Tech Talk: 1080p vs. 1440p vs. 4K – Is it Worth it?

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Over the years, as some of you may know, I’ve given a fair amount of thought to different display resolutions, what resolutions are worth upgrading for, and what resolutions are “enough” for what I (or anyone in a similar situation) would need them for. But, this is a very loaded discussion, and because it’s of a fairly high technical nature, evolving technology makes it worth reexamining quite frequently. This is especially true because displays grow cheaper as the years go by and newer types of displays with new features become available.

For at least a couple years now, people have been claiming that the era of 1080p is coming to a close. They claim we’re on the cusp of the “ultra high-definition revolution” and that once we head in that direction, we’ll never look back. Sure, there might be some truth to these claims, but keep in mind that they’re driven by a commercial motivation – one that’s designed to put money into the pockets of companies that want to profit off of buzz words and the types of people that will always be itching to upgrade to the “next big thing,” even when that thing is something sold to them that they may not actually need.

The fact is, though, that according to this site, for 2016 (yes, I know, the year just started) the average visitor to the site has had either a 1366×768 or 1920×1080 display. For 2015, those same numbers held true, with 19.5% of users running 1366×768 and 14.8% using 1920×1080. Conversely, only 1.39% of users were running 2560×1440, and only 0.15% were running 3840×2160 (4K). Granted, this is only based on people who visited that site, but the numbers are probably somewhat representative of the population as a whole.

So, why the odd 1366×768 resolution? 768p is a pretty common resolution for laptops these days, and can also likely be found on tablets and smartphones as well. Though that might seem low to those who are used to using 1080p or higher, you have to consider that when you’re looking at a 15″ screen, 1366×768 looks pretty darn crisp and clear and you really won’t see any pixels from your likely viewing distance. Blow that up to a 32″ screen, though, and of course it’ll look blurry and out of focus. Also, 1366×768 is usually the “true” resolution for a TV that’s advertised as 720p. This fact is generally because 1366×768 is a clearer representation of 16:9 as an aspect ratio, but also because back in the early days of HD displays, 4:3 was still the standard for broadcast TV and other content and as a result, 1024×768 was a common 4:3 resolution. So, making a display that could properly display both 768p 4:3 (with borders) and 16:9 content was important, so 768 was kept as a vertical resolution with 1366 being used for the horizontal.

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Really, it’s all about the desired viewing distance of the content you’ll be using the screen for as well as your personal needs in terms of screen real estate. If you were to take two displays, both 27″ each, and one was 1080p and the other was 1440p, everything on the 1440p display would appear a good deal smaller than on the 1080p if all of the scaling options were kept identical. The reason for this is that 2560×1440 is around 3.7 megapixels while 1920×1080 is just under 2.1 megapixels. So, you can fit nearly twice the content on a 1440p display than you could on a 1080p one. Ultimately, then, the 1440p display has around twice the effective screen space but at the cost of things appearing quite a bit smaller. But, in terms of rendering a PC game, although the 1440p resolution would be a bit more crisp and rich as it would have about twice the detail present on screen, it might be harder to discern that difference versus 1080p on a 27″ screen because the screen itself isn’t all that big. However, if the monitor was 34″ or something along those lines, 1440p would be a lot more noticeable for gaming because at that screen size, from a typical viewing distance for a monitor, 1080p would look more stretched and fuzzy, while 1440p would maintain a good pixel density.

In fact, there’s a really nifty website that handles these calculations for you. Essentially, what the site does is look at your screen pixel density versus the physical panel size (say, 27″) and it tells you at what viewing distance you’d need to be for pixelation to no longer be discernable. Let’s look at some quick results using 27″ as a baseline:

  • 1920×1080 (1080p): Optimal viewing distance is 42 in. or greater
  • 2560×1440 (1440p): Optimal viewing distance is 32 in. or greater
  • 3840×2160 (4K): Optimal viewing distance is 21 in. or greater

So, on our fictional 27 inch monitor here, it’s kind of a toss-up. At 1080p we need to sit 3 1/2 feet away from the screen or else things will start to look pixelated and out of focus, and for some PC users that might be a tad far away, but at 1440p you can sit at under 3 feet away from the screen and have a rather nice, crisp viewing experience. 4K though would most certainly be overkill, unless you plan at eyeballing the screen from an insanely close distance.

