The debate stops here: Yes, you really can see a difference between 4K and 1080p

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Some say Ultra HD 4K TVs are stupid, and they back up those claims with science-based assertions, claiming you can’t see the difference between Ultra HD and standard 1080P HD unless you’re nose is pressed against the screen. But on the other side of the divide, some are saying they’ve looked at Ultra HD content on Ultra HD TVs and swear the difference is readily apparent. So, who’s got it right?

To find out, we decided to set up an informal experiment under what we consider to be real-world conditions to determine whether or not the average viewer can see a difference between Ultra HD 4K and 1080p when placed side-by-side. The results are in the video below.

Considering this is such a hotly debated topic among the enthusiast community, we anticipate a bit of blow-back, but before you ragefully take to the comments section to tell us all about how we’re not scientists, allow us to explain why we approached this little experiment the way we did.

First off, it’s true: we aren’t scientists, and we didn’t approach this test scientifically — we did this on purpose. We wanted our setup to reflect real-world conditions, which included average-Joe viewers looking at content coming from one of the very few places average-Joe viewers can access Ultra HD content right now: Netflix. When 4K Blu-ray players are a reality, we will be able to compare 4K Blu-ray on a 4K display next to 1080p Blu-ray on a 1080p display, and we expect to learn a lot more, since resolution is only part of the total Ultra HD package. But for now, the Netflix comparison gives us the best opportunity to see how the Ultra HD content (albeit compressed) people can watch in their homes right now compares to the same 1080p content (also compressed) people are already watching.

Second, we chose to compare a plasma TV to an LED TV on purpose as well. Our theory (which proved to be right) was that the superior picture quality afforded by a plasma display would trump the resolution improvement afforded by a 4K display, regardless of whether the higher resolution was visible.

At the end of the day, Ultra HD is noticeably more detailed than 1080p HD, even when viewing compressed Netflix content. We anticipate the difference being much more stark when 4K Blu-ray comes available. We also found that 60-inches is about as small a screen as you’ll want to go with 4K, as anything smaller from a typical viewing distance has a much lower payoff. Conversely, the bigger the screen the more obvious the improvement in resolution is.