How Does Standard DVD Upscaling Compare to Blu-ray?

Sorting out the difference between DVD and Blu-ray quality

With the advent of HDTV (and, more recently, 4K Ultra HD TV), the need for components to match the resolution capabilities of those TVs is important. Improvements have been implemented to improve DVD quality, but the Blu-ray disc format has confused many consumers regarding the difference between the upscaling quality of standard DVD and the true high definition capability of Blu-ray.

Illustration of blu-ray disc in package with film strips flying out of the disc
VichanChairat/Getty Images ​Owner

Standard DVD Resolution

The DVD format supports a native video resolution of 720x480 (480i). This means that when you put a disc into a DVD player, that is the resolution that the player reads off the disc. As a result, DVD is classified as a standard resolution format.

DVD and Progressive Scan

Although this was fine when the DVD format debuted in 1997, soon after its release DVD player makers made the decision to improve the quality of DVD images via the implementation of additional processing to the DVD signal after it was read off the disc, but before it reached the TV. This process is referred to as progressive scan.

Progressive scan DVD players output the same resolution (720x480) as a non-progressive scan enabled DVD player, but progressive scan processing provided a smoother looking image.

Here is a comparison of 480i and 480p:

  • 480i represents 720 pixels displayed across a screen horizontally and 480 pixels down a screen vertically. This results in 480 horizontal lines or rows, which are displayed alternately – all the odd lines are displayed, followed by all the even lines.
  • 480p represents 720 pixels displayed across the screen horizontally and 480 pixels down the screen vertically. This results in 480 horizontal lines or rows which are displayed progressively – or each line displayed following another.

DVD Upscaling

Although progressive scan improved image quality on compatible TVs, with the introduction of HDTV, the quality of those images needed to be improved even further. This was done by implementing a process called upscaling.

Upscaling is a process that mathematically matches the pixel count of the DVD output signal to the physical pixel count on an HDTV, which is typically 1280x720 (720p), 1920x1080 (1080i or 1080p), and now, many TVs feature 3840x2160 (2160p or 4K).

  • 720p represents 1,280 pixels displayed across the screen horizontally and 720 pixels down the screen vertically. This means there are 720 horizontal lines on the screen displayed progressively, or each line displayed following another.
  • 1080i represents 1,920 pixels displayed across a screen horizontally and 1,080 pixels down a screen vertically. This means there are 1,080 horizontal lines displayed alternately. All the odd lines are displayed, followed by all the even lines.
  • 1080p, represents 1,080 horizontal lines displayed sequentially. This means all lines are displayed during the same pass.
  • 4K (or 2160p) represents 3,480 horizontal lines displayed sequentially. This means all lines are displayed during the same pass.

The Practical Effect of DVD Upscaling

Visually, there is very little difference to the eye of the average consumer between 720p and 1080i. However, 720p can deliver a slightly smoother-looking image, due to lines and pixels being displayed in a consecutive pattern, rather than in an alternate pattern.

Upscaling does a good job of matching the upscaled pixel output of a DVD player to the native pixel display resolution of an HDTV, resulting in better detail and color consistency.

However, upscaling can't convert standard DVD images into true high-definition (or 4K) images. Upscaling works best with fixed pixel displays, such as Plasma, LCD, and OLED TVs. Results are not always consistent on CRT-based HDTVs (fortunately there aren't too many of those still in use).

Points to Remember About DVD Upscaling

  • Any DVD player can be hooked up to an HDTV. Although upscaling DVD players are better able to match the native pixel resolution of an HDTV, you may good results on a standard DVD player (with no progressive scan or upscaling capability) that is connected via an HDTV's provided Component or S-Video inputs.

Most newer TVs don't have S-video inputs.

  • If you DO have an HDTV (or 4K Ultra HD TV), and a standard DVD player, you will get the best results using the Component video connection (red-blue-green) between the DVD player and the HDTV. In addition, if your DVD player is progressive scan capable, always use that option when connected to a progressive scan capable TV. However, if your DVD player provides upscaling, it will have an HDMI connection. Use HDMI to access the DVD players upscaling capabilities.
  • DVD video upscaling is only an approximation of the high definition viewing experience. To get the full impact of true high definition viewing from a disc format, you need to have a Blu-ray player connected to an HDTV via an HDMI connection and view Blu-ray disc content. The Blu-ray disc format supports native 720p, 1080i, and 1080p resolution.

DVD Upscaling vs. Blu-ray

  • Upscaled DVD (even when it's good) can't match the quality of a native Blu-ray disc source. In comparison to Blu-ray disc, upscaled DVD tends to look a little flatter and softer (especially in the background) than Blu-ray. Also, in terms of color, when looking at reds and blues, it is also easy to tell the difference. In most cases, with upscaled DVD, reds and blues have a tendency to override detail that may be underneath, while the same colors in Blu-ray are very tight and you still see the detail under the color.
  • All Blu-ray Disc players can perform the upscaling function for standard DVDs, provided the Blu-ray Disc player is connected to an HDTV (or 4K Ultra HD TV) using the HDMI connection option.
  • With Ultra HD TVs, although an upscaling DVD player can only upscale DVD to 1080p — the Ultra HD TV will accept that signal and further upscale it to 4K. Also, some Blu-ray Disc players have built-in 4K upscaling for both DVD and Blu-ray Disc playback. If a Blu-ray disc player does not provide this feature, the 4K Ultra HD TV will further upscale the 1080p signal from the Blu-ray Disc player to 4K.

For HD-DVD player owners – The HD-DVD format was officially discontinued in 2008. However, for those that may still own and use an HD-DVD player and Discs, the information above also applies to the relationship between DVD Upscaling and HD-DVD.