The world of consumer electronics is a big, wide one. Across the board — from our smartphones to our televisions to our laptops to our gaming consoles and everything in between — there are a great number of different figures and terms used to define picture quality. Naturally, there’s bound to be some overlap. This is especially true in 1080p vs. 2K. What’s the real difference between these two terms that are so often used interchangeably? What sets them apart, and which one of the two is the superior screen resolution? Let’s compare and contrast the two below.
1080p vs. 2K: Side-By-Side Comparison
|Also Known As||Full HD, 2K||DCI 2K, QXGA|
|Resolution||1920 x 1080||2048 x 1080|
|Megapixels||2.1 MP||2.2 MP|
5 Must-Know Facts About Screen Resolution
- High definition can be defined as any resolution between 720p and 1080p. These two are visually distinct, but nevertheless, fall under the same picture quality standard. What’s more, both 720p and 1080p are above “standard definition,” or SD. This is defined as a resolution between 360p and 480p.
- “Resolution” is a term used to define how many pixels are in a screen display. The higher the resolutions — i.e. the higher the definitions — the better the overall picture quality. These days, you can find resolutions as high as 8K or as low as 480p. Older devices have even lower resolutions, with some coming in at 360p or less.
- In the late 2010s and early 2020s, a new picture quality standard has been popularized: that of UHD, or “ultra high definition.” UHD resolutions start at 2160p and stretch as high as 4320p or beyond. (That’s 8K!) Today, all resolutions from SD to UHD coexist in harmony. In the future, however, SD will likely be phased out in favor of HD, UHD, and other, higher resolutions beyond these.
- Streaming services such as Netflix or HBO Max allow users to stream in HD or UHD (depending on their display and their subscription). Broadcast television has not yet embraced UHD or even true HD. Most broadcast in 1080i over 1080p, which is slightly lower in overall quality than true HD. (The naked eye is nevertheless tricked into thinking they look more or less the same.)
- While you might assume resolutions will continue to increase ad nauseam, the truth is that the human eye can’t really tell the difference after 8K or 16K. There are limits to the number of pixels we can actually distinguish, making anything beyond 16K pretty pointless.
1080p vs. 2K: Key Differences
Now that we’ve outlined the ways in which 1080p vs. 2K differ on a technical level, let’s go over some of the more nuanced distinctions between the two. How do 1080p vs. 2K compare in terms of the number of pixels? What about the picture quality? Or the amount of data necessary to display one over the other? Let’s break down these key differences below, starting with pixel count.
Number of Pixels
Firstly, there’s the difference in the number of pixels between 1080p vs. 2K. Looking at the numbers and the numbers alone, 1080p pales in comparison to 2K. The 2K resolution contains 128 more pixels across than the 1080p resolution. With that being said, the two tend to have the exact same number of pixels vertically. Regardless, 2K has the greater number of pixels than 1080p. 128 might not sound like much, but when you consider 1,080 vertical lines, the difference in pixels between the two far exceeds 200,000.
Quality of Picture
Secondly, there’s a difference in the quality of the picture when comparing 1080p vs. 2K. The difference might be slight, sure, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth mentioning. As with the number of pixels, 1080p again pales in comparison to 2K. It’s such a slight difference on the surface, but it’s actually a very significant one when you do the math. Both are high quality, to be sure, but it really complicates things when 1080p and 2K are used interchangeably. Calling both 2K suggests the quality of the picture is the same when that’s just not true. 2K looks slightly better.
Most Popular Uses
Thirdly, we have the most popular uses of 1080p vs. 2K. All in all, you’re most likely to encounter 1080p resolutions in streaming, video games, online videos, and Blu-ray discs. Additionally, many HD televisions and smartphone screens boast an HD screen resolution. Alternatively, you’re most likely to encounter 2K resolutions in the film industry and at the movie theater. As we will soon learn below, 2K originated when converting films shot on celluloid into a digital format. This makes it much more popular in the film industry over 1080p.
