What Happens When A 4K Video Is Played On A 1080p Monitor?

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The evolution of high definition video capture and playback has happened quickly, with HD TV’s and monitors only becoming economically viable around 2006, and 4K making the breakthrough six years later in 2012.

With the speed of research and development in consumer tech it’s not always practical (or good for the bank balance) to try to keep up with tech trends, but with it being possible to scale up/scale down an image or video to display on a monitor with a different resolution you don’t always have to. 

Take playing a 4K stream on a 1080p monitor as an example. 

Whilst the number of pixels within a monitor cannot be changed, and therefore 4K footage when displayed upon a 1080p screen will never quite hold the same sharpness, the 4K video will still appear as a higher quality than video captured using 1080p cameras. 

This is because a standard 1080p camera compresses color data to 1 set of values for every 4 pixels in a process called ‘chroma subsampling’, whereas 4K footage assigns a color value to each and every pixel and this can be carried across to 1080p during downscaling. 

So whilst the brightness level of each pixel will remain the same between 4K and 1080p footage, downsizing 4K to show on a 1080p monitor will actually appear richer in color than native 1080p.

Why does 4K look better on 1080p monitors?

You might expect that the pixel count on a monitor would be the limiting factor when it comes to  picture quality, but in fact picture quality is also influenced by how the encoding process retains or discards data captured for each pixel.

Our eyes are far less sensitive to color detail than brightness, and so 75% of color data recorded by 1080p cameras can be discarded with little degradation of perceived quality via ‘chroma subsampling’.

The aim of subsampling is to reduce file size, and this certainly came in handy when storing and transmitting video was more of a challenge due to limitations upon network bandwidth.

4K cameras on the other hand do not attempt to compress color data and instead provide unique chroma values for each pixel. 

With four times fewer pixels than a 4K screen, a 1080p monitor must take all of the color data captured in the 4K files and downsample them (at a rate of 4 pixels of 4K data for every 1 pixel of 1080p that needs to be rendered). During this process the unique chroma values presented for each 4K pixel can be extrapolated and in essence fill in the gaps that chroma subsampling leaves out. 

So in summary when played back on a 1080p monitor, a 4K stream looks better than regular 1080p content firstly because of the way the 4K camera has captured color data, and secondly how this data has been processed and translated to appear in 1080p.  

Let’s be clear though, the difference between 1080p and 4K when shown side by side on a 1080p monitor will not be drastic. Improved color data allows the image to appear slightly more sharp in detail but that might be as far as noticeable changes extend.

Are there any negatives to showing 4K footage on a 1080p monitor? 

There are no negatives in terms of picture quality when showing 4K content on a 1080p monitor however to process and downsize 4K footage will of course require additional CPU/GPU processing power. 

Depending on your setup this increased load upon computer resources may impact performance and slow the computer down. This is something you should be especially aware of if you’re using a laptop to power an external monitor. 

How does 1080p look on a 4K monitor?

Turning the tables and playing a 1080p feed on a 4k monitor, provided your computer has a built in scaling solution the scale up would result in no change in appearance of course. Not better, not worse. 

This is because the 4k display is simply a proportionate increase in pixels given over to the same  

If the upscaling algorithm goes horribly wrong however you could be left with a distorted image which appears blurry and stair stepped.

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