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What the Heck Does “4K” Mean?

Credit: Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

“It’s full of stars…!”

As an initiate of the glorious PC gaming master race, I’ve become more acquainted with the concept of resolution than I’ve ever particularly cared to be. Goes with the territory; if you’re not getting the absolute best 4K resolution with the highest settings, then you’re not doing it right. As hardware lingo begins to bleed into the regular consumer market, you may find yourself a little lost among the terminology. For your convenience, here’s a quick and dirty explanation of what 4K resolution is.

Okay, so before that, what is resolution? The resolution of a display refers to the number of pixels it can show at once. More pixels means more colors and cleaner images. One of the highest resolutions you can get from most displays these days is 1920 by 1080, and that’s where “1080p” display comes from. That’s the good stuff, at least for your middling displays.

The next step up from those displays are 4K, which can crank their resolution up to 3840 by 2160. If you’re wondering why it’s “4K” when that doesn’t go up to 4000, it’s because the name actually comes from the cinematic standard of ultra high definition resolution, which has a width of 4096. So for commercial home displays, 4K is technically a misnomer, but whatever.

So what does a 4K display look like? As I mentioned, the old standard of high definition display was 1080p, because that was as high as we could go. A 4K display has nearly four times the fidelity as a 1080p display, so we call it ultra high definition. Whatever the current HD picture is on your TV or monitor, imagine that clarity times four, and you’ve got 4K. It’s pretty awesome. And also pretty expensive! But sooner or later, it’ll probably become the norm, especially once 8K display gets off the ground. So if you can’t afford a 4K display now, just wait a few years. We’ll all have the fidelity we deserve someday.

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