NICE AND EASY: What is 2160p?

The home theater world is just soggy with abbreviations and code words. It’s either something you love about it or something you don’t. Sometimes those codewords are useful, and sometimes… even though they make sense they don’t catch on.

Take the case of “2160p.”

2160p is just another word for 4K. It’s the term that didn’t catch on. And to understand why, we need to understand what 4K is, why 216op is really a better term, and why the truth is, you’re going to call it 4K anyway.

Go back about 20 years…

…and you’ll find two different camps of technologists arguing about what the next standard of high-definition television should be. People really wanted television to be digital, and they wanted better quality than they were getting from those old tube TVs. The problem was that technology just wasn’t up to the challenge, not yet.

The folks who wanted 720p

There was one group that argued that really, the most important thing was refresh rate. Televisions of the day refreshed half the screen every 1/60th of a second. That meant you saw a fully new frame every 1/30th of a second. This was a novel solution based on the technology of the 1930s when TV was invented. The problem was that high-speed action really made the limitations of this method clear. Even sharp graphics would seem to wiggle and jiggle if they stayed still.

This crowd argued that the only way to move forward was a TV standard that provided 60 full frames every second. And the maximum amount of resolution you could push out every 1/60th of a second was 1280×720 pixels, or 921,600 pixels. This was an improvement over the old standard, but not much of one.

Because this standard was “progressive,” meaning that every line was drawn in order, it was called “720p.”

The folks who wanted 1080i

There was another group who wanted better quality. They argued the right resolution to use was 1920×1080.  At 2,073,600 pixels, it was double the quality of 720p and it really looked better on larger TVs. (I’ll get to the proof of that in a minute.)

But, you couldn’t push that much data down a wire in 1/60th of a second in the early 2000s, so these folks reluctantly agreed that the same technology which made pictures look wavy on current TVs needed to be used. This is called “interlacing” and it gave that standard its name of “1080i.”

What ended up happening

ABC and Fox, who push their sports programming, ended up adopting 720p. Pretty much everyone else adopted 1080i, including all the cable channels. Disney and ESPN were the exceptions, because they are part of the ABC group. They went 720p as well.

You can tell ABC’s quality is lower than other stations if you watch their news and other programming where the motion isn’t really an issue.

Today of course it’s no problem to push a lot more data down the wires or through the air so all streaming programs are 1080i, if they’re high definition. Many have moved to 4K.

So getting back to 2160p

When 4K was first being proposed, there were two competing standards as well. One group wanted 4096 x 2048 pixels, which would have made manufacturing easier in the future. One wanted 3840 x 2160 pixels, which would have made it easier to adapt current manufacturing lines. Why? Because in the same line you used to make four 1920×1080 screens you could now make one 3840×2160 screen. (Do the math, you’ll see what I mean.)

The 2160p people won out. Plain and simple. Although, they lost in one small way. People never took to the term “2160p.” Instead they started calling it 4K, which is super inaccurate.

Super inaccurate?

Yeah, see, if you were going to have a truly “4K” screen you’d either want that to represent something that was 4,096 pixels across, or perhaps had 4,194,304 total pixels (that number is 4 megapixels.) Today’s “4K” screens are 3,840 pixels across and have 8,294,400 pixels, which is a shade under 8 megapixels.

So the name “4K” doesn’t really fit. No one cares of course, that “2160p” would have made more sense. A rose by any other name would look just as good on a 4K screen, of course.

By the way, when you’re shopping for TV accessories, check out the great selection at Solid Signal.


About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.