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HDTV – 720p, 1080i, and 1080p?
It seems like everyone is buying a new HDTV this year. The conversation around the water cooler is full of buzzwords. When the HDTV standard in the United States was created by the ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee), they defined eighteen different standards, but not all standards are in common use.
The standards you need to know for HDTV (High Definition TV) are 720p, 1080i and more recently 1080p. The number in the format (eg “720”) is the vertical lines of the display resolution and the letter in the format (eg “p”) represents the display technique. The letter “p” stands for “progressive” scanning and the letter “i” stands for “interlaced”.
HDTV (both 720p, 1080i and 1080p) has a widescreen aspect ratio of 16:9 (width:height). EDTV (enhanced definition) is standard definition television (the SDTV format before HDTV), but with some “interpolation” software. EDTV offers a better picture than SDTV, but not as sharp as HDTV. EDTV uses progressive scan. EDTV sometimes has an aspect ratio of 16:9 (widescreen).
For reference, standard definition television (SDTV, the format before HDTV) has 480 lines of vertical resolution and has an aspect ratio of 4:3. The SDTV signal in the United States has always been an interlaced signal. This means that your TV draws each frame in two passes: once for the even horizontal lines and a second pass for the odd lines. The specification is a maximum resolution for the technology, but often the signal sources are less than the maximum. For example, a VHS tape has approximately 240 lines of vertical resolution, live broadcast SDTV has approximately 330 lines of vertical resolution, and an SDTV DVD has approximately 480 lines of vertical resolution.
Televisions in Europe and Japan have been (and are) in progressive format. A progressive format makes a single pass for all lines. Progressive images look a bit smoother than an interlaced image, especially when there’s a lot of movement on the screen, like sports.
To add to the confusion, BluRay DVDs do, and later this year satellite TV companies will be broadcasting in 1080p. This standard has both the most lines of vertical resolution and the preferred progressive format. The Dish Network will begin satellite broadcasting in 1080p in August 2008 with 150 HDTV channels, and DirecTV will begin satellite and Internet broadcasting by the end of 2008, with approximately 130 channels of HDTV programming. Satellite companies compress their signal with MPEG-4 techniques, which reduces the bandwidth needed for broadcasting. Currently, the only source material for 1080p is movies, especially movies originally made for IMAX. None of the major networks (ABC, ESPN, etc.) have announced 1080p support yet. Additionally, Sony PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 offer 1080p gaming.
HDTV video format: 720p, 1080i and 1080p, the higher the number the better, right? Even though 1080i technically has a higher resolution, it’s not the obvious choice. 1080i has 1080 vertical lines of resolution and 1920 horizontal lines of resolution. 720p has 720 lines of vertical resolution and 1280 lines of horizontal resolution. But the 720p system is gradually being swept away. This compensates for the lower resolution level. The 1080p signal is the best of both worlds, more picture information with a progressive format.
If your received signal, for example for a satellite receiver, is mainly in standard definition, a 1080p television will not significantly improve your image compared to a 720p television. Picture quality is fundamentally limited by the source signal (480 lines of vertical resolution). Likewise, if your signal has a 720 source, the 1080 TV will not improve your picture. All high definition sports programming from Fox, ESPN and ABC is broadcast in 720p.
Some networks opted for 1080i because it provides more picture information, while ABC, Fox, ESPN and National Geographic Channel chose the smoother 720p pictures. HDTV programming on CBS, NBC and other networks is broadcast in 1080i. Newer 1080i or 1080p HDTVs will likely render this type of programming a bit sharper than it looks on a 720p TV. This becomes more important because as the TV screen gets larger, the visible difference in detail between 720p and 1080i and 1080p screens becomes more apparent. For this reason, most HDTVs over 50 inches are 1080p or 1080i.
1080p HDTV System Capabilities:
A 1080p HDTV displays all input signals at 1080p, as this is the normal resolution for the device. If the system is lower than 1080i or 1080p, a special chip in your HDTV adapts the signal. It will interpolate, like EDTV does with an SDTV signal. If the signal is 1080i, the system will combine the interlaced even and odd fields and display the full signal in 1080p. The resulting performance should be similar to that of a true 1080p video source.
More than 100 million American homes can receive HDTV from their cable system, and all of the nation’s top 100 cable markets have HDTV programming available. Unfortunately, most cable companies only carry a few of the over 50 HDTV networks available.
High definition satellite television:
Although the selection of local HDTV channels is generally better on cable than on satellite, the major satellite companies offer more national HDTV channels than almost any cable provider. DirecTV and Dish Network have promised to offer over 130 HDTV channels by the end of the year. “Satellite won’t be limited so much by the number of channels it can carry as by the number it can get,” Bob Scherman, Satellite Business News.
Screen resolution for HDTV has become comparable to microprocessor clock speed for personal computers. Even though clock speed isn’t necessarily a perfect indication of overall system performance, the consumer often thinks of it that way.
Interestingly, when a panel of experts, the Society of Motion Pictures and Television Engineers (SMPTE), recently ranked the importance of resolution, it came in fourth. SMPTE ranked contrast ratio, color saturation, color temperature, and grayscale ahead of resolution in importance. The Imaging Science Foundation came to a similar conclusion. However, most HDTV manufacturers incorporate quality features such as improved contrast ratio with higher screen resolutions into their high-end HDTVs. So if you buy a set with a high-end screen resolution, you’ll most likely receive the manufacturer’s high-end for other important screen criteria.
Prices have fallen significantly over the past couple of years, but it seems the rate of price reduction has slowed significantly lately. “TV shoppers who visit department stores may be more concerned with getting a lower price and may not seek expert advice. However, TV shoppers should be aware that the lower prices they find at large retailers are mainly due to the fact that these stores tend to sell second brand televisions, rather than big brands such as Sony or Panasonic.When the prices of a specific television model are compared at each type of retailer, prices are surprisingly similar,” Larry Wu of JD Power.
And on a final note, be sure to consider the audio side of your system. George Lucas (Star Wars) once said that audio is half the movie viewing experience. This is also true for a good game of football or basketball.
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