You’ve decided to upgrade your home entertainment system, or maybe your computer screen. Wandering through an electronics store, you’re bombarded with meaningless jargon.
One of them is upscaling.
What is upscaling? How does it work? And is it all it’s cracked up to be?
What Exactly Is Upscaling?
Upscaling converts low resolution material into a higher definition – or that’s what it’s purported to do anyway. It’s just one of the common terms you need to know before buying your next 4K television, or any device that supports upscaling, like a Blu-ray player.
Upscaling has been around for a while – it happens when you output DVD video to your Full HD television.
Simply put, upscaling produces video that utilizes your television’s or monitor’s maximum resolution, even when playing a standard definition video. Most flat-screen TVs have a 1920 x 1080p resolution, resulting in 2,073,600 pixels in total – that’s 1,920 across, multiplied by 1,080 rows of pixels. Playing a Standard Definition 720 x 567p movie, then, wouldn’t use all of the available pixels.
So instead of just using those 408,240 pixels, a device that supports upscaling – in the form of an upscaling Blu-ray player (like this Sony BDPS6500) or a 4K television – optimizes all those available pixels by ‘filling in the blanks’ and stretching the image across the entire screen.
It typically works using an interpolation (inferring new data by extracting from known elements) algorithm, and tells pixels what to do based on what those surrounding it are displaying, and then duplicating them.
In addition to this, many manufacturers apply sharpening software to market their products, thereby reducing pixelation or softening, often tampering with contrasts to make an image look more vivid. It makes their upscaled videos better than their competitors.
Upscaling Blu-ray Player, or 4K TV?
As mentioned earlier, upscaling can be handled by either a capable Blu-ray player, or by the television. The decision between buying a new Blu-ray player or 4K television depends on the media you watch more often.
DVDs are very popular, and Blu-ray discs are still a relatively niche market. If you want to upgrade, yet don’t want to scrap your DVDs and start your collection anew, upscaling Blu-ray players are tempting. After all, if you can’t see the difference between an upscaled picture and a HD one from a good distance (ie. one you’ll be comfortably watching television from), surely it’s worth doing. It’s a convincing argument, that’s for sure. Don’t be tricked by a player that boasts superior upscaling: in the end, your television is the limiting factor.
Some Blu-ray players can upscale to 4K (hence occasional ‘Mastered in 4K’ releases, capable of playing as standard and higher quality if used on a superior player), but in most cases, when playing a DVD for display on a 4K TV, the television will be responsible for making that leap to higher definition – indeed, it’s something it does with all signals. But even if a Blu-ray player is capable of upscaling to an impressive 4K, if your TV doesn’t support this, you’ll simply get the highest resolution your set is confined to, likely 1080p HD.
Before swapping your players, question whether a newer television set is more beneficial. Read our buying guide for more information on choosing a new HD TV.
If you mostly watch anything other than DVDs or Blu-ray media, then buying a new 4K TV would make sense. It would upscale all video input, including DVDs and even Blu-rays, to as near to 4K definition as possible.
Naturally, purchasing Blu-ray players will be the cheaper option. They’re typically below $200, while a 4K TV can cost a lot more. If you’re very invested in UHD TV and future-proofing your home entertainment, you’ll be tempted by a 4K television.
Upscaling (also known as upconversion) sounds like you’re getting 4K video quality from 1080p video. That’s not what it is. And it’s far from perfect. It stands to reason that there would be problems with technology that forces a picture into duplicating its pixels to create a fair estimation of a higher resolution.
Whereas it’s implied to be all about precision, upscaling can’t add more detail than is already present. That’s why Blu-rays aren’t pointless: they give you the nearest definition to cinema without a 4K Ultra HD television (which has 3840 x 2160p); so yes, quality also naturally depends on the equipment used.
The main problem with upscaling is the possibility of visual artifacts, increasingly an issue with fast-moving videos. While some material might appear stretched, one notable trouble is the ringing artifact, which appears as a ‘ghost’ or further outline around objects. Blurring and distortion of any sort, especially, will be most noticeable the closer you are to your television or monitor.
Despite the lack of content thus far, 4K is what most movies are filmed in, and Joe Kane, former chair of the SMPTE Working Group on Professional and Studio Monitors, says that this has been common practise for at least two decades:
“As much as we’ve been producing in the 4K format, we didn’t store it because nobody thought we were ever going to use it! We would shoot in legitimate 4096 x 2160, produce in 4K but then archive in 2K.”
Better resolutions will always be desirable on desktop computers, and that’s why 4K computer monitors also upscale input to the full 3840 x 2160p resolution. Yet none of us use PCs or laptops to solely play movies, and the side-effect of a 4K screen is a very mixed performance. To start with, icons appear ridiculously small, but more so than that, if you want to play a game in all its detailed glory, you’ll need a seriously good Graphics Processing Unit (GPU), which can be very costly!
Will You Upgrade?
Near-UHD is superior to SD, yes, even though you risk visual artifacts. But it’s not UHD either.
If you’re sitting at a sensible distance from the television, upscaled movies will appear clearer. Upscaling from a Blu-ray player a great option if you’re still attached to your extensive DVD collection. Don’t be fooled by showroom tricks that make Ultra HD appear clearer than it actually is though.
Upscaling is a smart addition to your televisual set-up. But what do you think? Do you support upscaling, and if so, is it so you don’t have to ditch your DVDs? Or are you hooked on Blu-ray?