Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, have their own libraries of 4K content. You may, however, have to upgrade your membership to be able to access it.

So, make sure that you have a 4K content subscription. Keep in mind the complex case of digital licenses, which cause the content selection to change regularly.

Keep a lookout for which movies and shows are available on the service before deciding to subscribe to it. HD Report is a good resource you can use to see what content is available on various streaming services.

Finally, you need a high-speed internet connection to stream 4K content properly. If you don’t have high-speed internet, you may be able to download 4K content, but you probably won’t be able to stream it.

It’s recommended that you have a 25Mbps or better connectionfor 4K video streaming. If your connection speed isn’t this high, then you’re probably not streaming a 4K video. You can check your connection speeds using sites like Speedtest.net or Fast.com

4. Games

Gaming is different than streaming services. There are more variables involved in having a 4K experience, especially if you’re using a computer.

The first thing to check is if the device you’re using to play the game has 4K capabilities. In the case of consoles, only the PS4 Pro, Xbox One S and Xbox One X support 4K gaming. If you’re not using these consoles, then you aren’t playing a 4K game.

If you’re using your computer to play a game, you need to see if it has the right components (GPU, CPU, etc.) to run a 4K game. Not all GPUs are built alike. You need to have a high-end graphics card to play 4K resolution games, along with the appropriate CPU, motherboard and memory.

The second thing you need to check is whether the game you’re playing supports 4K resolution. You can do this by going to the game developer’s website before buying the game. If you have it already, you can check it out in the in-game graphics settings.

So, make sure you have both the right device and the game which supports 4K resolution. To find games that support 4K you can check out the PC Gaming Wiki, IGN and Xbox.com.

Case 2: Problems with Your TV/Monitor Screen

Now you’ve gone through all the steps regarding the source of content and have marked your checklist accordingly. If you’ve gotten to this point, everything related to the content should seem alright.

It’s now time to check your screen to see if it’s the source of your problems.

1. Settings

Digital TVs come with a lot of settings. Go through the manual to see how you can access the settings for your particular model and play around with the options.

One thing you may want to turn off is motion smoothing. Tom Cruise guided the public on why we should do this and how to turn it off.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>I’m taking a quick break from filming to tell you the best way to watch Mission: Impossible Fallout (or any movie you love) at home. <a href=”https://t.co/oW2eTm1IUA”>pic.twitter.com/oW2eTm1IUA</a></p>&mdash; Tom Cruise (@TomCruise) <a href=”https://twitter.com/TomCruise/status/1070071781757616128?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>December 4, 2018</a></blockquote> <script async src=”https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset=”utf-8″></script>

That piece of guidance is one step to having the best movie-watching experience at home. There are also other settings besides motion smoothing that work best with different scenarios.

You can, at the very least, check that your TV’s HDR or 4K mode is turned on. Usually, it turns on automatically when the TV detects 4K content, but you may have to manually turn it on in some cases. Another thing you can try is to set the color mode to native if possible.

There are third party test discs you can use to properly set up your TV with different test patterns that help you fine-tune based on how they appear on the screen. You should try these if you still feel like your screen isn’t as good as it could be.

2. Cables

The cables you’re using to connect to your screen need to be at least HDMI 1.4 or newer. Older ones don’t support 4K data transfers. Usually, any HDMI cable is sufficient for 4K movies. However, if you’re playing a game on your console or PC, you need to know which version of HDMI you’re using.

HDMI 1.4 can transfer 4K content at 30 frames per second max. Furthermore, it only supports limited 8-bit colors which limit the 4K content’s color potential.

So, make sure you have the right cables for your screen so that there are no bottlenecks.

3. Size

If everything is fine, then take a look at the size of your screen. It may be that you’ve bought a big-screen TV. Maybe you had a 32-inch 1080p screen before and now you got yourself a bigger one in the 60-70-inch range.

Remember, 4K screens are twice as high and wide as a standard 1080p screen resolution. If you got yourself a screen that’s twice the size of your old one, it will have the same pixel size and density. 

You will have a hard time noticing any difference since you can see up close that the pixel sizes are the same. You’ll only be able to tell a difference if you’re far away from the screen.

It could also be that your new screen is smaller in size. In that case, you may be one of the many people who have a hard time properly guessing the native resolution of the video on the screen. The differences are almost negligible to the naked eye.

4. TV/Screen Quality

Buying a 4K screen doesn’t mean that you’ll get a better viewing experience. Having a higher resolution doesn’t necessarily translate to having better image quality.

4K videos follow the UHD standard, which is not only a standard for the size of the video frame but also its color, contrast and frequency, among other things.

Buying a cheap 4K screen marketed as an economical item means that you’re buying an item which may have left out other attributes of UHD in favor of the high resolution, compromising on quality.

This is why good quality 1080p screens sometimes appear better than cheap 4K screens.

4K television display with comparison of resolutions. Ultra HD on on modern TV
This is why good quality 1080p screens sometimes appear better than cheap 4K screens.

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The tips above will hopefully take care of your confusion regarding the content on your screen and how it is displayed.

However, the question remains: Can you actually see the difference with 4K content and a 4K screen?

The Ultimate Test

No amount of information about the content and configuration will make you satisfied with the better quality of 4K screens.

Even scientists are not sure whether the human eye can detect such tiny improvements in pixel size. Our eyes are not good at accurately measuring things, but they are good at guessing, with the help of different factors.

This means that although your eyes may not be able to detect the higher resolution of the 4K screen, they will definitely be able to feel the difference by comparing an HD and a 4K screen side by side, which is the ultimate test.

When you compare the two, you’ll notice that besides higher resolution, the 4K content has brighter colors and contrast levels along with smoother shots due to a higher frame rate. Small details such as tiny threads, hair, fabric, wood grain or the texture of a wall appear much clearer in 4K.

Most of us aren’t able to detect these small differences while observing either one of the screens by themselves. There are even YouTube videos debunking the myth that you can properly identify 4K content by simply viewing it.

This is why the newer direction of advancement in screens has taken a step towards color representation and dynamic range.

The future may still bring higher resolutions for the consumer market (8K is already here), but the struggle now is to appear closer to nature by displaying lights and shadows as accurately as possible.

The consumer opinion, then, will be more relative. But hopefully we will be there to share some tips to set up some common standards when the time is right.Until then, enjoy getting lost in the immersive world of 4K content.

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Tips and Tricks: How to Tell If You’re Watching 4K Content
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