4K Upscale vs Native 4K: What‘s the Difference?
4K resolution has become the new standard for home entertainment in recent years. With 4K TVs and monitors becoming more affordable and 4K content becoming more prevalent, many consumers are upgrading their setups to enjoy ultra-high-definition video.
However, not all 4K is created equal. There is a distinct difference between 4K video that has been natively produced in 4K, and 4K video that has been upscaled from a lower resolution like 1080p. In this guide, we’ll examine the differences between native 4K and upscaled 4K, and help you understand the pros and cons of each method.
What is 4K Resolution?
First, let’s quickly go over what exactly 4K resolution refers to.
4K resolution has around 4,000 horizontal pixels. The most common 4K resolution is 3840 x 2160 pixels, also known as Ultra HD or UHD. This provides 4 times as many pixels as 1080p resolution (1920 x 1080).
More pixels means more detail and sharper image quality. On a 4K display, this allows you to see finer details and textures, and provides an extra dimension of realism to video. This is especially noticeable on larger screen sizes 55-inches and above.
However, more pixels also requires more processing power and bandwidth to encode, transmit, and decode the video signal. The sheer amount of data involved is why 4K adoption was relatively slow until recently.
Native 4K vs 4K Upscale
Native 4K video refers to video that has been captured and encoded in 4K resolution from start to finish. This means the camera sensor and video encoder captured and processed all 8 million+ pixels that make up a 4K image. No compromises or downscaling was done during production.
Upscaled 4K starts with video source material at a lower resolution like 1080p, and then mathematically scales it up to fill a 4K resolution. This is done using algorithms that interpolate and “guess” color data to fill in the missing pixels.
Upscaling can be done on the fly by devices like 4K TVs and media streamers when playing lower resolution video. Or, it can be done during production by studios, allowing older movies and shows to be re-released in 4K format.
To help illustrate the difference, here is a diagram:
As you can see, native 4K maintains its max resolution throughout the entire process. With upscaled 4K, the source resolution is lower and only gets enlarged to 4K at the end.
Below are some key differences between native and upscaled 4K:
- True Resolution: The native resolution is 3840 x 2160 for true 4K video. Upscaled 4K has a lower native resolution, typically 1920 x 1080.
- Sharpness: Native 4K is sharper and contains finer details and textures. Upscaled 4K can look slightly blurry or soft in comparison.
- Compression: Native 4K uses heavy compression to shrink large 4K files sizes. Upscaled 4K compresses 1080p video, resulting in less compression artifacts.
- File Size: Native 4K video results in very large file sizes. Upscaled 4K files are much smaller since they started as 1080p.
- Dynamic Range: Native 4K can retain full HDR color and contrast. Upscaled HDR may lose some specular highlights and details in shadows.
Now let’s dive deeper into the pros and cons of each method.
The Benefits of Native 4K
Native 4K offers the highest quality and most detailed 4K experience possible. Here are some benefits of video produced and delivered in native 4K:
Maximum Resolution – As we learned earlier, true native 4K has over 8 million pixels, for incredibly sharp and detailed video. You’ll be able to see every pore, fabric texture, blade of grass, and minute detail the camera captures.
No Compression Artifacts – Video encoding uses complex compression algorithms to shrink down huge 4K video files. This can result in color banding, blocking, and other compression artifacts. Native 4K means no compromises were made to downsample source files before compression.
Full High Dynamic Range – 4K Blu-rays and streaming often include HDR (high dynamic range) for more vivid colors and increased contrast. Native 4K ensures full HDR color and brightness levels are preserved from editing to delivery.
More Realism – The combination of high resolution, full dynamic range, and pristine image quality gives native 4K incredible realism. Images have almost a 3D-like depth and practically burst off the screen.
Future-Proofing – Native 4K sources are created with maximum resolution and quality possible today. This helps future-proof your library as TVs continue to get bigger and more pixel dense. In the years ahead, native 4K will still look great, while upscales may start to show their age.
The only real downside to native 4K is that the technical demands mean production and delivery costs are higher. However, for the ultimate 4K experience, native sources are worth it for critical viewers.
The Case for 4K Upscaling
Even though native 4K is technically superior, upscaled 4K also has some benefits that explain its popularity:
Lower Production Costs – Producing native 4K requires upgrades all along the production and delivery chain, which can be costly. Upscaling can be done much more affordably in post-production.
Uses Existing HD Assets – Studios have devoted massive resources into creating huge libraries of HD content. Upscaling allows new life and enhanced quality for archival movies, shows, and footage.
Smaller File Sizes – Only compressing 1080p footage means upscaled 4K file sizes are much smaller, around 50% of native 4K files typically. This makes streaming and downloads faster.
Enhances Details – While not as dramatic as native 4K, upscaling can still bring out more fine details and textures compared to regular 1080p. It offers a nice bump in perceived clarity.
Improves Legacy Content – Older SD content can look very soft and blurry on 4K displays. Thoughtful upscaling helps restore detail and makes this archival footage more watchable on modern TVs.
From a business perspective, upscaling provides a pragmatic balance of quality and cost. For many general viewers, upscaled 4K provides enough of a resolution bump to justify the “4K” label at more accessible prices.
However, image purists argue that upscaled 4K is not true 4K. At the end of the day it depends on your priorities and budget.
Upscaling Methods Compared
Not all upscaling is equal. There are a few common techniques and algorithms for upscaling 1080p to 4K, each with their own characteristics:
Nearest Neighbor – The most basic method that simply duplicates pixels to fill in new resolution space. Produces jagged edges and pixelation artifacts.
