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 ultimate high-resolution video format available, 720p and 1080p are actually both high definition video display formats. In addition, 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 arrangement 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 arrangement yields 1,080 horizontal lines on the screen, which are, in turn, displayed progressively, or each line of pixels displayed following another. In other words, all lines are displayed progressively, providing a very detailed, and smooth looking, high definition video image.

The main difference between 720p and 1080p lies in the number of pixels that make up a 720p image and 1080p image. For 720p the number of pixels that make up the image is about 1 million (equivalent to 1 megapixel in a digital still camera) and about 2 million pixels for 1080p. This means that a 1080p image has the potential to 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.

Besides pixel density of 1080p vs 720p, there are also the factors of screen size and seating distance from the screen to take into consideration. For example, if you have a 720p or 1080p TV or video projectors 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.

Should I Buy a 720p TV?

In answering this question, it must be noted that the large majority of TVs now are actually 4K, but there are still many 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 being offered in screen sizes larger than 32-inches.

Also, it must be pointed out 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.

720p, TV Broadcasts, and Cable/Satellite

Television broadcasters and cable/satellite providers send out their programming in several resolutions. For example, 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 internet streaming providers send out a variety of resolutions, including 720p, 1080p, and even 4K.

If you have a recent model 720p TV, you will be able to access the content. In the case of TV, cable, and satellite, the TV will scale the input signal according to its own native pixel resolution. If accessing content via a media streamer you can set the output of the streamer to match your TV's resolution. If you have a smart TV, the TV will scale the incoming streaming signal according to your TV's capabilities;

Blu-ray and 720p

Contrary to what many think you can use Blu-ray Disc player on 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. In addition, Blu-ray Disc players also provide the ability to set the output resolution manually if you so desire.

The Bottom Line

In the final analysis how you perceive the difference between 720p, 1080p, or any other resolution is in the actual viewing experience. How the image looks to you in the real world with your specific HDTV. You may find that a specific 720p TV can actually look better than a specific 1080p TV. This is because what you see on the screen is the result of many factors, with the resolution being just one. Other factors to take into consideration are motion response, color processing, contrast, brightness, and background video, and video scaling. Not all HDTVs and video processors are created equal.

Of course, the quality of the source signal also plays a big part. The TV's video processor can only do so much for compensating for poor quality source signals, especially when you are looking a VHS or analog cable signal, and, for internet streaming sources, the quality depends not only on the quality of the source but your internet streaming speed. Let your eyes be your guide.

Here are some additional articles that discuss other resolution formats:

720p vs 1080i

1080i vs 1080p

4K Resolution - aka 2160p

Going Beyond 4K - What You Need To Know About 8K