1080p vs. 720p

Comparing 1080p HDTVs and 720p HDTVs

The question of 720p HDTV versus 1080p HDTV is becoming increasingly prominent in the television market, as there is a significant price spread separating these two technologies. First, however, you should understand where 720p and 1080p rank on the scale of standard TV screen resolutions.

Right now, television manufacturers offer four standard resolutions, the lowest of which is 480p. Next up is 720p, which has largely become the middle-of-the-road default; 1080p offers an improvement for those willing to pay a premium, while "ultra HD" is even better than 1080p if you insist on having the very best picture quality available.

What Does the "P" Stand For?

To understand the appreciable difference between these resolutions, you need to know that the "p" stands for "progressive scans," and essentially expresses how many vertical lines of resolution are displayed on the TV screen. With 480p, you get 480 vertical lines of resolution; 720p offers 720 vertical lines, and so on. The more vertical lines, the crisper and clearer the picture…but only when viewed from the optimal viewing distance.

Comparing Optimal Viewing Distances

From a consumer standpoint, the big question is whether or not the human eye can even discern enough of a difference between 720p and 1080p to justify the increased cost of a higher-resolution television. The answer depends on two factors: the size of the screen, and the distance from which you view the picture.

No matter what screen size or resolution you choose, there is an optimal viewing distance from which the picture will look best. The actual metrics used to measure this distance are complex, but they can be summed up in one general rule of thumb: if you watch TV from a distance of 10 feet or more (which you should anyway), there will be little to no appreciable difference in picture quality between 720p and 1080p if your TV screen is no larger than 50 inches, measured diagonally. This rule of thumb is true regardless of whether you're viewing a 1080i, 1080p plasma, or 1080p LCD TV, or its 720p counterpart.

If you're selecting a TV with a screen size in excess of 50 inches diagonally, it may be better to get a higher resolution if you plan to watch from up close. However, if you sit far away from your TV, the better resolution won't make an appreciable difference.

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