Bilinear – Smooths edges by blending and averaging surrounding pixel values. Can still look soft and blurry, especially around details.
Bicubic – More advanced algorithm that uses weighted averages to determine pixels. Produces smoother and more detailed results.
AI Upscaling – New methods that use machine learning to interpolate pixels and textures based on training neural networks with millions of samples. Nvidia’s DLSS and AMD’s FSR are two popular solutions. Pushing into “better than native 4K” territory in some cases.
From oldNearest Neighbor upscalers to new AI-enhanced upscaling, these improvements aim to get as close to native 4K quality as possible. Producing a realistic and high-quality upscale depends heavily on mastering the science and art of resampling algorithms.
The best upscaling solutions carefully balance multiple objectives like image detail, noise reduction, artifact suppression, edge treatment, and color accuracy. There are always trade-offs to weigh.
Upscale Quality Depends on the Source
No matter how advanced upscaling algorithms get, garbage in will still lead to garbage out. The maximum upscaled output quality is ultimately limited by the initial source resolution and quality. Here are some factors that influence upscale results:
- Bitrate – Heavily compressed low bitrate sources have less headroom for resampling. Optimal is 40-100 Mbps.
- Compression Artifacts – Blocking, banding, ringing, etc. from lossy compression get magnified when upscaling. Cleaner sources yield better upscales.
- Film Grain – Heavy film grain doesn’t upscale well and tends to exaggerate noise. Low to medium grain is preferred.
- Detail Level – More textures, fine details, and complex patterns give upscaling algorithms more to work with.
- Motion Quality – Highly detailed slow camera moves or panning shots upscale better than fast motion blur.
- Aspect Ratio – Non-16:9 sources like 4:3 may need adjustments for best upscale quality. Unique film formats like IMAX provide extra image data.
Starting with the highest possible source resolution and master will empower upscaling tools to do their best work. When done right, a 4K upscale can get remarkably close to native 4K, especially with some light touch-up sharpening and polishing applied.
The History and Future of 4K Resolution
The 4K resolution standard has had an interesting evolution over the decades:
- Early Digital Cinema – 4K emerges with SMPTE’s DC28 committee in 2005 to standardize digital cinema production and projection. This leads to the DCI 4K spec of 4096 x 2160 resolution.
- Consumer TVs Emerge – In 2012 Sony launches the first consumer 4K TV, the 84-inch XBR-84X900. For the TV and home video market, the UHD 4K standard of 3840 x 2160 becomes dominant.
- 4K Blu-ray Launch – 4K Blu-ray discs and players launch in 2016, offering native 4K video with HDR via Ultra HD Blu-ray. However, streaming still limited to HD and poor internet connections.
- 4K Streaming Matures – Faster broadband speeds allow Netflix and others to stream 4K in early 2016. HEVC video codec improves 4K streaming quality while reducing bandwidth demands.
- HD to 4K Upgrade Cycle – Major studios slowly start remastering or upscaling catalog titles to fill the 4K pipeline. Consumers begin upgrading living rooms from 1080p to 4K.
- New Cameras Shoot Native 4K – Modern digital cinema cameras from ARRI, RED, Sony, Canon all shoot native 4K or higher resolution raw files.
- 8K Arrives – At CES 2019, the first 8K TVs are unveiled. While still early, they offer a glimpse into the continued evolution of even higher resolutions for future-proofing content.
- AI Upscaling – New algorithms like DLSS show potential to deliver high-quality upscaling that edges closer to native resolution. Could upscaled 8K one day match native 4K?
Looking ahead, screen resolutions will continue climbing, especially on larger displays. There seems to be no limit to our thirst for more pixels and detail.
However, it’s unknown whether future generations will primarily rely on natively shot sources, or if upscaling tech will become so advanced that reconstructed extra resolution satisfies the masses.
It really comes down to the intended viewers – critical cinephiles and tech enthusiasts will probably always prefer native resolution masters. But average consumers may be perfectly happy with 98% of the way there if the price is lower.
The path forward will likely see both native and upscaled ultra HD and beyond co-existing. Each will find their place serving a purpose depending on context.
4K Upscale vs Native 4K: Which Should You Watch?
So when choosing between native 4K and upscaled 4K, which is better? Here is a quick recap of pros and cons:
- Maximum Resolution
- Full HDR & Details
- No Compression Artifacts
- Extreme Realism
- Future-Proof Quality
- More Expensive Production
- Larger File Sizes
- Improves Legacy 1080p
- Smaller Files for Streaming
- Good for Casual Viewing
- More Affordable Library
- Not True 4K
- Potentially Soft Picture
- No Extra Headroom for Future Displays
Ideally, always choose full native 4K masters for the highest quality when available. This is especially recommended for nature documentaries, animated films, well-shot live action movies, and critical viewing.
Upscaled 4K strikes a solid balance between quality and cost. It makes sense for more casual TV viewing and expanding accessible 4K content libraries. Quality is very watchable in most cases.
However, for older films or poorly shot/compressed source material, even a quality upscale may not cut it. Sticking with the original 1080p or lower version could be preferable.
Overall, it depends how discerning the eye is. Videophiles may scoff at anything less than true native 4K masters. But for many, upscaled “faux-K” is good enough for laidback streaming. Just be aware of what you’re getting – not all 4K labels are created equal.