Affiliate links on Android Authority may earn us a commission. Learn more.
4K vs 1080p: Which resolution is right for you?
Upgrading to a new TV is always exciting, but potentially daunting given so many sizes, manufacturers, and specifications to choose from. Beyond that, most modern TVs are equipped with some sort of smart platform, such as Roku or Google TV. Today we want to focus on a specific issue, the choice of 4K vs 1080p when it comes to resolution.
What is 1080p?
In simple terms, 1080p indicates a display with 1,080 vertical pixels. This is matched by 1,920 horizontal pixels, and multiplied together, you get a little over 2 million pixels in total. The “p” in 1080p doesn’t stand for pixels, however. Instead it indicates progressive scanning, meaning that an entire image is transmitted at once instead of through a series of interlaced scans. A 1080i (interlaced) spec technically exists, but it’s visually inferior and no one really markets it anymore.
What is 4K?
4K steps resolution up to 3,840 horizontal pixels multiplied by 2,160 vertical pixels, reaching a total just under 8.3 million. As you may have gathered, the “K” in 4K isn’t a technical reference like the p in 1080p ― rather, it just refers to thousands. Specifically it relates to the (nearly) 4,000 horizontal pixels.
4K vs 1080p: The biggest differences
Some of the differences in 4K vs 1080p are obvious, but others might surprise you, and it’s worth breaking things down to better understand.
Detail and sharpness
This is the main benefit. With nearly four times as many pixels, you can see significantly more detail on a 4K TV, and video should appear sharper overall. You do need a large screen to notice this difference, though — generally something 50 inches or more, preferably over 60.
Colors and contrast
Extra pixels allow 4K TVs to achieve more dynamic colors and contrast than 1080p sets, including deeper shadows. Technologies like OLED and HDR have a greater impact on this overall, but resolution does matter. The point is almost moot, since it’s hard enough to find a 1080p set with HDR, never mind OLED.
For now, 1080p TVs still have the edge in terms of content. Sure, plenty of movies, games, and TV shows are now in 4K, but not everything has made the leap yet — so even if you have a 4K TV, you may end up watching a lot of upscaled 1080p. The latest PCs and consoles sometimes have trouble sustaining 4K if they’re running high-end 3D graphics.
Availability and cost
The manufacturing costs of 4K panels have dropped significantly in recent years, and the savings are being passed down, inflation and supply chain issues notwithstanding. An excellent 4K TV can run as low as $300 from manufacturers like TCL, while still having a platform like Roku, Fire TV, or Google TV built-in. 1080p sets are even cheaper, but tend not to be produced much in sizes over 40 inches.
Why choose 1080p?
Above all, 1080p sets are incredibly affordable, as we mentioned a moment ago. You can buy a TV, a game console, and even a few games for less than what some high-end 4K TVs will cost you.
There’s a fair bit of overlap between 1080p and 4K features, too. You’ll have access to most of the same smart TV apps, and you can plug your favorite streaming and audio devices into either kind of set.
If you almost exclusively watch livestreams or broadcast TV, there’s not much point to 4K, since the majority of what you’re seeing will be in 1080p or even smaller resolutions. If you specifically want a TV measuring 40 inches or less, 4K probably won’t be an option unless you turn to a high-end gaming monitor.
Why choose 4K?
4K content is increasingly standard. While most services still offer 1080p (or lower) for mobile and legacy viewers, the push is underway to make everything available in 4K, even YouTube videos. PCs and consoles like the PS5 and Xbox Series X are equipped for the resolution, as are dedicated media streamers like the Chromecast with Google TV.
4K content is increasingly standard.
TV makers tend to save their most advanced features for 4K sets, such as HDR and Dolby Atmos sound. The assumption is that anyone buying a 1080p TV at this point is probably budget-minded, so adding features to them is only going to hurt sales or profit margins.
The price gap between 4K and 1080p is narrowing regardless, and if you’re willing to spend, better 4K sets can blow 1080p TVs out of the water. It’s only 8K sets that are ridiculously overpriced, since there’s very little native content to watch.
4K vs 1080p: Decision time
Having gone through the differences and arguments for both standards, it’s time to decide where to put your money down.
As a rule, people with a budget over $300 shouldn’t even think twice about 4K, since you get better visuals and access to the latest features. Even rich shoppers may be better off buying a 4K OLED set and waiting for 8K support to improve, given how scarce content is at the moment. Most shoppers can choose LED or Mini-LED over OLED to keep prices in check.
If budget is a serious concern, you can feel comfortable sticking with 1080p for the next few years. Heck, even if you’re rolling in cash, 1080p TVs remain a great choice for bedrooms, gyms, and kitchens, since you’re probably after a small screen in the first place. Cinephiles can always make their way to the living room.
If you’re after a 4K TV, check out our flagship smart TV guide.