Plasma TV & HDTV Resolution

In this guide I am going to explain to you what the resolution is, the various resolutions found in TVs and HDTVs, as well as the difference between them. I will also describe in detail why buying a HDTV with the highest resolution (1080p) might not give you an advantage over one that has a lower resolution (720p). When you finish reading this guide, you will have enough knowledge about this matter to avoid some serious mistakes that sales people and marketers want you to make. So let’s get started, shall we?

What Is Resolution?

It is a measure that has two components – width (horizontal resolution) and height (vertical resolution). The resolution is used to describe how accurate a device is in replicating an image and how much detail it can offer to the viewer. It is a measure used not just for TVs or displays but also for printers and any other devices that are used to produce an image. Even our eyes acuity can be expressed as resolution (and it is huge compared to the one of any device). When it comes to TVs and displays, resolution is expressed as the number of pixels that the screen has on vertical and horizontal axis. If you multiply the two numbers you get the total number of pixels that the TV has (expressed in megapixels or millions of pixels). This is more commonly used to describe the digital cameras resolution than TVs or displays. As I said above, the resolution measures the number of pixels. But what are the pixels? Pixels are appear as little dots that together form the picture you see. Each pixel can have one specific color depending on the part of the image it must represent. All flat screen TVs (plasma, LCD, etc.) have a fixed number of pixels. For example a 1080p plasma TV has a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels – 1920*1080=2,073,600 witch roughly is 2Mp (2 megapixels or 2 millions of pixels).

Measuring HDTV ResolutionPixels - tiny dots that make up the whole image

Resolution is also a measure used to define a video signal. You can have for example a plasma TV with a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels (1080p) but the video signal of the TV channel you are watching can be (and it is in many cases) smaller – 1280×720 (720p). In this case the TV performs a process called “upconversion” to scale the TV signal to it’s native resolution.  If the TV receives a signal with a higher resolution than it’s native resolution then it performs an opposite process called “downconversion”. Both upconversion and downconversion are basically resizing processes.

As I said above the resolution has two components – vertical and horizontal – but in most of the cases you will see the resolution expressed as a single number followed by a letter (e.g. 1080p, 1080i, 720p, etc). The number is the vertical resolution and the letter stands for progressive scan (p) or interlaced scan (i) – more about that later. The reason why we find resolution expressed as a single number (vertical resolution) is that the horizontal resolution varies. It is not uncommon to find two HDTV sets with the same vertical resolution but with different horizontal resolutions.

Progressive vs. Interlaced

1080p and 1080i – same number different letter. The “p” stands for progressive while “i” stands for interlaced. These are two methods to form an image on the screen. Progressive means that the image is generated completely in one pass, line by line, one after the other in 1/60 of a second. In the case of 1080p it means that there are 1080 lines drawn on the screen consecutively (1,2,3,4,etc.). Interlaced means that the complete image is generated completely after two passes. In each pass only every other line is drawn on the screen – usually it starts with odd lines – and each pass takes 1/60 of a second so to generate a complete frame it takes 1/30 of a second. For 1080i example first are drawn lines 2,4,6,etc. and in the second pass are drawn lines 1,3,5,etc. But since one image is more than a thousand words let’s see how it actually looks.

Interlaced image generation Progressive image generation
Interlaced image generation:
In the first pass odd lines are drawn and in the second pass the other lines are drawn.At the end of the two passes the viewer has the perception of one complete image.
Progressive image generation
The image is drawn line after line in one single pass

The difference between the two methods is that with progressive you get more frames per second (FPS). Progressive generates 60 FPS while interlaced generates only 30 FPS (60/2). In real life this difference is noticeable if you watch high speed scenes like sports or action movies. With this type of content progressive scan will offer you an advantage and the image will remain sharp during fast scenes. If you watch high speed scenes in interlaced content you may notice softer edges and a slight loss of detail especially around the edges. It is not a huge difference but it is noticeable if you pay attention to it. As I said the difference is noticeable only in fast action scenes and if you are to watch a National Geographic documentary about exotic flora you won’t see any difference since that has no fast moving content. You should also keep in mind that progressive and interlaced have more meaning when referring to content sources than the capabilities of a TV or HDTV because pretty much all TVs support progressive scan content, but many content sources happen to be interlaced. Most of the HD broadcasts are either 720p or 1080i and at this point there are no 1080p broadcasts. So if you intend to watch sports, action movies, or anything else that has fast-moving scenes, the best is to use a signal that generates the on-screen picture using the progressive method. The combination of a plasma TV and a progressive signal is the best for this type of content as opposed to an interlaced signal on an LCD TV which offers a lower quality for the fast-action scenes (LCD TVs have lower refresh rates than plasma TVs).

