High definition television transformed the consumer viewing experience in the early 2000s. The jump from the old 480i standard definition to new HD resolutions like 720p and 1080p made for a staggering improvement in picture clarity and sharpness.
But HD resolution has continued advancing over the years. 1080p replaced 720p as the new gold standard before eventually 4K emerged as the ultra HD benchmark.
So how do 720p and 1080p stack up in 2022? Is 1080p substantially better than 720p? Or is 720p still a viable HD resolution?
In this guide, we’ll analyze the differences between 720p and 1080p across a range of factors including resolution, bandwidth usage, picture quality and ideal viewing conditions. You’ll also learn guidelines for choosing the best display resolution for your needs.
The Rapid Progression of Display Resolutions
It’s helpful to first understand the rapid advancement of television and video resolutions over the decades.
Color television was still relatively new in the 1940s and 1950s. Early sets displayed anywhere from 240 to 380 lines of resolution, far below what we‘d consider watchable today.
The NTSC analog broadcast standard settled on 525 lines for North America in the 1950s. European PAL broadcasts used 625 lines. This remained the norm for decades until digital transmission arrived.
But NTSC and PAL resolution equated to about 333×480 pixels for a 4:3 aspect ratio. What we now call 480i standard definition emerged as the consumer television norm by the 1980s and endured for decades.
The "i" in 480i stands for interlaced scanning, where odd and even rows of lines are drawn alternately. This effectively halved the vertical resolution to 240 but allowed a reasonably clear SD picture.
The Arrival of Digital Television
By the 1990s, digital television transmission began rolling out across the industry. Digital signals opened up huge possibilities for improved picture quality and additional capabilities like interactive TV services.
However, taking advantage of digital‘s potential would require new televisions able to receive and decode the signals. This ushered in the HDTV era with sets featuring built-in digital tuners.
Digital transmission allowed much higher resolutions to be broadcast compared to the old NTSC standard. But there were still severe limits on over-the-air bandwidth, so tradeoffs had to be made.
720p Provides the First HD Experience
When the first consumer HDTVs hit the market in 1998, they supported either 1280×720 pixels (720p) or 1920×1080 pixels (1080i).
Of these formats, 720p HD was initially favored by networks and content providers. The pictures it delivered looked remarkably sharper and clearer compared to existing analog sets.
Though 1080-line screens existed, broadcasters faced major challenges transmitting full 1080p HD signals over limited airwaves. So 720p became the de facto HD standard by the early 2000s.
For years, nearly all HDTV content was 720p, from broadcasts to cameras to DVDs. It was a huge leap forward from SD and felt like a dramatically new, crystal clear viewing experience.
1080p Raises the Bar Again
By the mid to late 2000s, 1080p emerged as an even higher HD resolution. Also called Full HD or 2K, it offered double the total pixels of 720p.
The impact on perceived clarity, sharpness and depth was impressive. Enthusiasts quickly gravitated toward 1080p as the new gold standard for image quality.
Blu-ray, which debuted in 2006, utilized 1080p resolution to provide an unrivaled cinematic experience at home. Gaming systems also began supporting 1080p for more immersive gameplay.
Over a decade later now, 1080p remains the most prevalent display resolution for everything from smartphones to televisions. It strikes a great balance between visual fidelity and bandwidth/performance requirements.
Meanwhile 720p has been relegated primarily to lower-cost displays. But it still qualifies as HD and offers some advantages for streaming or broadcasting.
720p vs 1080p Resolution Specs
Let‘s compare the hard specs behind these two common HD resolutions:
|Width x Height||1280 x 720||1920 x 1080|
|Pixel Density||45 PPI||69 PPI|
|Refresh Rate||50 – 60Hz||60Hz|
|Colors||16.7 million||16.7 million|
With over twice the total pixel count, it’s clear that 1080p offers far higher resolution and potential image clarity than 720p:
Width: 1080p is 1920 pixels wide – 640 more pixels than the 1280 resolution of 720p. This additional width provides 45% more screen area for detail.
Height: The 1080 vertical lines in 1080p contain 360 more pixels than the 720 lines in 720p. This equates to 50% greater resolution vertically.
Pixel Density: More pixels in the same screen area means a higher pixel density. 1080p packs in 69 pixels per inch compared to just 45ppi for 720p.
Both formats support true high definition with at least 720 scan lines. But 1080p builds on this with nearly Full HD vertical resolution for noticeably sharper clarity.
Additionally, 1080p and 720p are progressive scanning formats rather than interlaced. They render the complete image in a single pass rather than two fields. This avoids resolution loss, flickering and artifacts seen in interlaced formats like 480i.
Can the Human Eye Perceive the Extra Resolution?
With so many more pixels available, 1080p can reproduce much finer image details compared to 720p. But can our eyes actually distinguish this improved sharpness and clarity?
According to research on visual acuity, the average 20/20 vision human eye can resolve about 1 arcminute of detail. This equates to distinguishing around 600 pixels per inch at a typical viewing distance for HDTVs.
720p sits at 45 pixels per inch – well below what our vision can perceive. But 1080p‘s 69 ppi provides higher density approaching the limits of human visual acuity.
Of course, contrast sensitivity also plays a role. Fine repetitive patterns become harder to distinguish as contrast declines. Still, studies clearly demonstrate the benefit of increased resolution for perceived image quality – up to 4K and beyond.
So in optimal conditions, the boost in detail of 1080p over 720p should be apparent to most viewers. And test patterns confirm that small text and intricate details are visibly clearer at 1080p.
