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Are You Watching 4K Content? Here’s How to Tell

A couple of athletes play soccer on a 4K TV.
Krivosheev Vitaly/Shutterstock

A common complaint about 4K TVs is that they don’t look any better than HD TVs. But the problem is rarely the TV’s fault. Often, the content that you’re watching simply isn’t in 4K.

As you’d expect, TVs know what resolution they’re displaying. But they generally won’t tell you. Most TVs don’t have an option to check whether you’re watching something in 4K, 1080p, or any other resolution. You’ll need to understand what content is available instead.

Why You Can’t Tell the Difference Between 4K and HD

There are several reasons why your new 4K TV may look identical to your old HD TV. The issue may be that your source video isn’t actually in 4K, but before we get into that, let’s knock out some of the more typical reasons why your 4K TV looks just like an HD TV:

  • Your TV Is Small: Resolution is determined by the number of pixels in an image. As screens get larger, the space between those pixels increases, which can decrease the visual quality of an image. That said, 1080p starts looking “bad” at around 60″, and that’s where you can really see the difference between 4K and HD.
  • Your TV Needs Calibration: Like a computer monitor, your TV needs to be calibrated for color, brightness, and contrast. This is usually done by the manufacturer, but if you’re disappointed by the quality of your TV, then it probably needs to be calibrated. Additionally, you should turn off any motion smoothing on your TV.
  • Your TV Is Cheap: Not to be rude or condescending, but cheap TVs can look like crap. If a 4K TV is made from cheap components, then it may not look any better than an HD TV. Plus, some cheap 4K TVs aren’t UHD TVs, which means that they lack modern contrast and coloring technologies. (UHD is the TV equivalent of Apple’s Retina display).
  • You’re Using RCA Cables: Don’t use the colored jacks behind your TV, use an HDMI cable. RCA cables have been around since the ’50s, and while newer component RCA cables are capable of transmitting high-resolution video signals, they’re almost always capped at 1080p.
  • It’s Just You: All humans are capable of seeing the difference between 4K and 1080p. 4K is four times the resolution of 1080p, after all. But if your expectations are too high, the difference may seem negligible to you.

If your 4K TV still looks bad despite its size, price tag, and proper calibration, then the issue probably lies with your source video.

Upscaling can help make 1080p content look better on a 4K TV. But upscaling isn’t magic, and you’ll get the best picture with native 4K content.

Cable Doesn’t Support 4K Yet

For whatever reason, you can’t get cable in 4K. The high-resolution format has been around for a long time, but it’s generally useless if you’re just watching cable TV. Some set-top boxes support 4K streaming and video downloads, but don’t let the cable company fool you, cable TV maxes out at 1080p.

In some cases, cable looks different (not objectively better or worse) on 4K TVs. This is the byproduct of better, brighter, and clearer lighting technologies; it has nothing to do with the higher resolution.

Are You Actually Streaming in 4K?

Netflix, Amazon Video, and a host of other streaming platforms boast their 4K streaming plans. But even with these streaming plans, most of the video that you’re streaming isn’t actually in 4K. It’s not that you’ve fallen victim to false advertising, it’s just that most content on streaming services predates 4K, hasn’t had a formal 4K release, or isn’t licensed for 4K viewing on streaming platforms.

If you want to check whether or not your favorite shows are in 4K, HD-Report has a comprehensive list of 4K titles on Netflix and Amazon Video. As of right now, Hulu doesn’t have any 4K content (but it used to). You’ll only get the 4K content on Netflix if you’re paying for the more expensive Premium plan. All Amazon Prime members get Amazon Prime Video’s 4K content with no extra fee.

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