Difference Between Resolutions

Most common resolutions in today’s HDTVs are 720p and 1080p. There are however 16 more resolutions defined by the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC). Those other 16 resolutions are supported for digital broadcasts but are not very common. The difference between the various resolutions is the amount of detail available to the viewer in a specific area of the screen (or the whole screen). Basically a higher resolution means there are many more pixels available for the same area and because of that the detail is higher. Below you have an example of three common resolutions compared. Note that the size of the pixels and the ratio between them are not necessarily accurate – the purpose of the drawing is to simulate the displays and emphasize the difference in number of pixels between the various resolutions. First rectangle represents your old TV with a resolution of 640×480 pixels. Note how large the pixels are. The other two rectangles represent displays with 1280×720 and respectively 1920×1080 pixels. Note how much more pixels fit into the same area in the case of the last two displays (rectangles).

Resolutions Compared - Pixel Size

In the above image we have shown the difference in pixel size for the same area in the case of three resolutions. Let’s also see the difference in size between the resolutions if we would keep the pixel size constant:

Resolutions Compared - Screen Size

The image above really makes stand out the differences between resolutions. As you see there is quite some difference between 720p and 1080p, however don’t hurry to take any conclusions whether or not 1080p is better than 720p – we will discuss this at the end of the guide when we have all the information we need in order to take the right decision.

Why and When Resolution Matters

The higher the resolution is the more detail it fits into a given area (like the TV screen). If on your old SDTV (Standard Definition Television) you would see the actor’s eye, on a HDTV (High Definition Television) you would actually see the wrinkles around his eye and his eyelashes. Resolution is not the most important factor in defining a HDTV picture quality. Contrast ratio and saturation are more important for the overall viewing experience. But let’s see why resolution matters. The best way is to use pictures again. We have below two images that simulate two TVs with different resolutions. The image on the left has a higher resolution than the one on the left. As you see the image on the left looks very good compared to the one on the right. The image on the left side doesn’t look perfect though. Let’s make this exercise: make one big step away from the monitor and note the difference, then make two more big steps away (i hope you have enough room) and note the difference again.

Why and when resolution matters

As you see, when you are sitting close to the monitor (at the normal distance) the image on the left doesn’t look very well and the one on the right looks very bad. If you make one step behind, the image on the left looks much better but the one on the right doesn’t yet look as good. Then, if you get back enough you will see that both images look pretty much the same. The exact thing happens with TV watching. If you sit to close you will not like how the picture looks. If you sit at the optimal distance the image will look good. If however you sit too far away you will loose the advantage of the high resolution and you will get pretty much the same detail as from a lower resolution TV.

Video Source Resolution Matters a Lot

I would say that the resolution as well as the quality of the content (video signal) is almost more important than the resolution of your HDTV. No matter how good your HDTV is, it will not be able to make up for the lack of detail or quality in your video source. That is, if you are watching SD content on your HDTV it will look as bad or even worse than on your old tube TV. You get the most detail from a movie by using a 1080p video source (like a HD DVD or Blue Ray DVD player) together with a HDTV that has the native resolution of 1080p. High definition TV broadcasts will look very good, way better than the old standard definition content. Regular DVDs will look better but not as great as high definition ones. SDTV will look as bad as before or even worse. It’s important to keep in mind that the source quality and resolution is as important so you don’t expect your plasma TV to do miracles and feel disappointed.

1080p vs. 720p – Is 1080p Worth the Money?

The answer is not an easy one and it has to do more with YOU than with the TV itself. This is a decision only you can make. There are three factors that you must take into consideration when asking this question:

  1. TV Size
  2. Resolution
  3. Viewing Distance

These are three factors that determine how much detail you actually see. The farther away you sit and the lower the resolution is, the less detail you actually see and the TV or HDTV needs to have. One important note to make is that the resolution which matters is not really the maximum resolution your HDTV supports but the one of the actual content you are viewing. To be more specific, if you watch regular SDTV (480i) on a 50 inch plasma TV that has a native resolution of 1080p, and you sit at the optimal distance for 1080p resolution, the content will look awful. If however you are watching a high definition movie on a HD DVD or Blue Ray, and you sit at that optimal distance, you will have an amazing experience and you will see all those little details.

