4K? For what? iPhone 6S camera ushers ultra-high resolution into mainstream

Thanks to Apple's new iPhones, the next wave of super-high-def video won't flow from Hollywood or pro sports leagues. It will bubble up from people like you.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
Expertise Streaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation online Credentials
  • Three Folio Eddie award wins: 2018 science & technology writing (Cartoon bunnies are hacking your brain), 2021 analysis (Deepfakes' election threat isn't what you'd think) and 2022 culture article (Apple's CODA Takes You Into an Inner World of Sign)
Joan E. Solsman
4 min read
The iPhone 6S camera can shoot in 4K, and the bigger-screen 6S Plus automatically removes jitters from the 4K video you capture. James Martin/CNET

Apple's new iPhones mean you'll be seeing a lot more ultra-sharp 4K video soon.

4K is the term for the next step of high-resolution display beyond 1080p, the standard found in newer televisions. It packs more pixels into the same frame, so it's supposed to make pictures sharper and colors more realistic.

When you watch a particularly crisp video on a nice television today, whether it's a live football game or "The Hobbit" on a Blu-ray disc, you're probably watching it in 1080p. That has been the biggest hurdle tripping up 4K from going mainstream: scarcity of content. You don't have much reason to pay more for a 4K television, laptop or computer monitor when there isn't much stuff to watch that way.

Thanks to the ever-more-popular iPhone, 4K content is set for a surge. The inundation won't come from sleek Hollywood blockbusters or pro sports, but from a flood of user-generated video. When the new iPhone 6S and 6S Plus go on sale Friday, phones from the top two makers in the world, Apple and Samsung, will feature 4K-capable cameras. The consumer-focused shift means the content that will usher in the age of 4K is likely to come from the stars and aspiring filmmakers on sites like YouTube and Vimeo and from regular folks who shoot their baby's first steps or grandma's 80th birthday.

Watch this: Make 4K videos on the iPhone

"It's less of a gimmick now that it's in their pocket all the time," said Andrew Pile, the chief technology officer of video site Vimeo. "The next time that people are shopping for a TV, it's going to start becoming the new baseline of the capabilities that they want."

TV manufacturers started putting 4K panels at the top of their TV lines around 2012, but it was a tough sell. The resolution enhancement didn't justify the premium price. The added pixels with 4K make video look better, but on a screen the size of a television, the improvement is subtle. This year, however, 4K got more affordable, with the biggest manufacturers introducing more lines of 4K panels at a wider range of prices and sizes to make them more mainstream.

That transition has yet to happen for 4K content. Streaming TV shows and movies gives you the best shot. Both Netflix and Amazon have committed original series to 4K, YouTube supports 4K uploads and streams, and cable operator Comcast has made a few NBC and USA shows available to stream in 4K through dedicated apps. Still, television channels uniformly lack 4K. Home movies on disc are scarce. And one of the front-running studios for the format, Twentieth Century Fox, this month revealed the first half-dozen titles it will release on 4K Blu-ray, and they're unlikely to be available this year.

That means instead of trickling down from movie and television studios with deep pockets, 4K adoption is more likely to trickle up from regular consumers.

The iPhone 6S's 4K camera isn't ground-breaking. Samsung offered the feature in the Galaxy Note 3 smartphone-tablet hybrid two years ago and in several models since then, including its Galaxy S5 and S6 smartphones. A host of other vendors have crammed similar cameras into their smartphones too. But as with many technologies, Apple's scale and marketing heft shine a spotlight on the capabilities of 4K video.

4K cameras on popular smartphones like the iPhone will create a huge amount of content, said Frank Sinton, CEO of Beachfront Media, a company that helps online video creators deploy their own apps on mobile devices and connected TVs. "It's definitely going to be pushing Hollywood toward doing more," he said.

Looking back at the transition from lower resolutions to today's 1080p standard, there's an arc that 4K is starting to follow, said Matt Glotzbach, vice president of product management at Google's YouTube. The ubiquitous availability of tools and devices for 1080p also presaged that format's spread. "If I shoot a video of my kids and now it's in 4K...I come to expect that," he said.

Samsung's Galaxy S5 and Galaxy S6 (shown here) offer 4K-capable cameras. Josh P. Miller/CNET

Aspiring filmmakers can step above an amateur visual look more quickly as 4K-capable cameras become the default lens in millions of pockets. To Devin Graham, a filmmaker known for his vibrant travel and adventure videos under the name Devin Super Tramp on YouTube, it is allowing everyday people to compete with Hollywood.

"It isn't about who had the most expensive camera. It's about the ideas you can come up with," he said.

Scott Winn is a filmmaker who posts slick dance-battle videos to YouTube in 4K under the pseudonym ScottDW. Shooting in that format opens up business opportunities, he said. "A lot of companies are looking for fresh, good-looking 4K content that they can showcase on their TV in Best Buy," he said. "The higher resolution I can shoot, the better I can ensure 'future proofing' for licensing deals."

4K for the masses still has downsides even if smartphones make it accessible. It burns up power and eats up storage space. Eric Bowman, the CEO of live-streaming service Stre.am, estimated that shooting 5 minutes of video in that higher resolution will kill about 5 percent of your battery and take up more than a gigabyte -- that's about the same size as a full episode of "Modern Family" in 1080p. Moving 4K video off your device can be slow, and uploading and rendering it takes longer as well.

But technologies all along the assembly line of making 4K video are improving quickly, another Stre.am executive said. "There's so many pieces needed to enable 4K, and they're all now just converging to the point where it's becoming possible," said Jeremy Martin, the company's chief technology officer.

Graham said he switched to shooting in 4K and higher two years ago to fulfill the desire for timelessness, which is just as important to a video of people diving off 50-foot cliffs as it is to a video of a baby's first toothy grin.

"We want to make sure," he said, "our videos stand the test of time."