Let’s look, though, at 34″ as a new baseline. You may have trouble finding a monitor that does 1080p at that size, but you’d have no shortage of HDTVs that you could find at that size and resolution that could make fine computer monitors. So, let’s see:

  • 1920×1080 (1080p): Optimal viewing distance is 53 in. or greater
  • 2560×1440 (1440p): Optimal viewing distance is 40 in. or greater
  • 3840×2160 (4K): Optimal viewing distance is 27 in. or greater

Now we’re starting to see the benefits of a richer pixel density. At 34,” you’d need to sit a good distance away from a TV plugged in as a monitor or else you’d likely start getting eye strain with things being out of focus at 1080p. At 1440p, though, you could sit at closer than you could to that 27″ 1080p monitor and still have a good viewing experience. Also, at around this size we can see that 4K is becoming a more viable option.

Yet, it isn’t totally just about PPI (pixels-per-inch), because there are a lot of people who will want the extra physical screen real-estate to use. After all, running one 2560×1440 display would be very close to the pixel space of two 1920×1080 monitors. Likewise, a 4K screen is exactly four times the space of a 1080p display. So, conceivably you could get rid of the need of running two 1080p monitors for multi-tasking and have one 1440p one.

However, there’s something to be said for having more than one physical display, regardless of the resolution. I personally have found having three displays to be perfect for my needs. I have a 30″ ultra-wide display that I run for gaming at 3440×1440, and things look super crisp and nice. Flanking it, though, I have two 20″ monitors. One monitor displays my Windows 10 desktop for me, and the other is used for having other tools open, such as if I were streaming or recording I would put my Bandicam or Open Broadcaster windows over there so I could monitor the recording/stream as I played off of my primary monitor. Also, in the event of a live stream, my main would play the game, one back-up would have OBS open, and the desktop display might have a browser window open so I could view the live chat. In that case, no matter what resolution I had, a single display wouldn’t produce that same productivity.

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Now, of course there are other display resolutions that are somewhat common. 1600×900 is one you will find in some laptops and also on certain computer monitors in the 20 inch range. 1680×1050 has been a common 16:10 resolution for many years now, and you can also find 1920×1200 as a 16:10 display. Ultra-wide 21:9 aspect ratio monitors are also buzzing in some circles because of the fact that they add a 33% wider field-of-vision to gaming versus your standard 16:9 display, and while this is super awesome for gaming, it also allows you to view modern movies without the top and bottom borders since they’re generally filmed/produced at 21:9, also known as cinemascope.

For those interested, here’s a list of some common display resolutions and their terms:

  • 1280×720 (720p): HD
  • 1366×768 (768p): WXGA (Wide Extended Graphics Array)
  • 1600×900 (900p): HD+
  • 1920×1080 (1080p): FHD  (Full HD)
  • 2560×1080: WFHD or UWFHD (Wide Full HD)
  • 2560×1440 (1440p): QHD or WQHD (Wide Quad HD)
  • 3440×1440: UWQHD  (Ultra-Wide Quad HD)
  • 3200×1800 (1800p): QHD+
  • 3840×2160 (2160p): 4K UHD
  • 5120×2160: 5K UWUHD (Ultra-Wide UHD)
  • 5120×2880 (2880p): 5K UHD

So, there you go – some food for thought when it comes to whether or not you need to upgrade your display and what you may (or may not) be missing!

I hope you enjoyed this piece, and please feel free to comment or let me know if you have any questions! 🙂

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