These days the best televisions and spotlights to offer 4K resolution – image technology which brings together eight million pixels of detail on a single screen. In fact, most new televisions and projectors do. So it’s strange that, so far into the lifespan of 4K images, we had to wonder if some manufacturers aren’t too fast to leave lower resolutions behind.
It’s even stranger that we have to do it when still higher 8K resolutions enter the market, with 8K TVs coming from various corners (Samsung, LG, TCL) and changing the expectations for truly premium TVs.
It’s not that we want to cling to our HD devices, or hold back the tide of 4K content piling up on streaming services like Netflix, or 4K Blu-ray for blockbuster movies. 4K is great technology – it adds an incredible amount of detail compared to older and lower resolutions like SD and HD.
The problem is, sometimes 4K compatible hardware prioritizes 4K performance over SD and HD display.
We’ve seen it in a lot of devices over the past few years, but it’s still apparent in 2021, with TV brands pushing screens with 4K capabilities that look good with Ultra HD Marvel Movies, but struggle with a house box set from Black Books, a Gilmore Girls streaming session, or even modern shows on HD channels.
The problem with 4K
So why do TVs and projectors struggle with low resolution content? Shouldn’t it be easier?
Any television screen will have a certain number of pixels. If the video source or broadcast has the same number of pixels, it will overlap perfectly. If the video source has fewer pixels than the screen, the TV’s processor essentially needs to create visual data for the remaining pixels in a process called “upscaling”.
Full HD content requires around two million pixels, but a 4K TV has eight million. This means that a 4K TV needs a six million pixels that are not provided by the content source, the majority of the image being fabricated on the fly by image algorithms.
Watching normal HD content (just under a million pixels) or SD content (around 350,000) makes this problem even worse. SD video on a 4K TV only fills a tiny fraction of the screen’s pixel count, so it needs a lot of work from the TV’s processor to look good.
Proper scaling is crucial for a 4K TV, and it’s very noticeable when manufacturers overlook it or the included image processor struggles.
The problem with 4K hardware
We recently reviewed the XGIMI Horizon Pro, the company’s first 4K HDR projector, and saw in no uncertain terms how much performance varied between resolutions.
We wrote that “the SD and HD upscaling is really not very impressive, with on / off graininess, image artifacts, and color distortion that set in when you don’t feed quality sources. Horizon Pro. As XGIMI’s first line of luxury projectors, this misstep is understandable, and it won’t be a snap for everyone – especially those relying on 4K sources – but it tarnishes what could have been a projector. five stars. “
Apart from a very small handful of users, who might be particular enough to only bother using a TV or projector to watch 4K content, the result is disappointing – effectively selling material based on latest specs while disregarding everyday resolutions. which still constitute the majority of television broadcast or streamed. Give with one hand, withdraw with the other.
This is not the case at all levels, of course. TV brands like Samsung and Sony offer vastly excellent scaling across their TV lines, ensuring that SD and HD content is not distorted by sub-par processing, and receives detailed information for the millions of pixels remaining on a 4K display.
Our senior home entertainment editor, Nick Pino, tells us that “some brands are just simply better than others when it comes to converting HD (or even sub-HD) content to 4K resolution. Companies like Samsung, Sony, and LG have spent millions of dollars researching and developing specific processors that can do difficult digital calculations as well as smarter upscaling algorithms for frame-to-frame upscaling.
“Poor scaling processes result in grainy, less detailed images, while properly scaled images will look cleaner with almost as much detail as native 4K content.”
A TV or projector won’t live and die by its scaling prowess alone, of course. These issues persist to varying degrees in the lines of today’s electronics companies, and with any purchase we need to consider potential scaling shortcomings alongside other image metrics – smooth movement, color accuracy, brightness control, contrast, etc. the interface of a screen and the quality of the built-in speakers (if applicable).
But as 4K becomes the norm, it’s easy to start losing sight of the legacy resolutions that are still very common both for new programming and reruns of old series and shows. It wasn’t until 2021 that Now (formerly Now TV) revealed plans for 4K streaming on its service, after all.
While the all-new Netflix Originals will launch in 4K, a lot of older content on the platform doesn’t reach these heights, and it’s a similar situation for all major streaming services – not to mention TV channels. who have not yet made the leap to Ultra HD Resolution.
There may soon come a time when SD content, or even HD content, will be all but gone from our lives as we move to ever higher resolutions. For now, however, we really need material that doesn’t focus so much on achieving 4K that it neglects the resolutions that came before it.