I've been pondering Apple's addition of 4K video recording on the new iPhone 6s and 6s plus. My feeling is simple, and applies to many facets of any new Apple product. Please, oh please. Do not let yourself be roofied by Apple ads and marketing-speak that will attempt to sell 4K as magical rainbow juice from above. Do not get sucked into the whirlwind of spectacular images Apple shows off.
If you're keen on 4K (aka Ultra HD), you've probably seen it in a television showroom or on some kind of high end video camera. The truth is, not many people have actually experienced watching 4K content, because there isn't much of it out there. But now anyone with a new iPhone 6s can make videos in this tantalising format. Should you care?
4K video is about four times the resolution of full HD, aka 1080p. That means a far more detailed image. That's nice, but it's also the very reason 4K has been so slow to catch on. It requires enormous bandwidth to stream, and requires costly new backend infrastructure to broadcast. 4K televisions have been paraded out for years, but few people buy them because of the added expense and the fact that there's just not much to watch in 4K! From a consumer standpoint, ultra high def remains a spectacle and not a standard.
But now the seal of 4K sits next to the most influential of electronics brands — Apple. The new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus brings ultra high def to your very own smartphone videos. They aren't the first to do this. Samsung's Galaxy line of phones has featured 4K shooting going back to 2014's S5. Few people gave a crap then and fewer do now.
I must admit, I find Apple's 4K inclusion a peculiar move. It's a tricky thing to explain to the average consumer, and that's going against Apple's credo of focusing on simple, clear features that you don't have to be a tech nerd to understand. How do you articulate the benefits of 4K to your parents? I imagine it would go roughly like this
"Hey Mum, check it out, the new iPhone can shoot 4K video."
"Yeah, it's got way better resolution!"
"What does that mean?"
"Like, better quality. Just look."
— Mum looks at video on phone —
"It looks the same to me."
"Oh, well, you have to watch it on a 4K TV to really see the difference."
"A what TV? I don't think I have that."
"Oh. Well, at least shoot your own videos in 4K. It will look great on the 4K TV I plan to buy."
"OK I'll do that."
— a week passes —
"Hi Son. My phone is telling me I'm out of storage. How do I fix it?
You get the point. It's just not something that is going to carry broad appeal. Regular people won't be able to spot the quality difference, especially when watching on their phone or social media where the added resolution is diluted by compression and tiny displays. They will only be saddled by the added storage demands of the larger 4K video files. We don't know the specifics of Apple's 4K file compression, so the extent of this issue can't yet be measured, but it's a likely outcome.
Here's a still frame from a piece of video shot in 4K. Directly below it is the same shot in mere 1080p HD.
They don't look that different! View this footage on a 60 inch 4K TV and the extra quality would come through, but most people view videos, especially home videos, in small sizes like this.
Still, 4K is the inevitable future of video in all its forms. There will come a day when every single video recording device shoots 4K, and everyone's TV will display it. So why not start now? It's harmless to include, if barely beneficial for most people. The biggest plus to shooting in 4K is so that 10 years from now, when everyone has 4K TVs, your videos can be played back and look really beautiful instead of dated. That's cool, but a fringe benefit at best.
It will be interesting to see how Apple markets this feature. We've already seen it mentioned in the ad they rolled out in the iPhone 6s keynote. It states, "the camera shoots 4K videos now, which changes how your movies look". That is a pretty damn vague way to hype the latest Apple Awesomesauce.
The truth is that 4K is a technical spec with more implications for cable companies than everyday consumers. 4K will not make your shitty home videos look much better than they do.