Television Resolution


There. Now that the SEO gods have been appeased, let’s actually start today’s blog post.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a (probably boring) post about aspect ratios. It’s good information to have, but I realize now that it has no affect on any of you out there not doing film and video work. However – you need to know a little bit about resolution if you’re going to buy a decent television. So I’m here to help you out.

Your TV picture is made up of thousands/millions of tiny pixels. These are squares a tiny fraction of your picture on them. Put them together, you get a picture. The more pixels you have in any given space, the better your TV picture can be. Why is this? Because the smaller the pixel, the more details you get. The transition of a character’s face onto the background, a smoother grade between the red, orange and yellow of a sunset, and so on.

So, in the old days, when you had your square TV with the big-ass tube on the back, your TV carried a resolution of 640×480. That means your picture was 640 pixels wide, and 480 pixels tall. This was called standard definition.

Then came HD, which comes in two flavors: 1280×720 and 1920×1080. Back in 2009, when the standards changed and your regular TV stopped receiving an over-the-air signal from that ugly-ass antenna on your roof, the broadcast standard went from 640×480 to 1920×1080. 720 was pretty much ignored, though you’ll still see it on cheap TVs.

If you’re buying a TV, you’ll probably see these numbers represented as:

The i and the p do mean something – interlaced and progressive. It has to do with how your TV reads the pixels. I’m not going to get too far into the technical specs, but most TV broadcasts are in i, and most movies come in p. P has a softer, smoother look. I has a sharper look. They’re hard to tell apart to the non-discerning eye, so don’t worry a lot about these.

Because we live in a world based on marketing terms, we subbed out most of these numbers for words. Full HD came to mean 1080 (i or p) and HD could mean either 720 or 1080.

Now, even more annoyingly, we have a whole host of new marketing terms: UHD, or Ultra HD, 4K, or UHD-4K. You’ll see this on the mid to higher range televisions available on the consumer market today. These all pretty much mean the same thing: 3840×2160 resolution, or 2160p. It’s four times the number of pixels on the screen, which means an even sharper, clearer, more colorful image.

Now, I just told you that the standards for broadcast were 1080, so why do you need a TV at 2160? Quick answer: You really don’t. Until TV starts broadcasting in 2160, there’s not much of a point. It’s four times the pixels, so any program coming to you will be four times the size, which means four times the bandwidth to your internet or cable provider. And since the big battle right now is over how much data is already being pumped through the wires right now, don’t expect that the broadcasters will be doing 2160 en masse anytime soon.

So the moral of the story is, make sure your next TV purchase is at 1080. If you want to buy 4k, go ahead – but it’ll be years before you really get to use it.