Amount of Data
Lastly, there’s the amount of data required for a 1080p vs. 2K display. This is probably not something on the mind of the average viewer, but it’s actually very important. The more data something requires to display, the more energy (and, as a result, the more expenses) will be required for streamers and broadcasters to display it. With this in mind, 1080p needs less data than 2K in order to be broadcasted or streamed. While 2K has the advantage in terms of pixel count and picture quality, 1080p has a real leg up here.
The History of 1080p
While we think of it as a completely modern invention, the concept of high definition has been explored by researchers and developers for nearly a hundred years. First appearing in scientific experiments as early as the 1930s, it seems that picture quality has been an important subject for a lot longer than the flatscreen televisions or smartphone touchscreens, or the video game consoles we associate high definition with today. However, what exactly constitutes “high definition” has changed significantly over the years.
By the turn of the 21st century, 720p was the latest and greatest picture quality standard on the market. A step up from the standard definitions of years past — 360p or 480p, depending on the device or the year — this new 720p resolution was the first step toward the definition of HD as we know it today. As 2010 approached, there emerged a successor to 720p. That successor? 1080p. 1,920 pixels horizontally and 1,080 pixels vertically, this 1080p resolution remains synonymous with “high definition” or “HD.”
Now, 1080p is not the same as 2K or 1080i. Even though you often see the three terms used interchangeably, 1080p and 2K, and 1080i are three completely distinct screen resolutions. We’ve already touched on some of the factors that set 2K apart from 1080p (and will continue to do so below), so let’s focus on 1080i. While technically consisting of 1,920 pixels by 1,080 pixels, 1080i is interlaced. That means there’s a line of empty space between every other horizontal row. Many broadcast networks utilize 1080i as a way to reduce data and energy use.
How 2K Compares
As previously mentioned, 2K and 1080p are often used interchangeably. This has been especially true in the wake of 4K’s debut. Currently, the highest picture quality currently offered on the market (apart from 8K, which certainly exists but is yet to catch on in any meaningful way), 4K is defined by 3,840 pixels horizontally and 2,160 pixels vertically for a grand total of more than eight million pixels. Clearly, 3,840 is not quite four thousand — yet it carries the “4K” name regardless. For this reason, it’s easy to see why 1,920 pixels would be associated with “2K.” Alas, 1080p and 2K are nevertheless distinct.
By its unique definition, a resolution of 2K merits 2,048 pixels horizontally and 1,080 pixels vertically. While just 128 more pixels from side to side and exactly the same number of pixels up and down as 1080p, 2K still remains visually distinct from the rival resolution. Recalling the earlier points made in the key differences section, 2K is a resolution reserved mainly for theatrical exhibitions, whereas 1080p is primarily found in display technologies such as phones, televisions, tablets, laptops, and the like.
2K first came about in the world of cinematography. When a 35mm film print is digitally scanned, its resolution comes out to be around 2,048 pixels across and 1,556 pixels vertically. Then, during the editing phase, the aspect ratio is changed to fit into one of the typical standards (such as 1.90:1, 1.85:1, 2.39:1, 1.33:1, and so on). It was Digital Cinema Initiatives (a.k.a. DCI) and their Digital Cinema System Specification standards — first established in 2005 — that defined 2K as we know it today: 2048 x 1080.
1080p vs. 2K: Pros and Cons
|Pros of 1080p||Cons of 1080p|
|More pixels than standard definition||Requires more data and energy than 1080i|
|Superior picture quality to 720p||Resolution is not as high as 2K|
|Pros of 2K||Cons of 2K|
|Greater number of pixels over 1080p||Not as clearly defined as 1080p|
|Superior picture quality to 1080p||Not as high quality as 4K|
1080p vs. 2K: Which Resolution Is Best?
Despite their differences, there’s no doubt that 1080p and 2K will continue to be used interchangeably for as long as the quality standard exists. In the grand scheme of things — especially compared to resolutions such as 360p or 480p — the two are close enough that it doesn’t cause any major issues to confuse the two. Both quality standards look great on a big screen, and both are still high definition. However, when comparing the true resolutions of 1080p vs. 2K, 1080p is the lower quality and 2K is the higher quality.