FULL HD 1080p, Everything You Need to Know

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As the quality of digital TV improves with technology such as 1080p, the differences are more difficult to discern.

Hitachi calls it FULL HD. Sony, Samsung, and Pioneer use FULL HD 1080p. Names aside, we've got the details to make it work for you.


Sep. 10, 2007 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Pity the TV owner whose tube finally blows after 20 years: When she goes into the electronics superstore to replace the set, she’ll be faced with a new generation of shapes and sizes, not to mention a bewildering range of technologies, from plasma to LCD to DLP and SXRD. She’ll see terms that didn’t exist in the analog age, such as HDMI, response time and Full HD. And she’ll gape at a wall of TVs, feeling nothing short of overwhelmed.

She isn’t the only one, of course. Even veteran HDTV owners are perplexed by the numbers and specs coming from zealous marketers. “I feel bad for the consumer,” says Bill Whalen, director of product development for Hitachi. “The marketing machines [cite an array of features and specifications to] try to get some advantage, and unfortunately, that’s to the detriment of consumers, who are confused over what they’re actually getting.”

The latest must-have feature is 1080p. Companies including Sony, Samsung, Pioneer and Sharp use the term “Full HD” to describe TVs with resolutions of 1920 x 1080. “Progressive,” or “p,” refers to the way an image is produced on the screen. A progressive image is delivered in one fell swoop in 1/60th of a second. An interlaced image (as in 1080i) is painted as every other line each 1/30th of a second.

Hitachi uses the term “Full HD” to refer to a resolution of 1920 x 1080, regardless of whether the TV displays the image in interlaced or progressive mode. Whalen notes that most content viewers see what comes to them in the 1080i format and that no broadcast content is available in 1080p. Of the major networks, CBS and NBC broadcast using a 1080i signal, as do HBO and Showtime. ABC, Fox and ESPN broadcast in 720p. Fortunately, all HDTVs convert the various signals to the native scanning format of the television, so you don’t have to worry about the different ways they are broadcast.

The 720p networks chose the progressive format because it does a better job at reproducing motion video for sports, as each picture is painted in one pass. On the other hand, 1080i is better suited to film reproduction, where you want more detail. The best of both worlds? You guessed it: 1080p, which offers the motion benefit of 720p and the resolution benefit of 1080i—roughly 2 million pixels versus 900,000.

So if you took the HDTV plunge early on, is your 1024 x 768 TV (often referred to as 720p) dangerously close to being obsolete? Not at all, says Scott Ramirez, vice president of marketing at Toshiba America. “720p and 1080p are both HD,” he notes. “As always in our industry, you have good, better and best, and you always have the next new thing.” Ramirez says 720p is still a great picture, and people love it, “but now there are things coming out that are even better, and 1080p is one of those.”

Owners of 720p TVs can rest assured that their pictures are still going to look very good,” says Tony Favia, senior product manager of large-screen LCD TVs for Sharp Electronics. “They’re just not going to look as good as they would on a 1080p set. When the time comes to upgrade to a bigger set, they’ll want to strongly think about 1080p, since that’s the direction all manufacturers are headed toward today.”

A 1080p TV is a good choice for larger screen sizes. If you sit too close to a 720p TV, you’ll see the pixel structure of the display, which distracts from the experience. When shopping for TVs, audition models at the distance you would watch from at home. “If you were going to compare a 1080p TV with a 720p in a store, in most cases you’d be looking at a set very close up and not at a typical viewing distance,” says Favia. “When you’re at home, three times the diagonal of the TV is a good viewing distance.”

The shift to 1080p has given TV makers a tiered pricing strategy to help offset the loss of the lower-resolution enhanced definition (ED) format, which has largely disappeared from the market. Pricing free falls have been a boon for consumers, who have reaped the benefits of as much as a 50 percent price drop from one year to the next.

Is 1080P Worth It?
The cost of 1080p TVs generally run about $500 to $600 more than 720 or 768 models, according to Bill Schindler, VP of electrical engineering at Panasonic. So is it worth the extra bucks? After all, if the broadcasters only send out 1080i and 720p signals—and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future—how much advantage can you garner with the extra resolution?

That’s where the high-definition DVD formats, Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD—as well as PlayStation3 and Xbox 360 game consoles—come in. The next-generation disc players are transferred from film to video in 1080p, giving you twice the resolution of standard DVD. You see richer color and more detail. “Everybody used to push the scene from Shakespeare in Love where the camera pans across the courtyard to show how one deinterlacer worked better than another one on DVD,” says Chris Walker, senior manager of product planning and marketing at Pioneer Electronics “With the new 1080p displays and Blu-ray players, that scene is now almost perfect. The difference is amazing.”

Just to keep things interesting, not all Blu-ray and HD-DVD players output the signal to the TV in the same way. Certain Sony, Samsung, Pioneer Blu-ray players, and Toshiba HD DVD players, for instance, output a signal at 24 frames per second, the frame rate at which film is recorded. The idea is to pair those players with TVs that can accept a 24 frame-per-second input. That way, less processing—typically known as 2:3 or 3:2 pulldown—has to be performed in the TV to match the frame rate. Those who output 24p, as it is called, believe it leads to smoother overall motion.

Other companies do the processing in the player and output the signal in a frame rate the TV can easily manage. “We do the conversion in the Blu-ray player, and our TVs accept a 60-Hz frame rate,” says Schindler of Panasonic. He says the company is studying the 24p issue because it seems to be something that people want, but adds, “I don’t know why it’s necessary. I don’t believe 3:2 pulldown is an issue, and we have an excellent 3:2 pulldown [processing].”

Ramirez of Toshiba says that while all Toshiba Regza TVs for 2007 include 24p inputs, he believes it’s a feature that appeals more to videophiles than the general consumer. “High-end purists feel 24p is important because it’s the most like film,” he says, “but I believe the average consumer will prefer 60 frames, because there’s less blur. When handling motion, 24 frames will have more blur than 60 frames.”

The bottom line—whether you’re talking 24 versus 60 frame rate, 720p versus 1080p resolution or HDMI—always comes down to the picture, and that’s something a spec chart can’t tell you. The true quality of a picture is in the processing. A 1080p display is only as good as the processor inside that converts signals from standard cable all the way up to Blu-ray and HD DVD.

Despite all the marketing mumbo jumbo—and the numbers games—the ultimate test for choosing a TV occurs when you visit a store and audition various models with prices that are within your budget. As the quality of digital TV improves with technology such as 1080p, the differences are more difficult to discern. Does it make sense to upgrade to 1080p? “In side-by-side comparisons at the retail store, the difference is demonstrable,” says Dan Schinasi, senior marketing manager of HDTV product planning at Samsung.

Of course, someday soon you may not have a choice if 720p goes the way of EDTV. How long will 720p be around? “It’s hard to predict, but I don’t think for very long,” says Walker of Pioneer, citing the cost of maintaining separate manufacturing lines for the two technologies. “And 1080p pricing keeps coming down,” he notes. “When we launched our first 1080p TV last year, it sold for $10,000. Then it went to $5,000.” Still, he says, “Someone just getting into HDTV would love either one. But if you can spend a little extra money, 1080p is worth it.”



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