With Apple finally embracing 4K movies with the new Apple TV, you are probably wondering, "What's the big deal?" You've been hearing the 4K/UHD buzzword for years now but maybe you weren't really paying attention since it all sounded like marketing mumbo jumbo to you.
A few years ago, that may have been true since there was hardly any 4K content available and those expensive state-of-the-art UHD TV sets seemed like total wastes of money. Only early tech adopters, avid videophiles and people with broad swaths of disposable income seemed interested.
Fast forward to today, with cheaper 4K TV sets dropping and Apple pushing 4K content to the mainstream, it's now safe to say that 4K has finally arrived.
While 4K streaming video is nothing new - Netflix, Amazon Video, and Vudu have been offering this format for a while now - with Apple and iTunes in the mix, we'll surely be seeing more of this UHD option getting promoted everywhere when we rent or purchase videos online.
But what does all this mean and why do some video resolutions cost more than others?
What are video resolutions?
The three streaming formats available right now are Standard Definition (SD), High Definition (HD) and Ultra High Definition (UHD).
Basically, the difference between SD, HD, or UHD formats is the number of pixels that comprise the video image. Pixels are the small dots that combine to "draw" the images you see on screen. The higher the resolution, the more pixels you have. And with more pixels, you get a sharper and more detailed picture.
The numbers commonly attached to these formats represent their vertical resolutions. As you can see in the comparison image below, there's a significant difference between the variety of resolutions.
In the subsequent sections, I'll explain when and why you'll choose one format over another.
Standard Definition or SD quality is the cheapest format you can rent or buy. It is also known as DVD quality since DVD movies also max out at this resolution: 858 x 480 (480p).
On smaller screens like those old tube TVs or even smartphones, SD quality may be good enough. Some people say that the resolution differences between SD and HD are not perceivable on small screens so you're just wasting the extra pixels pretty much.
SD video files are also smaller in size and take up less bandwidth than HD or UHD videos. Since SD videos are typically cheaper to rent, if you're planning on renting a quick movie on your smartphone while on the road, SD is the smarter choice. But take note, I said renting and not buying, there's a big difference. More on that later.
If you're streaming off Netflix or Amazon Video on mobile, SD quality is also more efficient, since it takes less bandwidth. In fact, most carriers are already throttling streaming videos to SD to relieve their networks of congestion.
720p and 1080p videos fall under HD quality. 720p (1280 x 720 pixels) is simply known as HD (or sometimes semi-HD) and 1080p (1920 x 1080 pixels) is known as Full HD.
If you're watching at home on a TV that's at least 32 inches and at least 720p compatible, then paying the extra cost to get the HD version of a movie is definitely worth it. You'll get a significant bump in quality and level of detail that's hard not to miss. Also, the bigger the TV and the closer your viewing position is, the more discernable the differences are, even when comparing 720p and 1080p resolution videos.
Another important thing to consider is that when you buy HD quality movies from streaming sites including Vudu, Amazon, Google Play, Fandango or iTunes, the SD quality version is also included in your purchase. This means if you're planning on watching your movie purchase later on the road on mobile, you can view the SD version instead to save bandwidth.
Now, here's the latest, greatest and biggest format, 4K or UHD (3860 x 2160 pixels) video. It used to be a real luxury to get a 4K TV and the matching content to go with it. But slowly but surely, with prices for 4K TV sets dropping and streaming services like Netflix, Vudu and Amazon offering more 4K content, mainstream adoption is inevitable.
4K versions of streaming movies typically cost more than even their HD counterparts, usually around $30 per movie. Early adopters, as usual, got the raw end of the deal since they had to repurchase all their movies in 4K if they want to add them to their collection, even though they already own the HD version. Talk about double and triple dipping.
But things are suddenly starting to look up since Apple joined the 4K party. Ever the market disruptor, Apple managed to force the movie studios to drop iTunes 4K movie prices down to $19.99. And better yet, all the HD flicks in your iTunes movies collection are automatically upgraded to include the 4K version for free!
Other streaming services are taking notice. After Apple's 4K announcement, Amazon slashed its 4K video prices across the board and we're expecting others like Vudu to follow suit soon.
Keep in mind that 4K videos are extremely large and take up lots of bandwidth. Make sure that your internet connection has the recommended speed (and data cap) for handling 4K content.
It's not that tough to choose. What I recommend is this: if you're purchasing one of your all-time favorite movies for your video collection, then definitely go at least 1080p HD since you're bound to watch it repeatedly. When in doubt, always choose HD.
If you're just renting a movie to pass the time away, you can get away with just the SD version if you're going to watch on a smartphone on the road or if you have an old standard definition set at home. If it's family movie night in the living room on your main HDTV, rent the HD version.
Now, with 4K in the mix, if you want to future proof your movie collection, wait for the prices to go down, then go for the 4K version (as mentioned earlier, this doesn't really matter with iTunes purchases, you always get the 4K version with an HD purchase). Obviously, if you don't really care for 4K because you don't have 4K equipment yet, stick with the HD version for now.
Until then, we're hoping that all streaming services will follow Apple's lead and will start offering free 4K upgrades for past HD purchases.
How to buy the perfect sound bar and not waste money on useless features
In case you didn't know, streaming movies also support surround sound! Surround sound formats like 5.1, 7.1 or Dolby Atmos will give you that cinematic and immersive sound experience right in your living room. Unfortunately, flatscreen TVs, with their small speakers, can't give you that. You'll need an external speaker setup like a sound bar.