So you have to ask yourself what type of content you will be watching. If you never intend to watch HD DVD or Blue Ray movies at full 1080p resolution and what you want is to watch just TV broadcasts (even if they are HD) and regular DVDs then 720p is probably enough. Also if you sit too far away from your plasma TV you may not be able to perceive the full detail of 1080p even if you are watching HD DVD or Blue Ray movies. Read the Plasma TV Size and Optimal Viewing Distance guide to see in more detail how the three factors affect what you actually see and figure out what is the optimal viewing distance for each plasma TV size and resolution. You can use the calculator available on that page to find out either the optimal viewing distance for a certain TV size and resolution, or to find out what size and resolution you need for the best experience given a certain distance. Note that the chance you will be sitting exactly at the optimal viewing distance is very small. So if you are a bit further there’s no problem, you will not get the full 1080p detail but you will get more than 720p would offer you.

With all that considered I still recommend 1080p resolution. Why? At some point in the future 1080p may and probably will be used to broadcast TV channels. More than that, if you buy a plasma TV and you don’t watch a HD DVD or Blue Ray movie on it it’s a shame. Even if you won’t buy a HD DVD or Blue Ray player from the start there are great chances you will in the future – especially when the war between them will be over, the industry will adopt one of the standards and many movies will be released in one of these formats. Now you might think that you sit way too far away from the TV for 1080p to give you any real benefit. That’s not really a problem for our imaginative minds though. You can just pull yourself a chair and watch a 1080p high definition movie exactly from the distance you like. It isn’t even a complicated thing. Just get a chair and you have the perfect setup 😉

I told you it’s not an easy answer. And I didn’t even bring on the price factor :). 1080p TVs are more expensive than the 720p ones. I had to mention this. It’s probably one of the most decisive factors for many people. And I recommend you to put more weight on overall picture quality than on resolution when you buy a plasma TV. When you have to choose between resolution and color saturation, contrast ratio or black levels choose the latter. One of the best plasma TVs in the world is a 720p Pioneer. That’s right. It’s “just” 720p but looks better than many 1080p competitors. It’s also pretty expensive however :).

Resolution Guides:

  1. Plasma TV & HDTV Resolution
  2. 720p vs 1080p
  3. 1080p vs 1080i

28 thoughts on “Plasma TV & HDTV Resolution

  1. David

    I’m looking to purchase a 32″ television (it’s the biggest that will fit in my cabinet). I’m debating between 720p vs. 1080p. We probably sit anywhere from 7-8 feet from the tv for viewing. Will I be able to notice the difference between 720p and 1080p on a television of this size and sitting at this distance?

  2. @David:
    You’re somewhere in the middle. That means you are not going to miss much from not having 1080p. At the same time, if you have good eyes you will see a bit of extra detail from 1080p. However, at such a small screen size and distance it is not going to be a big difference between 1080p and 720p. Probably with most movies (content) you won’t even notice a difference unless you look for it.

  3. itai

    Now that 720\1080 took over as standard, what should I do with my 42″ samsung plasma that supports 1024*768 resolution? will it basically scale down everything? will I see a big difference compared to 720\1080 lcd screens?
    I guess 1024*768 is not even a native HDTV resolution…so what does “hd ready” really means today?

    Thanks a lot, Itai.

  4. @itai: 720p is a general term that describes displays with vertical resolution of 720 or 768 pixels. Most plasma TVs have a vertical resolution of 768 pixels (not 720). Horizontal resolution can vary with each model. Your TV is considered HD-Ready. However, it has a native aspect ratio of 4:3 (as a regular tube TV) as opposed to most HDTVs that have native “widescreen” 16:9 (sometimes 16:10) aspect ratio. Basically, your 1024×768 (4:3 aspect ratio) TV is inferior to a 1366×768 (16:9 aspect ratio) TV only because it doesn’t have a native 16:9 aspect ratio. Your TV does some video processing to display native 720p content. You shouldn’t bother about the details though. There isn’t that big of a difference between 1024×768 and 1366×768 in real life. Both types are considered HD-Ready and 720p displays. Usually smaller screens have 1024×768 resolution and larger ones have 1366×768 resolution. For example the 50 inch Panasonic Viera TH-50PX80U has 1366×768 resolution and the 42 inch Panasonic Viera TH-42PX80U has 1024×768 even though they are both from the same class and very similar in terms of performance.

    HD-Ready is used commonly to designate displays that are able to display up to 720p content and Full-HD designates displays that are able to display up to 1080p content. The terms are not strict however.

    1080p (1920×1080) is totally different compared to 720p. It offers a lot more resolution. Between two 720p TVs one with 16:9 physical aspect ratio and one with 4:3 physical aspect ratio it isn’t worth it to buy the 16:9 model as an upgrade. However upgrading from 720p to 1080p might worth it if you can actually see the difference. Read Plasma TV Size & Optimal Viewing Distance to see if 1080p offers an advantage for your viewing distance and screen size.

