In Tech, What Does ‘K’ Mean?

One of the buzzwords at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) conference was 4K CZK, featured in several new gaming upgrades. Microsoft has unveiled the new Xbox One X console, a more powerful upgrade to their existing Xbox One S console, both of which are capable of 4K graphics output. Sony also joins this 4K group with the recently launched Playstation 4 Pro. Meanwhile, game developers have been promoting new console and PC titles that use 4K graphics, as well as 4K enhancements to existing games. But what is a K, and why do four of them make a better picture?

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The KY IN 4K CZK taken from the prefix kilo-means “thousand”, comes from the French in English, but is of Greek origin chilioi. You may have seen kilo- used for units of measurement in the International System of Units (abbreviated SI, from its French name, International system d’unités), such as kilometer And kg. KY commonly used when typing “thousand” takes up unnecessary space, as in this example from the 2015 Chicago Tribune headline:

National crowdfunding raised $500k for Project Englewood

In this case, however, K is more of a marketing ploy than a real number. If you get very close to the video screen, you can see that the image is actually made up of a grid of tiny dots called pixel. The more pixels that can be displayed on a given screen (in other words, the higher it is Resolution is), the sharper the image on the screen may be. One of the higher resolutions available in consumer electronics is 3840 pixels wide x 2160 pixels tall, for a total of 8.3 megapixel. Marketers call this resolution 4K because it has almost four thousand pixels–and perhaps because it sounds more impressive than “3.84K”.

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The use of K means thousand dating from at least the mid-1940s: the earliest mention of it in our database is a glossary entry in a 1945 McGraw-Hill textbook Basic electrical engineering. Two years later, Radio Corporation of America included it in their own glossary, Common words in radio, television and electronics. An early use of the word in a sentence stems from the September 1969 issue of the magazine data magazine:

By 5 p.m. Friday, he had raised $750,000, by Monday, another $250k. —Robert B. Forest, “Scene News”

K is also sometimes used in a computer context to mean kilobytes, although it is more commonly used by computer scientists. Like 4K, this use of K is a bit misleading, as pointed out in this 1982 quote:

16K memory actually stores 16,384 bytes. —Ellen Richman, Focus on computer knowledgeRandom House, 1982

Because of the way computer memory addresses are assigned, bytes in a computer’s memory are usually grouped by powers of two rather than powers of ten. Early computer scientists borrowed much SI prefix, including “kilo-“, to indicate that powers of two are close to the corresponding powers of ten. So a kilobyte can be a thousand bytes or 1024 (210) bytes. In 1998, to reduce this confusion, the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) coined the term kibibyte to refer to an amount of 1024 bytes. However, the term is not used much outside of the field, and even among computer scientists, it is common to use “kilobyte” to refer to 1024 bytes.

Under no circumstances will video games benefit from a 4K display unless the graphics for the game and the gaming device are designed with 4K resolution in mind. Microsoft and Sony hope to boost their console sales by advertising their 4K capabilities, while the developers have worked hard to produce the right games. Unfortunately, although 4K monitors can still display images at lower resolutions, the reverse does not apply; you won’t be able to enjoy the new 4K graphics without buying a 4K monitor. At least for now, it doesn’t seem like most gamers will get the big picture.

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Categories: Usage Notes

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