Sometimes doing the research into buying a TV can feel more like math homework than preparing for a major purchase. You’re immediately bombarded with terms like 4K, 1080p, 720p — what are those letters and numbers supposed to mean? Don’t worry, it turns out that this is a lot easier to figure out than it may seem at first.
Start here, with our guide to screen resolution, before you begin to consider what size TV is best or whether you’ll need a soundbar. We’ll help you understand the difference between 720p, 1080p, and 4K, and teach you how these numbers matter within the context of your living room. Let’s get started.
Pixels are the building block for every display you’ve ever seen. They’re tiny little dots that, together, make up the picture you see on a screen. You can only see these pixels if you’re fairly close to the screen, of course; from a distance, thousands of them blend together to make the image on your screen. When we reference a resolution — 720p, for example — it refers to the rows and columns of pixels inside a display.
A 720p television has 1,280 columns and 720 rows of pixels, hence “720p.” Multiply the two numbers for a total of 921,600 pixels. This is the minimum resolution that can be called “high definition,” or HD.
Often, 1080p is referred to as “Full HD.” In a 1080p television, there are 1,920 columns multiplied by 1,080 rows for a total of 2,073,600 pixels — more than twice as many pixels as you’ll find in a 720p display. For several years now, 1080p has been the industry standard for high-definition displays, and most content (that is, television broadcasts, shows, movies, and video games) is produced and distributed in 1080p.
4K “Ultra HD”
The next level of HD is 4K — often called “Ultra HD” or UHD. Technically, the name is a bit of a misnomer, because there are only 3,840 columns and 2,160 rows of pixels (so shouldn’t it be 2160p?). That’s a total of 8,294,400 pixels, which is four times as many pixels as a Full HD 1080p display and nine times as many pixels as a 720p display.
For a long time, 4K televisions hovered on the edge of the market, too expensive for most viewers to buy (which meant creating 4K content wasn’t a worthwhile investment for studios). That’s changed in the last few years, though, as UHD TVs have become affordable for even cost-conscious consumers. As a result, 4K content is sprouting up left and right, along with set-top streaming devices and Blu-ray players that support UHD.
So what does all this mean? What’s the point of upgrading from your beloved CRT TV to a sparkling, 65-inch UHD display? Well, first of all, it just looks better — a lot better. Lines will be sharper, curves will be smoother, and the level of detail will be far greater. With a higher-esolution screen, you can sit closer without seeing the pixels (you don’t want to see the pixels).
Should you be concerned about buying a pricey 4K television, only to find that it’s outdated quickly? No — at least, not yet. They say 8K is on the way, but it’s insanely expensive for now, and the human eye can only perceive so much detail, which means the difference between 4K and 8K won’t be as visually drastic as the difference between 1080p and 4K (the same effect is happening with video game graphics).
With that in mind, you can rest assured that 4K will hold up as the standard for years to come, and feel confident investing in a higher-resolution TV. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, take a look at our list of the best TVs available right now. Happy shopping!