Nearly a decade after 4K UHD first emerged as the new best in television resolution standards, there’s still some confusion about the difference between 2160p and 4K. The two resolutions are often seen interchangeably, with one used in place of the other seemingly at whim. This isn’t proper, however.
The truth is that 2160p and 4K mean two completely different things. They aren’t far off from one another, to be sure, but 2160p vs. 4K are nevertheless distinct. Let’s take a look at the two resolutions side by side to determine the differences between the two.
2160p vs. 4K: Side-by-Side Comparison
|Also Known As||4K UHD||DCI 4K|
|Resolution||3840 x 2160 pixels||4096 x 2160 pixels|
|Aspect Ratio||1.77:1; 16:9||1.90:1; 2.39:1; 1.85:1|
2160p vs. 4K: What’s the Difference?
When comparing 2160p vs. 4K, there are three key differences to consider. These are the three primary things that distinguish the two, meaning that you need to understand these key factors if you want to understand what sets the resolutions apart.
From their true resolutions to their primary uses to their overall pixel counts, here’s what sets 2160p vs. 4K apart. As you’ll soon see, this debate is about a lot more than just a difference in name.
Firstly, overall resolution. 2160p and 4K might sound like they’d come out to be the same, but their resolutions actually vary ever so slightly. 2160p is short for 3840 x 2160 pixels. (That’s 3,840 pixels across and 2,160 pixels high.) This gives you an aspect ratio of 1.77:1, or 16:9.
4K, by comparison, is short for 4096 x 2160 pixels. (That’s 4,096 pixels across and 2,160 pixels high.) Aspect ratios can range from 1.90:1 to 2.39:1 to 1.85:1, depending on how the image is cropped. Though both have the same number of pixels across, 4K’s resolution is slightly larger than 2160p’s.
Secondly, we have differing primary uses for 2160p vs. 4K. These different resolutions naturally give way to different purposes for the two. 2160p — sometimes seen referred to as 4K UHD — is primarily used in television displays and other consumer electronics displays such as laptops and smartphones.
4K, by comparison, is better suited for projectors and other projection displays. Sometimes distinguished by the label DCI 4K, true 4K (and its larger resolution) is the ideal resolution for a movie theater projector or other similar projection technologies.
Lastly, there’s a difference in pixel count between 2160p and 4K. This is only natural, as we’ve seen above that the two have slightly different resolutions. 2160p televisions and consumer electronics displays have a pixel count of 8,294,400.
4K projections, comparatively, have an overall pixel count of 8,847,360. This puts 2160p TVs at an overall pixel count of over 550,000 less than DCI 4K projections. Even when cropped to 1.85∶1, this 4K projection still has a higher resolution; it’s 8,631,360 pixels compared to 2160p’s 8,631,360.
5 Must-Know Facts About Screen Resolution
- While a number of today’s top-quality computer displays boast higher resolutions than your average television, the early days of the home computer required users to plug into their television for their display. This meant that home computer resolutions in the 1970s and 1980s varied in size depending on the person’s television.
- In the 1980s and 1990s, television displays and computer monitors were far more square than a film projection you’d see at a movie theater. This made it much easier to distinguish between resolutions: the 4:3 and 5:4 aspect ratios were used for televisions and computer monitors, whereas films were projected at 1.85:1, 2.39:1, or 1.33:1.
- The advent and subsequent popularization of HD in the 2000s led to a shift away from 4:3 and 5:4 aspect ratios and resulted in a widespread embrace of wider screen sizes. Across the board, 1.85:1 and 2.39:1 became much more standard in television, projections, and computer monitors alike. These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find any sort of consumer technology still clinging to a 4:3 or 5:4 aspect ratio.
- Though 4320p is associated with 8K, 2160p is associated with 4K, and 1080p is associated with 2K, there is no such thing as 1K. This would be a pixel resolution of 768, which is far smaller than anything you’re likely to encounter in a screen resolution from modern display technology today.
- One screen resolution not yet mentioned? 5K. Wider than 4K but not quite taller, this 5K screen resolution is used almost exclusively for desktop monitors and desktop monitors alone. It’s not likely we’ll ever see this used for televisions or film projections — it’s best suited for those ultra-wide monitors and desktop setups you’d expect from computer aficionados.
The History of 2160p
2160p — commonly known as 4K UHD today — did not enter the field of consumer electronics until 2003. This was the year of the Dalsa Origin, the world’s very first digital camera capable of 2160p cinematography.
