4K Upscale vs Native 4K: What’s the Difference?

1080p vs. 4k — what's better?

4K Upscale vs Native 4K: What’s the Difference?

Key Points:
  • One distinction between a 4K upscale vs native 4K is the content’s true resolution. A 4K upscale is actually far less than 4K quality, while something in native 4K is and always has been 4K resolution.
  • Many movies and television shows released on 4K UHD disc are not true 4K, but rather high-quality 4K upscales.
  • Films shot entirely on 70mm IMAX film are equivalent to an estimated resolution of 18K.

Whether buying a 4K UHD TV or playing the latest games on your PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X, screen resolution is something you can’t run away from. 4K upscale vs native 4K. What’s the big deal, right? Both obviously describe something in 4K quality, so what does it matter if they differ in wording? As it turns out, 4K upscaling and native 4K are two ways of achieving the same result. The same movie, video game, or TV could look quite different as a 4K upscale vs native 4K.

But just how different are they? We’ll begin with a side-by-side comparison of 4K upscale vs native 4K, effectively outlining the differences in specs between the two. From there, we’ll lay out the key differences between the two in-depth. Thirdly, we’ll examine the history of 4K and weigh the pros and cons of these two forms of 4K. By the end, you’ll have a much better understanding of what distinguishes a 4K upscale vs native 4K.

Side by Side Comparison: 4K Upscale vs Native 4K

4K UpscaleNative 4K
True Resolution1920 x 10803840 x 2160
Displayed Resolution3840 x 21603840 x 2160
Number of Original Pixels2 million or more8 million or more
Number of Interpolated Pixels6 million or moreNone

4K Upscale vs Native 4K: Key Differences

8k 4k ultra high quad full HD TV monitor high resolution

A 4K

Ultra HD screen

has half the display resolution of an 8K screen.

©Ron Dale/Shutterstock.com

Let’s take a closer look at what sets apart a 4K upscale from native 4K.

True Resolution

One of the biggest distinctions between a 4K upscale vs native 4K is the content’s true resolution. A 4K upscale is actually far less than 4K quality, while something in native 4K is and always has been 4K resolution. In other words, the true resolution of 4K upscale is actually 1080p HD, while native 4K resolution is inherently 4K through and through. This becomes all the clearer when you use the “2160p” terminology to refer to 4K. With this, you can see that 4K is much higher than 1080p (a.k.a. 2K).

Number of Original Pixels

A 4K television has four times the number of pixels of an HD television. When you do the math, the original number of pixels in a 4K upscale will be around two million while a native 4K quality, eight million pixels. That’s a difference of around six million pixels, quite a drastic leap.

Number of Interpolated Pixels

While we will go more in-depth on interpolation below, it’s nevertheless important to know the difference in number of interpolated pixels between a 4K upscale vs native 4K. The former needs around six million interpolated pixels to display properly on a 4K TV, while the latter needs none at all. It’s already in 4K, so it needs to make no changes in order to display properly on a 4K TV.

4K Upscale vs Native 4K: 5 Must-Know Facts

  • 1080p HD refers to pixel height while 4K UHD is actually referencing pixel width. Comparatively, you could use “2160p” to describe 4K UHD.
  • Many movies and television shows released on 4K UHD disc are not true 4K, but rather high-quality 4K upscales.
  • Movies shot on film are upgradable to native 4K because of the sheer quality of celluloid film compared to digital HD cameras. It’s estimated that 35mm film — one of the most commonly used when shooting on celluloid — is equivalent to approximately 5400 x 3600 pixels (or 6K).
  • Films shot entirely on 70mm IMAX film are equivalent to an estimated resolution of 18K.
  • Unlike movies shot on film, movies shot in 2K cannot be made native 4K because the total number of pixels is set in concrete. Any movie shot on 2K digital — from Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) to something as recent as Uncharted (2022) — must be upscaled to be 4K.

The History of 4K

4k home theater projector
4K is a type of ultra high definition widely used in smart TVs like the one pictured.


“4K” is a more generic one than it is specific. In other words, 4K defines no particular resolution. The term actually encompasses a variety of different resolutions, all with a horizontal pixel count of around 4,000.  Since 4K’s popularization in the mid ’10s, different 4K resolutions have been standardized.

Unlike with 1080p HD, the terms “4K” and “UHD” are used far more frequently than the corresponding vertical pixel count of 2160p. With this in mind, it’s easier to see that 4K UHD is twice the quality of 1080p HD.

