For a small number of people, Google briefly tested a change to YouTube Premium that would make 4K videos unavailable to free users.

YouTube has supported 4K videos since 2010, years before the resolution format became commonplace, allowing the service to be more futureproof. In the 12 years since then, 4K videos — and even higher resolutions like 8K, introduced to the platform in 2015 — have been freely available to be viewed by all YouTube fans.

According to multiple reports [1, 2] across Reddit over the past month, YouTube has been testing a change to that status quo. For those in Google’s experiment group, when selecting a specific resolution for a video, non-subscribers members will see the word “Premium” next to the option for 4K/2160p.

Simply put, the experiment adds a new restriction to free users of YouTube while simultaneously serving as a new “perk” of YouTube Premium. As it stands today, the YouTube Premium subscription removes advertising from the platform, lets you play videos in the background on Android, and even download videos to watch offline. The subscription also bundles Google’s music streaming service YouTube Music.

  • YouTube video resolution selector on Desktop showing "Premium" next to 2160p/4K
  • YouTube video resolution selector on mobile showing "Premium * Tap to upgrade" next to 2160p/4K

This would mark the first time that YouTube locked higher quality of video like 4K behind its Premium subscription. In some ways, it’s actually reminiscent of the (soon to be shut down) Stadia Pro subscription, which enabled players to try Stadia games in up to 4K with HDR colors and 5.1 surround sound.

Update 10/17: According to multiple tweets from the official TeamYouTube account on Twitter, Google and YouTube have fully discontinued the experiment that made 4K videos exclusive to Premium subscribers. No reason was given for the change, but we’ve no doubt the significant amount of negative feedback online played a role in the decision making.

Notably, in one tweet (translated from Japanese), Team YouTube offers fans a link to instructions on how to give direct feedback on the proposed 4K resolution change for Premium and on YouTube in general. While the experiment has now been rolled back, if you feel strongly that 4K videos should remain freely available, consider leaving feedback of your own.

We’ve updated the headline of this post to reflect that the experiment has been cancelled.

In all likelihood, the new restriction on 4K videos is probably only being tested with a small group of users in order to obtain feedback on the change. A similar style of change happened just last month, when YouTube tested putting as many as 10 unskippable ads into a video’s break. Depending on the feedback received, Google may decide against limiting 4K videos to YouTube Premium.

Overall, this seems like it could be another result of Google’s recent buckling down, which has resulted in slowed hiring, the scaling back of divisions, and the outright shutdown of some services. In theory, limiting 4K and higher resolution streams to YouTube Premium could reduce the cost of free YouTube users while also incentivizing new subscribers.

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About the Author

Kyle Bradshaw

Kyle is an author and researcher for 9to5Google, with special interests in Made by Google products, Fuchsia, and Stadia.

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