  5. Amy

    I will be purchasing a 50″ 720p Panasonic Plasma TV in a month. My couch is only 6.6 ft away and can not go back any further. I’ve read that it’s a little close but my eyes will get used to it. Eventually we will be moving to a bigger place with more room and I’d rather not put alot of money into something smaller now when I know int he future I’ll want something much bigger. Will it be ok for a while? Thanks!

  6. Amy: For that distance, a 50 inch screen is optimal, as long as you are watching 1080p content (Blu Ray). For 720p is a bit too large. Check Plasma TV Size & Optimal Viewing Distance guide on this site. It all comes down to your personal taste and if you can get used to it. As you said, since you’ll be moving to a place with more space, 50 inch is probably a good idea.

  7. Burhan

    Im looking to buy a plasma tv and mount in on the wall. I will be sitting approximately 3-4 metres away or 10 feet away from the screen. Im tempted to buy the Samsung PS50A457 as its on for £800 with 5 year guarantee however its not 1080p I mainly watch sky sports and rarely watch blu-ray/HD content and dont have PS3 or xbox. Im not sure whether I should fork out another £500 or so for a 1080p?? advice please?thanks

  8. @Burhan: I don’t know of any sports channel broadcasting in 1080i. From my knowledge all sports channels broadcast in 720p because it’s progressive (p) as opposed to interlaced (i). That means 1080p wouldn’t give you any extra detail. Unless you plan to buy a Blu Ray player or watch 1080i broadcasts, the 720p resolution is sufficient. Make sure you also read “Plasma TV Size & Optimal Viewing Distance” and “720p vs 1080p” guides on this site.

  9. Rob

    I have a Mitsubishi 63″ DLP that supports 720p (4 years old). I am looking to upgrade to a 1080p television. I watch alot of Blu-ray movies. I sit about 11 feet from the tv. I like my current tv, will I tell the difference. Thanks

  10. @Rob: Considering the distance, you might have to buy a TV bigger than 63″ to get the most of 1080p. Depending on how good your eyes are, you might see a difference but not big. For best 1080p experience at 11 feet, the optimal screen size would have to be about 80 inch.

  11. Help!!!??

    I am so torn on which TV to choose. Both are 50 inch plasmas. One being 1080p, the other 720p. As of now, I don’t own a BlueRay player (but plan too in the near future). I have cable tv, but do not subscribe to the HDTV channels and we own a standard DVD Player. Our average viewing distance is 8-12 feet. Also- If I do go with the 720p- would using a Blue Ray player offer me the 1080p effect?
    What do you advice?
    Thanks in advance.

  12. @Renee: At 8-12 feet the extra detail of 1080p vs 720p won’t be noticeable. In other words, for your distance and screen size 720p is enough. However, all 720p models are low-end budget models and if you want more than average picture quality you will have to buy a mid-end or high-end model (all those are 1080p). Even if you don’t notice the extra detail of 1080p, overall the picture quality (colors, black levels) is better. If the screen is 720p what you see is 720p, so playing a blu ray movie still gives you only 720p even though the movie is 1080p.

  13. Iain Cowan

    I am in the market to buy a new TV and your article above on resolution has been very helpful. But, I still have 3 questions.
    1. Should I buy Plasma or LCD
    2. Dynamic Contrast ratio. Is it better to have 2,000,000:1 or 27,000:1 – a full range is offered by retailers.
    3. Sub-field motion flow. Is it better to have 100Hz or 600Hz and why. Once again a full range is offered by retailers.


  14. @Iain Cowan:
    1. Read Plasma vs LCD TV guide. Basically the only important differences between them these days are burn-in danger with plasma (we have a guide about that as well) and poor viewing angles with LCD. Also generally plasma TVs have better picture quality.
    2. It doesn’t matter as it doesn’t tell you anything about the TV. Contrast ratio (both static and dynamic) is a useless specification. The only way to know which TV has better contrast ratio and overall better picture quality is to read in-depth reviews (we have some here).
    3. Again a useless specification. Mainly used as a marketing technique by manufacturers. The only difference it makes is in supporting 1080p/24 (Cinema Mode). However, even if the refresh rate is a multiple of 24 (e.g. 120Hz) it doesn’t mean the TV can handle 1080p/24 mode well. Reviews are again the only way to find this out.

