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The best times to buy streaming movies or TV shows in SD, HD, or UHD

Apple finally embraces 4K movies with its new Apple TV. You might be wondering “What’s all the fuss?”. Maybe you’ve heard the 4K/UHD buzzword since years ago but didn’t pay much attention because it all sounded too marketing mumbo-jumbo to your ears.

That may have been true a few years back, when there was very little 4K content and expensive UHD TV sets that seemed like a waste of money. Only early adopters of technology, avid videophiles, and people with large swathes of disposable income were interested.

Now, 4K is finally here. With 4K TV sets becoming more affordable and Apple pushing 4K content into the mainstream, it’s safe to say that 4K is here.

Although 4K streaming video is not new, Amazon Video and Netflix have offered it for some time. With Apple and iTunes now in the mix, we will see more of this UHD option being promoted when we rent or buy videos online.

What does this all mean? And why are some video resolutions more expensive than others?

What is video resolution?

There are three streaming formats currently available: Standard Definition (SD), High Definition(HD) and Ultra High Definition [UHD].

The difference between SD, HD and UHD formats is basically the number of pixels in the video image. The tiny dots that make up the image on your screen are called pixels. You have more pixels the higher your resolution. You get sharper and more detailed pictures if you have more pixels.

These formats’ vertical resolutions are represented by the numbers that are commonly attached to them. The comparison image below shows the significant differences between the resolutions.

In the following sections, I will explain why and when you should choose one format over another.

SD Quality

SD quality, also known as Standard Definition, is the most affordable format that you can rent or purchase. This is also called DVD quality, as it has the highest resolution of DVD movies: 858×480 (480p).

SD quality might be sufficient for smaller screens, such as old tube TVs and smartphones. Some say the differences in resolution between SD and HD cannot be discerned on small screens, so it’s best to just waste the extra pixels.

SD videos are smaller and use less bandwidth than HD and UHD video files. SD videos are generally cheaper to rent than HD or UHD videos, so SD is a smarter option if you plan on renting a movie while on the move. It’s important to note that I said renting, not buying. We’ll get to that in a moment.

SD quality is more efficient than streaming from Amazon Video or Netflix on mobile because it uses less bandwidth. To alleviate congestion, many carriers already throttle streaming video to SD.

HD Quality

HD quality includes 1080p and 720p videos. HD is shorthand for HD (1280×720 pixels), and Full HD is 1080p (1920×1080 pixels).

The extra cost of the HD version is worth it if you are watching a movie at home on a 32-inch TV with at least 720p compatibility. The HD version of a movie will give you a noticeable increase in quality and detail that is hard to miss. You will notice a significant difference in quality and detail if your TV is larger than you are. This holds true even for 1080p and 720p resolution videos.

You should also remember that HD movies purchased from streaming sites such as Vudu, Amazon and Google Play come with the SD quality version. To save bandwidth, the SD quality version can be viewed if you plan to watch your movie later on the road using a mobile device.

UHD/4K Quality

Here’s the newest format: 4K (3860×2160 pixels) video. A 4K TV set and matching content used to be an expensive luxury. Slowly but surely, 4K TV prices have dropped and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon offer more 4K content. This is a sign of mainstream adoption.

4K streaming movies are typically more expensive than their HD counterparts. They cost around $30 per movie. As usual, early adopters were the losers. They had to repurchase all of their 4K movies if they wanted to add them to the collection. Talk about double or triple dipping.

Things are starting to look better since Apple joined 4K. Apple, ever the market disruptor and innovator, managed to get the iTunes 4K movie price down to $19.99. Even better, all HD movies in your iTunes movie collection automatically get the 4K version.

Other streaming services are paying attention. We expect other streaming services like Vudu and Apple to follow the lead of Amazon’s 4K video announcement.

Remember that 4K videos can be very large and consume a lot of bandwidth. You should ensure that your internet connection is fast enough to handle 4K video.

Bottom line

It is not difficult to make a decision. My recommendation is to buy at least 1080p HD if you are purchasing a favorite movie for your video collection. You’ll be watching it over and over again. HD is the best option when in doubt.

You can rent a movie for a quick viewing. If you don’t have a standard definition at home or your smartphone has an SD version, the SD version will suffice. Rent the HD version if it’s family movie night on the main HDTV.


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