iOS 14 Will Let You Watch YouTube Videos in 4K on Your iPhone (But Do You Really Need To?)

YouTube in 4K on iPhone Credit: Jesse Hollington
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Although Apple released its Apple TV 4K almost three years ago, there’s been one major app that’s been conspicuously constrained to only 1080p HD content: YouTube.

While Apple had to fight to get 4K content onto iTunes, it mostly won that battle before the Apple TV 4K even saw the light of day, and now it’s pretty much standard across all of its platforms, and the same is true for streaming services like Netflix and Disney+, and yet YouTube has remained left out of the party.

The reason for this is largely believed to be due to the different codecs that YouTube uses for its 4K videos, which Apple never took the time to natively support in prior versions of tvOS, but we observed last month that this is going to change when tvOS 14 arrives later this year.

However, it looks like tvOS isn’t the only one that will be gaining 4K support for YouTube. Since iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 share the same codebase, you’ll also be able to play 4K YouTube videos on your iPhone and iPad when iOS 14 ships later this fall.

In fact, these capabilities are already unlocked in the current iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 betas — they don’t even appear to require an update to the YouTube app.

If you’re running the public beta of iOS 14, you can actually access YouTube in 4K right now on your iPhone simply by accessing the normal YouTube quality settings and choosing “2160p” (the actual numeric TV resolution that represents 4K).

Right now it’s only possible to watch 4K YouTube videos in the actual YouTube app, not in Safari, so you’ll need to download the YouTube app if you don’t already have it installed. Once you’ve done that, here’s how to play a video in 4K.

How to Watch 4K YouTube Videos on iPhone

  1. Open the YouTube app.
  2. Find a video that’s offered in 4K; not all are, but if you don’t already have one handy, you can just search for “4K” if you want to find some.
  3. Start playing the video.
  4. Wait for any opening ads that appear to finish playing (or skip them when you can)
  5. Tap on the screen where the video is playing.
  6. Tap the three-dot button in the very top-right corner.
  7. From the menu that appears, tap Quality.
  8. Pick 2160p to watch in 4K.

If you have an Apple TV 4K that’s running the tvOS 14 beta, you can also AirPlay videos in 4K to the Apple TV, by starting them in 4K on your iPhone or iPad and then choosing the normal AirPlay options to beam them to your set-top box. This is an especially handy workaround right now as the native tvOS YouTube app hasn’t yet gained support for 4K video.

Supported Models

At this point not all iPhone and iPad models support 4K video in YouTube, and it’s unclear where the lines are being drawn, and whether the support may expand when iOS 14 is released to the public later this year.

According to 9to5Mac, the iPhone X doesn’t support it, and a reader has also added that the iPhone XS doesn’t offer the option either.

Not surprisingly, our own testing has shown that it’s not available on the iPhone 8 Plus, although it works perfectly fine on our iPhone 11 Pro Max and 2020 iPad Pro.

It’s unclear whether these differences are due to CPUs, screen resolutions, or a combination of both, but since iOS 14 is still only in beta, it’s something that could still change in the future.

What’s the Point of 4K on an iPhone?

If you’re paying attention to specs, you’ve probably realized that the iPhone and iPad don’t actually have screens that offer 4K resolution, so you may be asking yourself why you’d care about streaming video in 4K.

Firstly, as we’ve noted above it’s hugely useful right now for an Apple TV 4K, since the YouTube app can’t (yet) do 4K on the set-top box, but of course that’s only a temporary workaround during the beta cycle, and while it’s still handy to occasionally broadcast a video to your Apple TV over AirPlay, the native app is usually much easier if you’re doing any serious YouTubing.

However, while none of Apple’s iPhones and iPads offer full 4K resolution — that would be 3840 x 2160 pixels — most of the recent models do go beyond 1080p HD, which is 1920 x 1080.

For example, the iPhone 11 Pro Max and iPhone XS Max both offered a 2688 x 1242 resolution, while the iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone XS, and iPhone X come in at 2436 x 1125. Even the 2017 iPhone 8 Plus offered a 2208 x 1242 display, as did all of the iPhone “Plus” models before it.

Similarly, Apple’s current iPad Pro lineup offers 2732 x 2048 resolution for the 12.9-inch version and 2388 x 1668 for the 11-inch model.

Only the iPhone 11, iPhone XR, traditional 4.7-inch iPhone models (including the new iPhone SE) are actually below 1080p HD, with screen resolutions ranging from 1792 x 828 down to 1334 x 750, effectively putting them slightly above 720p.

So while you won’t get full 4K quality from any iPhone or iPad, the ability to play 4K video will definitely result in an improvement over the 1080p HD versions. Whether you’ll notice this on a screen that’s 6.5 inches or smaller is a more subjective question, of course, but it does make a noticeable difference when watching on a larger iPad Pro screen.

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