How frustrating is it to watch YouTube in 4K on your computer, Roku, or Amazon Fire Stick, only to settle for measly 1080p on your brand-new iPhone? For years, those of us on iOS had no option for streaming YouTube videos in full resolution, but these days, things are finally different.
If you're still running iOS 13 or an older iOS version, you won't see any 4K or 4K High Dynamic Range videos available in the YouTube app for iPhone unless they are films you rent or purchase. That's because streaming and watching 4K and 4K HDR videos on YouTube is entirely new to iOS 14, Apple's latest mobile operating system, which is currently in beta right now.
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The reason why iOS 14 lets you watch 4K content on YouTube is that it adds support for Google's VP9 video codec. A video codec is essentially a program that makes processing video possible. Apple uses one 4K codec for its services (H.265), and Google uses another (VP9).
That split is why we haven't seen 4K or 4K HDR for YouTube beyond rentals and purchases on any of Apple's products, including the YouTube app for iOS and Safari for iOS and macOS.
It's a little surprising to see Apple cave in and add VP9 support for all of its devices. After all, this is the company that refused to add Flash support to iOS. But hey, if it means we get to watch higher resolution YouTube videos on the iPhone, I'm not complaining.
There are two main variants of 4K: regular 4K resolution and 4K HDR. The HDR aspect is the same resolution but has more information per pixel to create more vibrant images. In the YouTube app, you'll see 2160p as 4K and 2160 HDR as 4K HDR (both of which are Ultra HD at 3840-by-2160 pixels).
Both types should play in the updated YouTube app for iOS 14; only we've had mixed results. We've played the same video on multiple supported iPhone models running iOS 14, and we've seen the 4K and 4K HDR options on some but not all devices. We've actually had more luck playing 4K HDR over just regular 4K videos.
Surely, it can be accredited to being a buggy beta, so things should smooth out as things progress in development.
But it's also worth mentioning that while YouTube on iOS 13 and older maxed out at 1080p for all videos, in iOS 14, in addition to 4K and 4K HDR, we've seen 1440p options (which is Quad HD). Given that the highest resolution iPhone model is 2688-by-1242 pixels, 1440p (2560 by 1440) is a solid option.
Apple doesn't have any official information on which iPhone models are compatible with iOS 14's higher-res YouTube videos. In fact, the company hasn't even publicly acknowledged the feature in the first place, aside from a quick note in the new tvOS 14 features list for Apple TV 4K.
Every iPhone model since the iPhone 8 has supported either "Dolby Vision and HDR10 content" or "High Dynamic Range with Dolby Vision and HDR10 content," but none specifies 4K resolution for video playback. However, in an App Store story by Apple, the company pointed out that the iPhone 8 and later can all play 4K and 4K HDR videos, depending on the app. That doesn't mean it can play them using the VP9 codec — unless you're on iOS 14.
But to stream 4K and 4K HDR content on your iPhone on YouTube in iOS 14, you need to have a device that has an OLED and HDR display. Right now, that's the iPhone XS, XS Max, 11 Pro, and 11 Pro Max. While we just noted that the iPhone 8 and later could play 4K and 4K HDR, that doesn't seem to be the case right now for YouTube on iOS 14. And while the iPhone X lists an OLED and HDR display, it doesn't seem to be compatible right now.
If you have one of the above iPhones, it should be compatible with 4K and 4K HDR YouTube videos. We've tested it out on the iPhone X and it doesn't work, but it does on those four models above. Hopefully, we get the same treatment for the, iPhone 8, 8 Plus, X, XR, 11, and SE (2nd generation), even if it's just for being able to AirPlay Ultra HD YouTube content to another device.
If you have an iPhone that's compatible with YouTube's 4K or 4K HDR, you just need to update to iOS 14 and update the YouTube app. Apple's iOS 14 is in beta right now, but you can still download and install it on your iPhone.
With your iPhone running iOS 14 and an up-to-date YouTube app, streaming 4K content on YouTube is a breeze. Seriously. Just open the app, select a 4K or 4K HDR video, and tap the vertical ellipsis (three dots) in the top right of the video. Next, choose 2160p or 2160p HDR at any frame rate for Ultra HD. You can also choose the new 1440p or 1440p HDR as well for Quad HD.
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