Practical 720p vs. 1080p

Have you ever wondered why 720p televisions are still available? Are 720p TVs cheaper? Is that the only reason? Read on for a practical analysis.

720p is 1280 pixels horizontally 720 pixels vertically. 1080p is 1920×1080. The “p” means Progressive Scan which means a full frame (as opposed to interlaced standards like 1080i) and 720p is generally 30 frames per second but can be 24, 25, and 60 frames per second.

Enough with the technical jargon! Which TV should I put in my living room? It is no lie that most 720p sets are cheaper than 1080p sets. Fewer pixels means less bandwidth required to process the images which means less processing power is required. Display panels with larger pixels are easier to produce so manufacturing cycle time is reduced and there are less scrapped panels. That proves that if you are going for the absolute cheapest TV, you’ll get a 720p. But then why are there quality 720p TVs on the market?

A quality 720p set (such as a Panasonic Viera) offers an excellent compromise between high definition programming and standard definition programming. If you don’t like the way your DVDs look on a 1080p TV, they will likely look much better on a 720p. Why? Standard definition programming is roughly 640×480 (the actual NTSC standard is 500 lines vertically) and 720 has exactly double the horizontal resolution (640*2=1280) and not quite double the vertical resolution. This means that every pixel of your standard definition video is going to be extrapolated into about 4 pixels on a 720p set (2 horizontal and 2 vertical). On a 1080p set a single pixel gets extrapolated to approximately 3 horizontal and almost 3 vertical (it is more than 2 but less than 3) which is about 9 pixels!

Stretching a video to use more pixels than the original source almost never looks good. Certainly it looks less sharp but it can also look blocky and edge artifacts can be introduced. Upscaling DVD players do a nice job of stretching the video without adding artifacts but the video will not appear to be as sharp as a high definition video.

It all depends on your source.

We have a collection of kids movies and videos that are on standard definition DVDs and we often watch shows that aren’t in HD. If all you watch are Blurays then you don’t need to be concerned with standard definition at all. And if you only view 1080p content, a 1080p television looks better.

The distance from your TV.

Do you want a 1080p television because it is “better” but are planning to buy a 40″ or less? You’ll need to consider the distance that you sit from the television. At a distance of 10 feet, you won’t be able to tell the difference between 720p and 1080p viewing a 40″ TV. Your eyes just can’t discern the extra detail, but they can see the artifacts and poor extrapolation of standard definition content.

My recommendation: choose a quality 720p plasma for general TV viewing. Less artifacts provide a more pleasant experience.

* Lots of details were left out of this document such as upscaling satellite receivers, 720p plasmas that use rectangular pixels and have a native resolution of 1024×768, video game systems and using the TV as a computer monitor. However this post was intended to be a very general guideline using empirically derived data for the average TV viewer. 1080p is a very good choice at the expense of older formats. 720p is a great compromise.

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