YouTube 4K Vs 1080p


YouTube 4K Vs 1080p

In what might seem like something of a contradiction, 1080p has, for a few years now, been considered both the bare minimum and the peak of quality for YouTube videos. Brought about mainly by the plummeting costs of hardware capable of recording in 1080p, it is generally considered inexcusable to upload a video at a lower resolution.

But at the same time, so few people are viewing YouTube at a higher resolution than 1080p that it becomes impractical to move to something more.

But something more is on the table, of course. 4K video has arrived, and its popularity is growing. But how does 4K compare to our old friend, 1080p? And what does it mean for the future of YouTube?

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What is Resolution?

Let’s start with a crash course in the basics. Both 1080p and 4K are resolutions. Resolution—in the context of displays, such as your phone screen, or computer monitor—is the number of pixels that screen can fit. A pixel is a tiny dot of light that represents the smallest thing that can be drawn on the screen.

The larger the resolution, the more detail you can fit on your screen. Think of it in terms of trying to create a picture using a fine pencil vs using a broad paintbrush, but both are on the same size canvas. You can get considerably more detail into your picture with a fine-tipped pencil.

1080p, also known as “Full HD”, has been the standard resolution for monitors and televisions for a number of years now, and we’ve come to expect it as a minimum. Many people who mostly grew up around 1080p are shocked the first time they see 480p—the resolution that televisions used to display.

4K, so-called because it has nearly 4,000 horizontal pixels (it also has exactly 4x the number of pixels as 1080p, but that is just a coincidence), is next standard that television manufacturers are hanging their hat on.

There are resolutions in between the two—2K is a thing, for example—but it is 4K that has been picked to succeed 1080p as the standard.

What is the Difference Between 1080p and 4K

Let’s start with the resolution since we’ve just explained what that is. 1080p is 1920×1080. That’s 1920 pixels across and 1080 pixels down, and it is the 1080 pixels down that gives this resolution its name. The “p” stands for “progressive scan”, which means all the horizontal lines of the pixels are drawn in sequence.

This an alternative to interlaced video, where every other line is drawn first followed by the remaining lines to give the impression of a higher framerate. Smaller resolutions are also labelled this way, with 720p and 480p being the main two resolutions below 1080p that you will find in televisions.

Let’s just briefly touch on aspect ratios. This is the relative size of the horizontal edge of the display vs the vertical. So for a 4:3 display, there will be four horizontal pixels for every three vertical pixels. This is relevant because it is possible to have a 1080p display that is considerably wider than 1920 pixels across. For the purposes of this post, however, we’re going to be referring to 16:9 aspect ratios unless otherwise stated, as that is the most common ratio found in televisions and monitors. Now, about 4K.

4K, on the other hand, is 3840×2160. If you’re wondering why it is not labelled 2160p, it’s purely a market thing. “4K” sounds cooler. There is a commonly used resolution (in PC monitors, not televisions) in between 1080p and 4K, which goes by both 1440p and 2K, depending on the mood of the person talking about it.

The numbers tend not to look too impressive when laid out as horizontal and vertical counts, but when you total up the number of pixels on screen, the difference is a little more apparent. A 1080p screen holds 2,073,600 pixels. That’s a lot of pixels. However, a 4K display holds 8,294,400 pixels.

That’s quite a difference.

In terms of direct differences, that’s about the start and end of it. However, there are further differences that come as a natural result of that difference in resolution. For one thing, the bandwidth needed to stream 4K content is considerably higher than that of 1080p, something that is particularly relevant when we’re talking about YouTube 4K Vs 1080p. The amount scales as you’d expect. Where 1080p requires somewhere between 8-12 Mbps to stream, 4K requires 40-70 Mbps. This is particularly important for the next section.

Another difference due to the increased size of the video is the computing power it takes to edit 4K content. Video editing is an intensive process at the best of times, and making that video 4x bigger requires a capable machine.

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4K Compression

Compression is a complicated topic that would take a post the size of this one all of its own and probably still not do the subject matter justice.

To simplify it down to something we can fit in one section, it involves replacing repetitive information with more efficient ways of storing that information. For example, if the top row of pixels in a 4K picture is entirely black, that’s 3,840 pixels-worth of information, but each pixel is identical.

Rather than storing every single pixel, a compression algorithm might store data for the first of those pixels that include the colour, but then it would state how many pixels it repeats for. Using a simple method like this, the nearly 3,840 bytes-worth (1 byte per pixel) of information required for that top row of pixels could be reduced to something more like 24 bytes.

That’s 160x less memory being used to store the same amount of information!

Of course, when we’re talking about video footage, it’s not that common to get large areas of identical pixels, and as a result, the compression algorithms are far more complex than the example we just gave. Still, it helps to illustrate what is going on. But why is this relevant to YouTube?

Well, YouTube is in the bandwidth game, big time. In 2019, 500 hours of video were being uploaded to YouTube every minute, with over 250 million hours of video being watched every day. When you are dealing with that much bandwidth, even a tiny improvement in your compression algorithms can represent millions of dollars.

