Many '4K' iTunes movies are upscaled from lower resolutions, but does it matter?

Apple has at last brought 4K content to the iTunes Store with the launch of the Apple TV 4K. But are you really getting what you're paying for (or being upgraded to for free)? Some of the movies advertised as 4K titles have in fact been upscaled from a lower resolution and retouched for 4K screens. As noted by Ruari Robinson on Twitter:

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Here is an incomplete list of "4K" movies available on iTunes that have been upscaled to 4K from a lower native resolution:

  • Spider-Man: Homecoming
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Deadpool
  • Baby Driver
  • John Wick
  • John Wick: Chapter 2
  • Wonder Woman
  • Logan
  • Creed
  • Kingsman: The Secret Service
  • T2: Trainspotting
  • La La Land
  • Arrival
  • Kong: Skull Island
  • The Lego Batman Movie
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Moonlight
  • Star Trek Beyond

So you're probably asking yourself, "Why aren't these movies in true 4K?" The answer really depends on the movie. The movies in the list have all been mastered at 2K, even though some, like Wonder Woman, were shot at greater than 4K resolutions. For one reason or another, likely cost, studios have elected to go with upscaling rather than true 4K, whether it's for streaming from iTunes or 4K UHD Blu-rays. While you'll still notice improvements over, for instance, 1080p resolution, these movies won't achieve the same visual effect as those shot in and mastered at 4K.

Is it possible that these films will see true 4K releases if studios decide to remaster them? Again, it depends on the movie. As noted above, Wonder Woman was shot at resolutions exceeding 4K (35mm and 6K), so it's conceivable that someday, yes, it and some other films like it could see true 4K remasters. However, many more of these upscaled titles, like Spider-Man: Homecoming and John Wick were shot at resolutions below 4K (often 2.8K or 3.4K). You can't offer movies like that in 4K without upscaling.

But the real question is this: does it matter? After all, all of these films are shot, mastered, and shown in resolutions higher than standard 1080p HD, and most if not all support HDR, either through HDR10 or Dolby Vision. HDR films offer notably better color ranges over non-HDR films, and even Apple has called HDR "even more important" than 4K. Given the typical viewing distance between a couch and a TV, are you even going to be able to tell when something's upscaled and when something is in true 4K? Probably not.

The fact is that we're still in a transition period from HD to 4K, and some compromises in offering viewers higher resolutions were inevitable. As 4K becomes more popular among mainstream consumers, we'll hopefully see more productions elect to shoot and master their films in 4K and beyond so that we can put discussions like this behind us.

Joseph Keller is the former Editor in Chief of iMore. An Apple user for almost 20 years, he spends his time learning the ins and outs of iOS and macOS, always finding ways of getting the most out of his iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Mac.

4 Comments
  • What a lot of people are going to learn, is that "4K" generally always looks better. It has less to do with the source material and more to do with the fact that, if it was shot on high quality camera to begin with, the 1080 they've been viewing has been really compressed and made the worse for it. Put that 1080 (or 2K studio master file) in a 4K HEVC bucket and send it to the viewers, and it's going to look really, really good. Most AVphiles have not had the pleasure of seeing uncompressed Arriraw from an Alexa at 2.8k (or 3.4k). It would fool most people for 4K. I own an Alexa, have been shooting Red 4K (and 5K, and 6K) occasionally since 2008, and had a 4K home set for 3 years now, so I have real experience with this stuff. Compression eats resolution. Say it again. And if people are wondering why a 4K movie master is so expensive, remember a movie is made in uncompressed .DPX formats. 4x the data, 4x the rendering.
  • I guess this is the reason why watching 4K youtube on my 1080p monitor looks so much better than native 1080p streaming? I'm pretty much getting high bandwidth 1080p content?
  • I use the site www.realorfake4k.com to see if a movie is worth buying.
  • What Russell Kercheval said (realorfake4k dot com), but, if HDR is applied, usually it's still going to be better than the HD counterpart. This has nothing to do with iTunes. This has been a reality for some time. Most people saying 4K is so yesterday, let's get going on 8K don't realize that over 90% of VFX in movies is done at 2K. Most movies are sent to theaters in 2K, now, whether that 4K movie projector is showing it in 2K or upscaling, IDK. Interstellar was shown in 4K, I saw Finding Dory in 4K, but, other than that 4K movies are few and far between. The expense (and time) to do VFX in 4K is still high, as it has 4X the data, (4K is not twice 2K, it has 4x as many pixels... you can fit 4 1080p in 4K). That being said, I agree that, in most cases, when HDR is applied, it will still be an improvement, plus, UHD uses a wider color gamut than HD, so the color should be just a bit better overall.