YouTube streaming quality may be about to get a huge downgrade for most viewers

YouTube 4K testing against premium subscription pricing
(Image credit: Twitter / @Sondesix)

If you’re a fan of firing up 4K YouTube videos on your iPhone or big 4K TV screen, you may need to start dipping into your piggy-bank. A new feature-testing phase is locking the ability to stream 4K videos behind a subscription paywall.

Numerous viewers are reporting that the ability to choose the higher-quality 2160p / 4K streaming options for video content supporting the ultra-HD resolution is being prevented by a prompt to “Tap to upgrade” to YouTube’s premium offering.

Following confusion and complaints, YouTube has responded on Twitter, confirming that the restrictions are part of a test to explore the feature preferences of its potential Premium subscriber base. Viewers were urged to leave feedback on the test (opens in new tab).

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Premium vs free YouTube

By far the most popular video platform in the western world, YouTube has 2.1 billion active monthly users as of August 2022 — but only an estimated 50 million of those pay for the Premium and Music subscription options, which currently offers ad-free viewing, in-app content downloads, and background music play when the app is not active. In the US, YouTube Premium subscriptions cost $11.99 a month.

But despite the vast numbers — and an overt advertising push that has seen as many as ten unskippable ads play before videos (opens in new tab) during some testing phases — parent company Google’s profits are feeling the pinch of the current economic climate as much as everyone else.

Whether or not a 4K paywall will prove itself a permanent change in YouTube’s viewing behavior remains to be seen. Will content creators, for instance, bother to work in the higher resolution format, knowing that only a fraction of potential users will see it, or prefer to work in the lower resolution realms with wider viewership and faster processing times? It’ll be a tough sell for YouTube either way — give something to someone consistently for free, and it’s much more difficult to get them to pay later. 

Gerald Lynch
Editor in Chief

Gerald Lynch is the Editor-in-Chief of iMore, keeping careful watch over the site's editorial output and commercial campaigns, ensuring iMore delivers the in-depth, accurate and timely Apple content its readership deservedly expects. You'll never see him without his iPad Pro, and he loves gaming sessions with his buddies via Apple Arcade on his iPhone 13 Pro, but don't expect him to play with you at home unless your Apple TV is hooked up to a 4K HDR screen and a 7.1 surround system. 


Living in London in the UK, Gerald was previously Editor of Gizmodo UK, and Executive Editor of TechRadar, and has covered international trade shows including Apple's WWDC, MWC, CES and IFA. If it has an acronym and an app, he's probably been there, on the front lines reporting on the latest tech innovations. Gerald is also a contributing tech pundit for BBC Radio and has written for various other publications, including T3 magazine, GamesRadar, Space.com, Real Homes, MacFormat, music bible DIY, Tech Digest, TopTenReviews, Mirror.co.uk, Brandish, Kotaku, Shiny Shiny and Lifehacker. Gerald is also the author of 'Get Technology: Upgrade Your Future', published by Aurum Press, and also holds a Guinness world record on Tetris. For real.