Though the industry was still working primarily with 35mm film stock at the time — and would continue to choose film over digital until 2013, when digital film first surpassed film stock in Hollywood productions — the Dalsa Origin was, nevertheless, the first time a person could actually shoot video at a 2160p resolution.
Researchers and developers from all over the world — primarily at institutions for higher education like Keio University, the University of California, CALIT2, the University of San Diego, and others — immediately went to work on standardizing this new, ultra-high-definition resolution.
It would take another seven years for this resolution to be recognized by internet video streamers. YouTube was the first to embrace the resolution, implementing support for 2160p uploads and streams to its interface in 2010.
Netflix hopped on the 2160p bandwagon in 2014 with the production and release of its first batch of Netflix Originals and other recently acquired content. This included House of Cards, various nature documentaries, Breaking Bad, and others.
With Netflix’s embrace of 2160p, the rest of the industry hurried to catch up. Amazon Prime Video wasn’t far behind, embracing the resolution for its original productions and its streaming video alike by the end of 2014. 4K UHD Blu-rays and players began popping up in 2016, and pro versions of the PS4 and Xbox One implemented 2160p the following year.
How 4K Compares
Surprisingly enough, the 4096p resolution — which, as we now know, is equivalent to DCI 4K — dates all the way back to 1984. Nearly 40 years ago, tech giant Hitachi debuted their latest CMOS graphics processor: the ARTC HD63484.
The processor supported display resolutions all the way up to 4096 x 4096 in monochrome mode, which was an unprecedented move at the time. As we now know, it would be nearly 20 years before a film camera supported the resolution and another 10 before the most popular streamers began supporting it, too.
2011 marked the first year that the world’s most pre-eminent theater chains began projecting films in DCI 4K. However, Sony had been manufacturing professional-grade DCI 4K projectors since 2004 at the earliest. (Just one year after the advent of 2160p digital video cameras hit shelves.)
Sony was also the first to develop consumer-grade DCI 4K home theater projectors, though these did not become commercially available until 2012. Alas, not many productions were shooting at digital 2160p at this point in history — film was still preferred over digital at the time.
Nevertheless, DCI 4K projectors were still embraced and implemented in movie theaters the world over. That’s because the resolution of a digitized 35mm film projection came out to be around 4K. More than a decade after DCI 4K hit the home and the movie theater, consumers now have the option to purchase both DCI 4K projectors and 4K UHD projectors.
As we’ve seen above, the difference is slight but nonetheless apparent: a DCI 4K projector will give you a display resolution of 4096 x 2160 pixels, while a 4K UHD projector will give you a display resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels.
2160p vs. 4K: Pros and Cons
|Pros of 2160p||Cons of 2160p|
|Widely embraced by the tech industry today||Falls short of the resolution of 4K|
|Looks much better than 1080p||Not sharp enough to be projected in DCI 4K|
|Pros of 4K||Cons of 4K|
|Higher resolution than 2160p||Not all 2160p displays are true 4K|
|Superior picture quality than 2K||Faces the threat of 8K implementation|
2160p vs. 4K: Which One Is Better Quality?
So, if you were to place a 2160p video next to a DCI 4K projection, which one would look better? Based on all we’ve gone over thus far, it’s clear that the former would be slightly lower quality than the latter.
It’s not enough to be all that noticeable to the naked eye — if it’s even noticeable at all — but it nevertheless deserves to be said. 4K is the superior quality to 2160p, even if it’s only ever so slightly superior. Ultimately, it’s a difference of about 550,000 pixels in all — and that’s not an insignificant number by any means.
2160p vs. 4K: Are These the Highest Resolution TVs Available?
When it comes to 2160p vs. 4K, there isn’t any viable competition. These two screen resolutions are the highest on the market with one exception: 8K TV. An 8K television screen is 7,680 pixels across by 4,320 pixels high, for a grand total of 33 million pixels. In theory, this means that an 8K TV’s resolution is four times higher than a 4K TV’s. While logic may dictate that the image on an 8K TV will be four times better than a 4K, the difference won’t be very noticeable unless you’re viewing a screen that’s considerably larger than most homes can accommodate. Also, it’s important to note that as of 2023 there is virtually no content available for 8K TVs, though YouTube and Vimeo do offer some. And, finally, because 8K technology is so new, it is extremely expensive and only available from a few manufacturers.