The first 4K standard, DCI’s 2005 publication “Digital Cinema System Specification,” defined the 4K resolution as 4096 x 2160. Two years later, SMPTE argued 3840 x 2160 was better for televisions. Considering the vague terminology around 4K, it makes sense that the television and film industry have varying standards for their respective 4K resolutions. With TV and consumer electronics, 4K UHD (or 3840 x 2160) is the predominant standard for 4K. In the film and projection industries, DCI 4K (or 4096 x 2160) is the unspoken standard.

Even though 4K resolution was standardized in the mid-2000s, it took almost a decade for 4K to catch on. While you’re upgrading your home media setup to 4K, tech companies are already planning how to make 8K more accessible and affordable. Still, some have not taken the time to upgrade all their HD media to 4K UHD. The creation of 4K upscaling eliminates the need to upgrade media while also keeping that media from looking bad on a 4K TV.

4K Upscaling Explained

A 4K upscale vs native 4K resolution might seem identical when seen side by side. But this doesn’t mean they’re identical. Both take up 3840 x 2160 pixels and utilize the full television screen. TV and screen manufacturers achieve a 4K upscale through any of the three ways of image interpolation: nearest neighbor, bilinear, and bicubic.

Nearest-neighbor interpolation is the most commonly used of the three, and the easiest one too. It involves digitally attaching a grid of white pixels to a 1080p image or video blown up to 4K size. Then, an algorithm determines what colors should fill the white spaces between the images’ original colors. To accomplish this, the algorithm looks at the closest four colors surrounding the pixel and determines the most appropriate. (For instance: the algorithm will turn a white pixel red if the surrounding space is predominantly the color red.)

Comparatively, bilinear interpolation borrows from the two neighboring pixels on either side of a blank space to generate the appropriate pixel. With the bicubic technique, the algorithm examines the 16 nearest pixels and makes its estimate based on that. Bicubic 4K upscaling has been described as looking especially soft and smooth than nearest-neighbor or bilinear interpolation. While a 4K upscale is undoubtedly lower in true quality than native 4K, a 4K upscale is unquestionably superior to its native 1080p origin.

Pros and Cons of 4K Upscale vs Native 4K

4K Upscale

Helps make 1080p HD content look good on a 4K TVOver six million of the pixels on-screen are artificially inserted
Improves quality with intelligent algorithms1/4 the number of native pixels compared to native 4K
Eliminates the need for a person to physically upgrade 1080p HD content to 4KDifferent upscale methods have different end results, with some looking better than others

Native 4K

Truly 4K quality without the need for interpolated pixelsAnything shot on 2K digital cannot be made native 4K
Looks better on a 4K TVUpgrading your movies and TV shows to native 4K can cost a good deal of money
Four times the number of native pixels than a 4K upscaleAn inevitable 8K upgrade is in our future

4K Upscale vs Native 4K: Which Is Better?

So, 4K upscale vs native 4K. Which resolution is actually superior? We now know what sets the two apart. One includes around six million interpolated pixels to bring it up to 4K quality, while the other was already 4K quality. We also know a 4K upscale and native 4K can achieve the same result.

Conclusively, native 4K is much better than a 4K upscale based on principle alone. Simply judging by sight alone, however, it might be harder to tell. 4K upscales are so popular, because they actually look good. As a matter of fact, you have probably even complimented the quality of a 4K upscale before without knowing it wasn’t native 4K. Only a keen eagle-eyed viewer will truly be able to tell what is or isn’t native 4K. Still, a winner is a winner, and that distinction belongs to native 4K quality.

Up Next…

Frequently Asked Questions

Is a 4K upscale the same as native 4K?

Native 4K has a resolution of 3840 x 2160 or more, while a 4K upscale has a true, pre-upscale resolution of around 1920 x 1080.

What's better, a 4K upscale or native 4K?

While you probably won’t notice a difference unless you’re aware one exists, a 4K upscale is ultimately inferior to native 4K.

How many pixels does a 4K display have?

A 4K television equates to around 3840 x 2160 pixels.

Are 2K and 2160p the same thing?

Despite their confusing terminology, 2K and 2160p are not the same. 2K describes 1080p, while 2160p describes 4K.

Is a 4K upscale worse than something in native 4K?

At the end of the day, both a 4K upscale and a native 4K quality are displaying media in 4K. For that reason, neither one is necessarily bad.

What's going to come after 4K?

8K will come after 4K.  Consumers are yet to fully embrace 4K. So, a true 8K embrace is likely several years away or more.

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