1080p HDTV represents the latest in a series of HDTV video formats. With a variety of formats to choose from, things for the HDTV buyer may start to get confusing. In this article, we discuss the difference between 720p, 1080i, and 1080p HD formats, to help you get a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each.

1080p HDTV Sets

Andrew Ghigo | Practical Home Theater Guide

1080p HDTV represents the latest in a series of HDTV video formats. With a variety of formats to choose from, things for the HDTV buyer may start to get confusing. In this article, we discuss the difference between 720p, 1080i, and 1080p HD formats, to help you get a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each.

By: Andrew Ghigo
Editor and Publisher

It is all an issue of Image Resolution

There are currently three different HDTV formats: 720p, 1080i, and 1080p; all three are designated as HD-Digital TV standards by the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC), which adopted these formats.

The main difference between these three HDTV formats is one of image resolution.

The 720p is on the lower-end of the scale with an image resolution of 1280 pixels by 720 lines. The other two formats both support 1920 pixels by 1080 lines.

In other words, both support the same image resolution but there is a significant difference in the way the 1080i (interlaced) and the 1080p (progressive) formats build up the image.

Surely, image resolution in fixed-pixel displays is a very HOT topic with many HDTV buyers. For many, the obvious choice is to opt for the latest 1080p HDTV - also referred to as ultra-HD or full-HD by some manufacturers ...but there is a price to pay to get the latest in HDTV technology.

On the other hand, the way the 1080i and the 720p formats build up the image may render the lower resolution 720p format more suitable to display certain image content.

In other words, do not simply jump to conclusions as to which HD format is best. As we will explain further on in this article, each of these different HDTV formats has got its strengths and weaknesses.

1080i: Up to a few years ago, this was considered as the reference standard in HDTV. Nearly all first-generation HDTVs were rear-projection sets that supported this standard. This format boasts a picture resolution of 1920 pixels by 1080 horizontal lines that are painted on the screen in two interlaced halves (hence the 'i' in the '1080i' format) - by first painting all 540 even-numbered lines on the screen (also referred to as the even-field), and then proceed with the painting of all 540 odd-numbered lines (odd-field). These two fields together form a single frame of 1080 lines.

In the process, the screen is painted 60 times per second (50 times in a PAL signal) - each time painting only half of the lines per frame, with the entire screen being painted in two passes 30 times every second.

Because of the way the interlaced process paints the screen, all picture information contained in adjacent odd and even lines in an interlaced image is 1/60th of a second out-of-synch with the next or previous line. This in itself will impact on the type of image content that is best displayed on an interlaced display.

720p and 1080p HDTV: In contrast, in all progressive-scan formats - 480p (EDTV), and 720p and the 1080p HDTV displays - all scanning lines in a single frame are displayed sequentially in a single pass.
In the process, a progressive scan video format writes one full frame of video information every 1/60 of a second as against the 1/30th of second required for an interlaced format.

The Bottom Line

The 1080i format is more widely supported by manufacturers and broadcasters; broadcasters however would normally broadcast only in either 720p or 1080i but not both. This should not be much of an issue in that any HDTV set you buy should be able to display pictures in any HDTV format by up-converting or down-converting to its native format, i.e. the one in which it's designed to produce a picture.

From a pixel-count perspective, the 1080i supports better spatial resolution than a 720p HDTV display. In fact, while a 1080i supports a total pixel count of 2.07 million pixels, a 720p display supports only 0.92 million pixels. This means that if you want to display a 1080i signal on a 720p screen, you will lose 55.6% of pixels information.

This is not the case with 1080p HDTV which supports the same spatial resolution as 1080i, but with the added benefit that all 1080 scanning lines are displayed in a single pass, 60 times per second.
In other words, 1080p HDTV combines the superior resolution of 1080i with the progressive-scan smoothness of 720p.

Because of the two passes per frame in a 1080i signal, a 1080i HDTV display is capable of producing a sharper picture only when the image is frozen or barely moving.

Progressive-scan 720p and 1080p HDTV displays introduce fewer motion artifacts, such as jagged diagonal lines and movement in fine detail, into the picture, leading to a  video image that looks smoother and that stays sharper during motion than an interlaced one.

This means that a 720p display - with its substantially lower picture resolution, need not necessarily be worse than a 1080i one. Theoretically, a 720p display should be capable of a better flicker-free picture when it comes to fast moving action movie scenes and sports.

In comparison to the other two HDTV formats, 1080p HDTV has the best of both worlds - it has the spatial resolution of a 1080i signal and the smooth stable image of a progressive scan format.

It is worth mentioning here that interlaced formats aren't really an option in fixed-pixel displays (DLP and LCD rear-projection as well as plasma and LCD flat-panel). This also explains why display manufacturers are shifting away from the 1080i and instead moving directly from 720p to 1080p HDTV.

And What about 1080p HDTV Sets?

Surely, 1080p HDTV represents the latest developments in HD Television technology. A few of these sets have already started to hit the market.  

Not surprisingly, these sets do not come cheap. There is a premium one has to pay to get the latest and best in the HDTV world. As a minimum, expect to pay at least $1,000 to $2,000 more to jump from a 720p to a 1080p HDTV display. But when you are spending some $3,000 plus for a HDTV set, it is only human that you will be ready to fork out another one or two thousand dollars to get the best of breed.

Should you opt for a 1080p HDTV Set, and are these sets worth the extra expense?

Well, there is no straight answer here. It all depends on what are your requirements, yet there are a few facts you should know before making any decision:

  • Surely, these sets are capable of producing spectacular results, but whether you will be able to see the difference in image quality between 720p and 1080i displayed on a 1080p HDTV display, depends on your viewing distance more than on the set native resolution. (For more info, please see our TV viewing distance article appearing under the Home Theater Design Section of the site).
  • In reality, it would be very difficult to detect any difference in image detail between 720p and 1080i/p HDTV material on a 42" set from 10-feet away. Sit closer and feed your 1080p HDTV set with a good quality HD source and you will start to see the difference.
  • Further more, with most of today's HD broadcasts, you'll be hard pressed to see a difference in picture quality when you compare the image on current 720p sets versus the latest 1080p HDTV models.
  • Surely, if you are thinking of going really big, the extra image resolution would make the difference. But keep in mind that at present, true 1080p HDTV material is almost non-existent. What's more, none of the major networks has announced 1080p broadcasts. If and when such high-def formats as 'Blu-ray' or 'HD-DVD' take off, the equation may change. But it will probably be at least a few years from now before this stuff become truly within reach of many household budgets.

Finally, most 1080p HDTV sets presently available on the market do not offer a 1080p connection. Though the HDMI standard does support 1080p HDTV, yet the majority of today's 1080p HDTV sets do not offer a 1080p interface on their HDMI port.

To a certain extent, this is explained by the lack of true 1080p HDTV gear with which these sets can interconnect. In fact, what 1080p sets do is to up-convert 1080i material to 1080p HDTV to combine the benefits of a superior resolution of the 1080i format with the image smoothness and motion sharpness of progressive-scanning.

More information on HDTV and rear Projection TV systems is available at Practical Home Theater Guide. This article is an excerpt from a series of guides appearing under the Rear Projection TV Reviews section of the site.

Copyright © 2004-2005 practical-home-theater-guide.com

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