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Dr. Mike
2.22.08, 3:48 PM
"1080p." That's the simple answer.

I get asked about the weird resolution numbers for new digital HD TV sets. "We're getting a new TV but get confused by the numbers. Should we get a TV with 720p or 1080i or 1080p or what?"

Simple answer: 1080p. Period. That's the good one and the one that all will be (in the not-too-distant) eventually.

There will be arguments toward the other values, but the arguments are mostly irrelevant and often incorrect. The only possible exception might be price but even that can be overcome by going to another store to find a 1080p set at about the same price. (Or wait a week for the price to come down. :winkq:)

Here's the deal on those resolution numbers: the higher the number the better. Same with the little letter "i" or "p". The higher ("p") the better.

The relevant numbers are 480, 720 and 1080. These are the vertical resolution values for TV images. Other numbers on TV sets mean that they don't do "native" TV resolution and must be "fiddled" in some way to work. Just skip those -- don't even bother.

The 480 is old school TV in digital form. Skip these if possible. The TVs that only do 720p are technically HD according to the spec, and the images will look very nice. But not as good as 1080p.

Some helpful sales person or cable guy will tell you that "most HD is 720p". That's true, but there are two things wrong with that: first, that's only true right now and starting to fade already. In 1960 the same sales guy would have said, "most shows are in black-and-white". These days more and more HD is 1080. They're also forgetting to tell you that a good 1080p set will process the 720p signal into a 1080p and, in the process, make it look even better. (Check them out side by side in the store. Look at 720 and 1080 TVs by the same manufacturer in the same product line and you'll be able to see a sweet difference.)

Some TVs are only capable of 1080i ("ten-eighty-eye"). That may be better than 720p but you have to check close to be sure. It definitely is not as good a TV as one that can produce genuine 1080p.

That letter, by the way -- the 'i' and the 'p' -- has to do with how the picture is "drawn" on the screen. The "i" stands for "interlaced" and that means that only half of the picture is drawn at one time.

Interlaced is the way that old TV sets always worked, but digital TVs should be able to produce "progressive" (that's the 'p') images; otherwise you run the risk of having some weird so-called digital artifacts. Things like visibly jaggy lines or flickering images. Ick.

These days, when you're shopping for a new digital HD TV you can find old style TVs, 480i or 480p TV's (a digital version of 'old style" pictures), 720i (rare and unwanted), 720p (common and acceptable if smaller and the price is really, really good), 1080i and 1080p. You can also find some with different resolution numbers and that will say "compatible" or something like that. Stay way away from the "compatibles". They suck. But of the others:

old style -- non-digital TVsAvoid unless all these are true: it's tiny, you have cable or satellite or don't mind buying a converter box for digital, it's really dirt cheap. This kind of TV won't work without a converter after January 2009.480i or 480pThese are digital designations for the old-school "Standard Definition" TV. You should only see this on digital TVs -- ones that will work without a converter box after January 2009, but check to be sure that's what they really are. The 'p' is better than the 'i' but, again, only get these if the price is really, really good. Like dirt-cheap. Otherwise, for a few bucks more get an HD set.720iThe 'i' means interlaced 720 resolution HD. The lowest end possible of HD. These aren't too common anymore but you still might run into them. Again, avoid unless dirt-cheap and not for your main TV.s In fact, just avoid. Look a few minutes longer for a 'p' in the right price range.720pNow you're looking at the low end of HD. Nice pictures and these sets are pretty common. Most HD TV available these days is broadcast at 720p resolution so these TVs can handle that perfectly. There are, however, a few shows using the higher resolution (that is, even sharper & prettier) 1080i or p and more and more are expected to be in that standard. Eventually 1080 will be most common. A '720' set will have to adjust the quality down to fit. Boo.1080iHighest resolution HD with an interlaced image. This is OK. But progressive is better. Enough better that you should keep looking for a 1080p that fits your budget.1080pThis is it; this is the highest resolution HD image presented in a "progressive" format. These will be the sharpest, prettiest pictures on your TV.

Given the way that prices are tumbling down on digital TVs these days; you should shoot for the best resolution. Figure out your budget and shop until you find a genuine (not "compatible") 1080p TV that fits. If you find more than one that fits your budget, swell! Check the reviews and see what actual users think of them and then go to the stores and see which one you like the best. Be sure to look at a variety of programs: especially old movies (or something like them), new movies, sports. If everything looks "OK" to you, then it probably is.

Start with "1080p" and go from there to find what you like. You'll do OK.