  15. James Voos

    I have to disagree with some of the comments about the need for 1080p. While 1080p is nice, it is overkill for smaller sets, particularly those under 55″. I have plasma sets that show 720p at 50″, and it looks terrific. I also have a projector at 720p with a screen size of 100″, and that looks great as well, as long as the content is HD. I think the biggest difference is in the front projectors for 1080p, where that additional detail will be noticable.

    Recognize that manufacturers are trying to get people to upgrade, and while the higher resolution is great, recognize that for many people on tight budgets, they might be better off upgrading their sound systems.

  16. ignite

    I have a 26″ element hdtv in my bedroom, and i have a ps3 and i want to put it in HD but i dont know what resoultion my tv has. Could you help me find out ?

  17. Chuck Marshall

    I currently have a 15 year old 32″ analog TV and am in the market for a new TV. The video sources we watch are SD cable channels and SD DVD formats. The most important factor to me in a new TV is that the picture comes in clear and crisp (not necessarily greater detail). Viewing distance would be 8-10 ft.

    Would you expect a clearer picture from a 32″ 720p LCD TV (120hz to prevent blurred action), 42″ 720p plasma or 42″ 1080p plasma? In theory, would you expect the picture to be clearer, crisper than the 32″ analog TV baseline.

  18. Guy

    Hello! I need to replace my TV as my son just whacked the 2 yr old 40″ Sony Bravia lcd. I have been told a plasma will be more sturdy as glass screen. My problem is there is a dearth of 40″ plasmas and possibly could go for a 37″ but 42 is possibly too wide? I want to get a 2.1 surround system and my viewing distance is about 125″. 1080i / 1080p / 720 / Blu Ray? Please help!!

  19. @Chuck Marshall: This is very subjective and it matters a lot how good is the TV you have now. In theory, yes you could get a better picture, however in practice you might not. You might even end up with slightly poorer picture. If the TV you have now is a CRT (tube), you should know that those can be technologically very good TVs. The problem is not the TV however but the content – garbage in, garbage out. No matter how good a TV is, it won’t do wonders with poor SDTV content so you can’t expect to get a significantly better picture.

    120Hz, 240Hz, etc. doesn’t matter. It is just a marketing mechanism to increase the price and make you think the TV has better features. The only way to buy a good TV is to read in-depth expert reviews where you can see how the SPECIFIC model performs in real life.

    720p models have enough resolution, however all of them are entry-level and their picture quality (color accuracy, black levels, etc) is not that great.

    Since you are feeding the TV standard definition content, consider Samsung as a recommendation – their models have better SD video processing compared to Panasonic.

    As a conclusion, you can find a better TV than what you have now but the improvement might be small.

  20. @Guy: Yes, plasma screens are sturdier, but you can whack them as well :). For HDTV you need a larger screen – see Plasma TV Size and Optimal Viewing Distance guide. You probably need a 54″-58″ screen, maybe even a 63″-65″ one if you watch BluRay a lot. I’ve answered questions like yours all over the site in comments. Just read all the related guides and their comments and you will understand perfectly what is best for you.

  21. @Jayne: For the TV to work with the BluRay player you need either the TV to accept 1080p input (most do, but not all), or the BluRay player to output as 1080i or lower resolution. 720p is considered HDTV and looks very good, so yes you will get HD quality even though the TV is not 1080p.

  22. I am having serious issues when deciding what type(1080vs720). I understand the distance ratio. However, I would like the best viewing possible and also not have TV that will be out of date relatively soon. If I have around 11 feet how much would I be giving up with a 1080 plasma vs 720? My speakers are roughed around 11 feet for surround sound. If I go with 1080 am I loosing out any quality? If you were 11 feet away what you buy and what kind of brand, provided money is not an issue.
    Cheers, Reno

  23. @Reno: 1080 is better than 720, so there’s no way that 1080 would look worse than 720. Also, all 720p TVs are entry-level and don’t have such a good picture quality as the mid-end or high-end ones (which are all 1080p). So if you want good picture quality, you’ll have to buy a 1080p model not only because of the resolution but also because of the better colors and black levels (picture quality). The recommended TV models are on homepage, grouped by size.

  24. Reno

    Thanks for your response. The Pioneers are cheap or at least they are coming down in price. Do you think they are worth the price? The difference in price for a 60 “pioneer kuro and a 54 panasnoic v series is around $1300. Pany being less. I sit around 11 feet away do you think that a 60” is too big? They are telling that it is not and showed me a chart different than yours.
    Thx Reno

  25. SubZero

    I’m looking for a LCD TV that i’ll probably be using more for playing a PS3 than watching TV… but i have no clue as to what to look for please help!

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