720p vs 1080p - A Comparison

What You Need To Know About 720p and 1080p

Video Resolution Chart - 480i to 1080p
Video Resolution Chart - 480i to 1080p. mage via Wikimedia Commons - Public Domain

Although 4K gets all the buzz these days as the highest resolution available for TVs and video projectors, 720p and 1080p are also high definition resolutions that are in use. The other characteristic 1080p and 720p share in common are that they are progressive display formats (that is where the "p" comes from). However, this is where the similarity between 720p and 1080p ends.

How 720p and 1080p Differ

  • 720p is 1,280 pixels displayed across the screen horizontally and 720 pixels down the screen vertically. This yields 720 horizontal lines on the screen, which are, in turn, displayed progressively, or each line displayed following another.
  • 1080p represents 1,920 pixels displayed across the screen horizontally and 1,080 pixels down the screen vertically. This results in 1,080 horizontal pixels on the screen, which are, in turn, displayed progressively, or each line of pixels displayed following another. In other words, just as with 720p, all pixel rows (lines) are displayed progressively.

The total number of pixels that make up a 720p image is about 1 million (equivalent to 1 megapixel in a digital still camera), while the there are 2 million pixels in a 1080p image. This means that a 1080p image can display a lot more detail than a 720p image.

However, how does this all translate to what you actually see on a TV screen? Shouldn't it be easy to see the difference between a 720p and 1080p TV? Not necessarily.

720p and 1080p pixel density, screen size and seating distance from the screen need to be taken into consideration. If you have a 720p or 1080p TV/video projector the number of pixels displayed for each is the same no matter what the size of the screen is - what changes are the number of pixels per inch. This means that as the screen gets larger, the pixels get larger - and your seating distance will affect how you perceive the detail displayed on the screen.

720p, TV Broadcasts, and Cable/Satellite

TV broadcasters and cable/satellite providers send programming in several resolutions. ABC and FOX (which includes their cable channels, such as ESPN, ABC Family, etc...) use 720p, while most other providers, such as PBS, NBC, CBS, CW, TNT, and most premium services, such as HBO, use 1080i. In addition, there are some cable and satellite feeds that are sent in 1080p, and DirecTV offers some 4K programming. Internet streaming providers send out a variety of resolutions, including 720p, 1080p, and 4K.

For cable and satellite, a 720p TV will scale 1080i and 1080p input signals according to its own native pixel resolution (720p TVs are not compatible with 4K signals). If accessing content via a media streamer you can set the output to match your TV's resolution. If you have a smart TV, it will scale the incoming streaming signal to fit the display resolution.

Blu-ray and 720p

Contrary to what many think you can use Blu-ray Disc player with a 720p TV. All Blu-ray disc players can be set to output 480p/720p/1080i/or 1080p via HDMI output connection.

Also, when connected to a TV or video projector via HDMI, most Blu-ray Disc players automatically detect the native resolution of the TV/projector they are connected to and will set the output resolution accordingly. Blu-ray Disc players also provide the ability to set the output resolution manually.

The Bottom Line - Should You Buy a 720p TV?

To answer this question, it must be noted that the large majority of TVs now are 4K, but there is still a number (although shrinking) 1080p TVs available. However, lower prices for 4K Ultra HD TVs are not only putting pressure on the availability of 1080p TVs but is severely reducing the availability of 720p TVs, pushing them down into the smaller screen size category - it is rare to see a 720p TV offered in screen sizes larger than 32-inches.

It must also be noted that most TVs that are now labeled as 720p TVs actually have a native pixel resolution of 1366x768, which is technically 768p. However, they are usually advertised as 720p TVs. Don't let this throw you off, these sets will all accept incoming 720p, 1080i, and 1080p resolution signals. The TV will process and scale any incoming resolution to its native 1366x768 pixel display resolution.

How you perceive the difference between 720p, 1080p, or any other resolution, is in the actual viewing experience with your TV. You may find that a specific 720p TV can actually look better than a specific 1080p TV as the resolution is just one factor. Motion response, color processing, contrast, brightness, and video upscaling or downscaling also contribute to picture quality.

Of course, the quality of the source signal also plays a big part. The TV's video processor can only compensate so much for poor quality source signals, especially with VHS or analog cable, and, for internet streaming sources, the quality depends not only on the source but your internet streaming speed.

Let your eyes be your guide.