So, here’s the kicker. As you might have guessed from the woefully inadequate explanation of compression above, the busier a picture is, the less it can be compressed. In fact, if you had a frame of 4K video where every pixel was a different colour, it would be impossible to compress it without losing information. Now, 4K captures a lot of detail, and for the most part, a lot of that detail goes unnoticed. YouTube knows this, and so they tweak their compression algorithms to be a little more… keen.

If there is only a relatively small difference between two pixels, such as you might get from film grain, then it won’t make a noticeable difference to the video, but it could save an extra megabyte of bandwidth per frame. When you consider that a typical video will have at least 24 frames per second—with some videos being as high as 60 frames per second—you can see why YouTube might be willing to sacrifice a little of that detail.

Should I Upload 4K to YouTube?

Size Matters… With Your Screen

There is a thing called “pixel density” which refers to the number of pixels in a physical area and is measured in “pixels per inch”, or PPI. To understand what this represents in practice, imagine an iPad-like device with a 1080p resolution. Now consider a standard 21″ computer monitor with the same resolution.

Both devices are displaying the exact same number of pixels, but one of them is packing those pixels into a much smaller space. The higher the PPI, the more pixels there are crammed in, and the clearer the image looks.

There is a point, however, where pixel density becomes so great that the human eye is no longer capable of discerning the increased detail. This translates to a little over 300ppi. What that means, in practical terms, is that once you get above that threshold, there is no benefit to increasing it further, as our eyes literally cannot tell the difference.

As we’ve established, 4K has around 4x the number of pixels that 1080p has. This means that the critical pixel density we mentioned, where the human eye stops being able to tell the difference, is on a screen size of around 13″ for 4K, but is down to 6.5″ for 1080p.

What does this mean for YouTubers? Well, mobile phones—which often have screens between five and six inches—are the most popular way to consume YouTube content. That means that the majority of YouTube videos are watched on devices where there is no benefit to being in 4K since the viewer can’t tell the difference visually. Furthermore, only a tiny portion of computers running a 4K resolution are currently active on the Internet, meaning that of the people looking at a big enough screen to do 4K justice, the vast majority of them are not using a screen capable of displaying 4K content at all.

Recording 1080p Vs Recording 4K

What about recording video? By now, 1080p is ubiquitous in the sense that it is difficult to buy a device that doesn’t support 1080p.

Even budget webcams offer 1080p, and phones have long since moved beyond that barrier. 4K, on the other hand, may require you to buy a specific device (though you might already have one capable of recording in 4K).

It also requires more effort in setting up your recording space, more time spent encoding and uploading, and more power in your computer to edit that enormous video file.

YouTube 4K Vs 1080p

When you factor everything in, 4K begins to look like a lot of extra work for not much reward. Still, when comparing it to 1080p, there is little argument to be made against it in terms of quality.

While our eyes may have maxed out when it comes to mobile phone screens, computer monitors and TVs still have plenty of room to expand, and it is here where 4K YouTube content will make the most difference.

We can’t, in all seriousness, recommend that you take any difficult steps to move to 4K at this moment in time, but there will come a time when it is a necessary move. And, given that YouTube automatically scales video down to suit the device, there’s no downside to uploading 4K content if you can.

But if you can’t, and if you’re not thrilled about the idea of investing more time and money in your channel at this stage, don’t worry about it. 1080p will do just fine for now.

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Maybe you are a youtuber and you want to know if uploading in 4K vs 1080p is better for YouTube? I have a deep dive into this and youll be surpised how much impact it could have on your views.

Finally, there is the issue of streaming. Internet speeds may be increasing all the time, but many homes don’t have a fast enough connection to stream 4K content, and certainly not at higher frame rates.

For reference, here are the different standard resolutions broken down.

Resolution Up to 30FPS Up to 60FPS
2160p (4k) 3840×2160 35-45 Mbps 53-68 Mbps
1440p (2k) 2560×1440 16 Mbps 24 Mbps
1080p (Full HD) 1920×1080 8 Mbps 12 Mbps
720p (Std HD) 1280×720 5 Mbps 7.5 Mbps
480p (DVD) 720×480 4 Mbps 4 Mbps


4K represents something of an inevitability for YouTubers. Even if the majority of viewers didn’t care, PC gaming and television sales are bringing 4K displays into the mainstream, and once people have 4K, they typically want to use it.

Whether this represents any kind of significant opportunity to find new subscribers through providing that 4K content at a time when there isn’t much of it will remain to be seen. But it is undoubtedly something of a unique feather for your cap.

As for switching to 4K, there’s no rush. If moving to 4K for you would be a frictionless affair, it is certainly worth doing. As mentioned above, YouTube will scale your videos down when needed, so the only reason not to go to 4K is the added costs and inconvenience to you. If those inconveniences don’t worry you, make the switch. You’ll be giving your channel a certain amount of prestige while also future-proofing your content for such a time when 4K does become the standard resolution. When this happens, you will not only be providing 4K content for your viewers, you will be established as a channel which provides 4K content.

And, when you’re all set up and producing stunning 4K content for your YouTube channel, you can begin planning for the next big thing—8K


By Alan Spicer - YouTube Certified Expert

UK Based - YouTube Certified Expert Alan Spicer is a YouTube and Social Media consultant with over 15 years of knowledge within web design, community building, content creation and YouTube channel building.

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