720p vs. 1080p Video Resolution

What you need to know about 720p and 1080p

Although 4K (also called UHD or Ultra HD) gets all the buzz as the resolution to have in a TV, 720p and 1080p are also high definition resolutions that are in use. The other characteristic that 1080p and 720p share are that both are progressive display formats (that is where the "p" comes from). However, this is where the similarity between 720p and 1080p ends. We reviewed both to help you decide which type of TV is best for you.

This information applies to any modern television display, including but not limited to those manufactured by LG, Samsung, Panasonic, Sony, and Vizio.

720p vs 1080p

Overall Findings

  • Cheaper hardware and smaller screen sizes.

  • Most 720p TVs can downscale 1080p content but aren't compatible with 4K input signals.

  • Best for people who watch mostly broadcast TV.

  • Best image quality.

  • Overkill for broadcast-TV only.

  • Great for libraries of Blu-ray discs.

720p TVs are available, but the selection is decreasing, and are confined to smaller screen sizes. It is rare to see a 720p TV larger than 32 inches. This is due to the increasing availability and decreasing prices of 4K TVs, which resulted in a decreasing number of both 1080p and 720p sets.

Also, most TVs labeled as 720p TVs have a native pixel resolution of 1366x768, which is technically 768p. However, these TVs are usually advertised as 720p TVs. Don't let this throw you off. These sets accept incoming 720p, 1080i, and 1080p resolution signals. The TV processes and scales any incoming resolution up to 1080p to its native 1366x768 pixel display resolution.

720p and 1080p TVs are classified as HDTVs. However, 1080p TVs are often labeled as FHD (Full HD) TVs. This assists consumers by pointing out that TVs with 1080p native resolution display take full advantage of HD video resolution standards and aren't a scaled-down result from 1080i and 1080p content sources as they would be on a 720p TV.

Screen Resolution: 1080p Offers More Lines

  • 720p is 1,280 pixels displayed across the screen horizontally and 720 pixels down the screen vertically. This yields 720 horizontal lines on the screen, which, in turn, display progressively, or each line displays following another.

  • 1080p is 1,920 pixels displayed across the screen horizontally and 1,080 pixels down the screen vertically. This results in 1,080 horizontal pixels on the screen, which, in turn, display progressively, or each line of pixels displays following another. In other words, as with 720p, all pixel rows (lines) display progressively.

The number of pixels that make up a 720p image is about 1 million (equivalent to 1 megapixel in a digital still camera). There are 2 million pixels in a 1080p image. This means that a 1080p image can display more detail than a 720p image.

How does this translate to what you see on a TV screen? Shouldn't it be easy to see the difference between a 720p and 1080p TV? Not necessarily.

720p and 1080p pixel density, screen size, and seating distance from the screen need to be taken into consideration. If you have a 720p or 1080p TV or video projector, 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. This means that as the screen gets larger, the pixels get larger, so your seating distance affects how you perceive the detail displayed on the screen.

Common Programming: 720p Dominates Broadcast

  • Common for broadcast television—cable and satellite.

  • Most 720p TVs can auto-scale the content.

  • Blu-ray discs use 1080p (or 1080i) resolution.

  • Modern smartphones can take 1080-level videos.

TV broadcasters and cable/satellite providers send programming in several resolutions. ABC and FOX (which includes their cable channels, such as ESPN, ABC Family, and others) use 720p. Other providers, such as PBS, NBC, CBS, CW, TNT, and most premium services, such as HBO, use 1080i. Also, some cable and satellite feeds are sent in 1080p, and DirecTV offers some 4K programming. Internet streaming providers send out a variety of resolutions, including 720p, 1080p, and 4K.

For cable and satellite, a 720p TV scales 1080i and 1080p input signals according to its native pixel resolution (720p TVs are not compatible with 4K signals). If you access content from a media streamer, you can set the output to match your TV's resolution. If you have a smart TV, it scales the incoming streaming signal to fit its display resolution.

You can use a Blu-ray Disc player with a 720p TV. All Blu-ray Disc players can be set to output 480p, 720p, 1080i, or 1080p through an HDMI output connection.

Also, when connected to a TV or video projector using HDMI, most Blu-ray Disc players automatically detect the native resolution of the TV or projector and set the output resolution accordingly. Blu-ray Disc players also provide the option to set the output resolution manually.

The Final Verdict: Let Your Eyes Be Your Guide

How you perceive the difference between 720p, 1080p, or any other resolution, is in the viewing experience with your TV. You may find that a specific 720p TV looks better than a specific 1080p TV as the resolution is only one factor. Motion response, color processing, contrast, brightness, and video upscaling or downscaling also contribute to picture quality.

The quality of the source signal also plays a part. A TV's video processor can only compensate so much for poor quality source signals, especially VHS or analog cable. For internet streaming sources, the quality depends on the source and your internet streaming speed.