HD - short for high definition - is everywhere these days, but is it really a big deal and what’s the difference between 720p HD and 1080p Full HD anyway?
Games consoles play HD games, all of the public service broadcasters, that’s the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 have dedicated HD channels and streaming services like Netflix and Prime Instant Video play movies in HD. Even some of the cheap-as-chips entry-level phones that hit the shelves these days have HD screens.
We’ve never been so spoilt for choice when it comes to warm, glowing banks of HD panels in the high street.
But what is HD? HD refers to a level of detail on screen that provides more fluid video and more vibrant colours. HD follows from standard definition - the level of detail in analogue colour TV that most of us grew up with, and probably never even thought about until someone told us it was just, well, ordinary.
Technically, HD is defined by the number of pixels on the screen. But confusingly there are three different types of ‘HD’ resolution out there, so it’s worth knowing a bit more when shopping around for high definition TV sets and related gear.
Just because a TV set or monitor has ‘HD’ slapped on the side, it might not be what you want or need. We take a closer look at 720p, 1080i and 1080p here, and what you need to know.
HD: 720p, 1080i and 1080p - what’s the difference?
720p, 1080i and 1080p are all versions of HD, but they’re all different. It’s important to note that you can’t actually buy a TV sets with a 1080i display, for reasons which we’ll go into a bit later. To begin with we’ll just look at 720p and 1080p and the differences between those.
720p vs 1080p
In the analogue TV days, all UK TVs used the PAL (Phase Alternating Line) broadcast system, which used the standard definition of 576i; this is 720 pixels wide by 576 pixels tall and where the term SD, short for ‘standard definition’ comes from.
The more pixels on the screen, the higher the definition of images will be.
A pixel is the smallest visible element on a display, the ‘dots’ that make up the picture, although back, then, TV pictures were scanned line-by-line, and the width wasn't so important. We'll get onto the 'i' later.
A 720p video (and a 720p monitor) is 1280 (wide) x 720 pixels (tall). That's more than twice the detail of standard definition straight away, and 1080p goes even further, racking up the pixel dimensions to 1920 x 1080 - that's five times more detailed than SD.
Over on our YouTube channel, we’ve taken a humorous look at the history of broadcast definitions which might help explain the differences between the two a little better - as well as prepare you for the next generation of high definition - but that’s another story.
Related: What are Super Hi-Vision, Ultra HD, 4K and 8K TV?An HD TV with a resolution of 720p will only be able to display video at this resolution and no higher.
So if you’re planning on playing HD games on your PlayStation 4 (which supports 1080p Full HD) or streaming the highest quality movies from Netflix you might want to avoid getting a 720p TV set.
That’s not to say that a PlayStation 4 or Netflix won’t work on a 720p set - you just won’t be able to get the absolute best performance.
Most 720p TV sets you’ll see in shops these days tend to be toward the cheaper end of the price spectrum and will be marketed as being ‘HD Ready’. This is because 720p is the absolute minimum required to meet this standard.
Most 1080p sets you’ll see will be marketed as being ‘Full HD’ or 'True HD' as it gives you a richer, more well defined viewing experience.
OK, but does having 720p and 1080p make any real difference?
Related: Quad HD vs qHD vs 4K Ultra HD: What does it all mean?Each TV set will have what’s called its native resolution. This basically means that a 720p set is better at displaying 720p HD broadcasts.
Every broadcast or format your TV receives will be displayed in its native resolution. So if your 720p set receives a 1080p signal from a broadcast, Blu-ray player or games machine, it will downscale it to fit on the screen. Similarly, any standard definition 576p broadcasts will be upscaled.
All HD channels from the BBC, Channel 4, Sky and Virgin Media for example are broadcast in 1080i. A 720p HD TV would then downscale this resolution to fit, while a 1080p TV set would be able to handle it natively. We’ll get on to the difference between 1080i and 1080p in a bit. Promise!
The real plus of having a 1080p TV set have over a 720p one is when it comes to watching Blu-ray movies. Blu-ray is a native 1080p format, so they look their absolute best on 1080p TVs. If you’ve got a growing Blu-ray collection then the choice is clear - go for a 1080p set.
In terms of picture quality on a 24-inch or 26-inch screen the difference is negligible unless you’re sat up close. Only on bigger screens (32-inches and above) can you start to appreciate the benefits of 1080p.
OK great. So what’s 1080i and how is that different to 1080p?
Still with us? Good! OK, here goes. 1080i and 1080p are very similar. 1080i and 1080p broadcasts both display images at the same pixel count as each other - 1920 x 1080. The difference is in how the images are made up on screens.
The lowercase ‘i’ in 1080i stands for interlaced scan. The lowercase ‘p’ in 1080p stands for progressive scan.
Interlaced scan renders images in vertical lines, breaking down the picture into individual columns and then displaying every other line at a very high rate - at 1/25th of a second. Odd-numbered lines get painted on the screen first, then even numbered lines. While this is incredibly fast and impossible for the human eye to detect, it can create a ghostly flickering effect on live TV broadcasts, particularly live sporting events.
Progressive scan renders images sequentially, all at once. This makes for a much smoother image overall that doesn’t suffer from this ghosting effect. What’s more, flat-panel displays like LCDs, LEDs and plasmas (the most common types of HD TVs) will automatically convert any incoming 1080i signal to 1080p. Good quality TVs (generally the expensive ones from well-known brands) will use clever processing to replace the missing lines, but cheaper TVs won't look as good.
Interlaced scan was introduced for analogue TV both as a form of data compression (only sending half the signal at any one time) and because old-school CRTs (cathode ray tube) TVs in the past couldn't physically scan screens fast enough for a progressive picture.
Should I buy a 720p HD Ready TV or a 1080p Full HD TV?
The advantages of a 720p TV set are that they are undoubtedly cheaper. If you’re not after the full home cinema experience, you're buying a smaller TV, and you’re perhaps not so bothered about gaming online, then a 720p TV set will suit you.
Additionally, if you’re after an HD TV set to stream movies to then a 720p TV set might be a good idea if your broadband connection isn’t quite up to handling 1080p streams reliably.
While many of the titles we’ve seen available from Netflix and Prime Instant Video are available in 1080p Full HD, not every service that offers HD content streams Full HD streams. Now TV for example, offers access to catch-up streams in 720p. Blinbox’s HD content is also currently only available in 720p.
Of course if you’re not bothered about streaming to your TV or quality is what you’re after, then get a 1080p TV set. You’ll appreciate the difference when watching movies on a Blu-ray player and on games machines that support 1080p.
It's worth mentioning that the Xbox 360 is a native 720p device. While it will work on 1080p screens (and some 1080p games are supported) the majority of titles are 720p and so will be upscaled to fit on bigger 1080p screens.
You’re not likely to notice a major difference unless you’re up close. But on the flipside, if you own an Xbox 360 and want a TV purely dedicated to gaming then you could always save a bit of cash and get a 720p TV. PlayStation 3 owners can happily stream 1080p Full HD content from services like Netflix, while the Nintendo Wii is the only console of the previous generation of consoles that isn’t natively an HD device, supporting a measly 480p.
Luckily, the current generation is all up to speed when it comes to streaming Full HD media; Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Wii U owners can access 1080p streams from services like BBC iPlayer and Netflix.