Comparing Picture Quality Between 720p and 1080p
Seeing resolution specs on paper is helpful. But how do 1080p and 720p actually compare when viewing video or playing games?
Many factors impact perceived quality, including contrast, color depth and source material. But ignoring those variables and focusing purely on resolution, 1080p provides noticeably sharper, more realistic imaging versus 720p.
On displays 50" and larger, the lower pixel density of 720p becomes very apparent. Fine details in textures, foliage and complex scenes look fuzzy. Diagonal edges exhibit jagged aliasing or moiré patterns. Motion can appear less smooth.
Text clarity also suffers greatly at 720p. Small font lacks sharpness and definition. Noticeable pixels along curves and diagonals make it less readable.
This becomes especially obvious when using a display as a PC monitor. Running at 1080p rather than 720p makes a dramatic difference in text quality during office work, web browsing and other desktop usage.
The superior clarity of 1080p also shines through when upscaling lower resolution material. Advanced processing and sharpening algorithms can extract more detail from the source to enhance 720p or 480p video on a 1080p display.
The Bottom Line? When evaluating pure resolution, 1080p clearly delivers substantially better picture quality and sharpness compared to 720p.
Bandwidth and Data Requirements
Beyond visual quality, resolution also has major implications for bandwidth usage and storage requirements. Higher resolution means more data.
Let‘s compare some typical bitrates needed for video in 720p versus 1080p resolution:
Streaming HD Video
- 720p: 2 – 3 Mbps
- 1080p: 5 – 10 Mbps
- 720p: 10 – 20 Mbps
- 1080p: 40 – 80 Mbps
Broadcast HD Quality
- 720p: 8 – 10 Mbps
- 1080p: 15 – 20 Mbps
Exact needs vary based on additional factors like frame rate, codec, compression and source material. But in general, 1080p requires substantially higher data rates than 720p to maintain image quality.
Higher resolution means more pixel data to encode, store and transmit per video frame. This results in large file sizes and bandwidth needs.
For example, a 90 minute HD movie requires roughly:
- 4 GB of storage when encoded at 720p
- 10 GB or more for a 1080p version
This has several implications:
Over-the-air broadcasters often opt for 720p instead of 1080p due to severe bandwidth constraints.
Streaming services balance quality and bandwidth by offering both 720p and 1080p options based on connection speeds.
Blu-ray utilized 1080p for maximum quality thanks to 25+ GB discs.
Video surveillance systems with limited storage budget typically record in 720p or even lower resolutions.
So while 1080p offers the best visual experience, 720p is often used for bandwidth or storage limited applications.
1080p vs 720p Resolution for PC Gaming
Gaming is one application where 1080p clearly shines compared to 720p. The extra detail and crispness can provide tangible competitive advantages.
Counter-Strike professionals acknowledge that higher display resolution allows distinguishing smaller heads and far away enemies much easier during intense firefights.
Higher resolution also enables finer anti-aliasing and advanced texture filtering effects. This makes games look and feel significantly more immersive.
Plus, at the same screen size, 1080p allows UI elements like maps, menus and health bars to appear sharper and crisper. This improves game playability.
Of course, maximizing frame rates is critical for fast-paced competitive gaming. Lower resolution can help achieve those super high refresh rates above 144Hz.
But for most, 1080p hits the right balance between high frame rates and visual fidelity. This makes 1080p by far the most popular gaming resolution still in 2022.
Virtually all mid-range and high-end gaming PCs, laptops, and monitors targeting 60 FPS or higher utilize a 1920 x 1080 resolution for these reasons.
Meanwhile, 720p is acceptable for casual gaming on entry-level hardware. The latest consoles can still run simpler games reasonably well at 1280 x 720 resolution.
1080p vs 720p for Television Broadcasting
Television broadcasters faced tough decisions when considering HD formats. 720p provided excellent picture quality yet used less precious airwaves bandwidth than 1080p.
In the early 2000s when over-the-air HD broadcasting first began, most networks elected to transmit 720p signals. This minimized infrastructure upgrades while still achieving an HD experience.
Even today, many continue broadcasting primary channels at 720p rather than converting to full 1080p. The bandwidth savings are substantial.
Another common broadcast resolution is 1080i. The "i" stands for interlaced scanning, drawing alternating lines to make up the full image.
This allows transmitting a 1920 x 1080 HD signal using about half the bandwidth of progressive scanned 1080p video. Most viewers find the 1080i picture outstanding for television programming.
Contrast this to cable and satellite, which have more bandwidth to work with. Many providers now offer a growing selection of full 1080p channels in addition to 720p and 1080i.
720p vs 1080p – Which Resolution is Better?
Based on our detailed comparison, 1080p clearly delivers superior resolution, sharpness and picture detail compared to 720p.
But there are some cases where 720p can still be a smart choice:
- Streaming video with limited bandwidth
- Mobile devices with smaller screens
- Broadcasting within constrained airwave spectrum
- Surveillance systems with restricted storage
Here are some recommendations for choosing 720p or 1080p based on usage:
Choose 1080p When:
- Viewing on mid-size or bigger screens 32”+
- Highest quality video is key – movies, shows, gaming, etc.
- Fast motion clarity is important – sports, action scenes
- More immersive gaming is desired
- Using displays for desktop/productivity work
Choose 720p When:
- Viewing on smaller displays under 32”
- Enjoying casual content that doesn’t require maximum detail
- Conserving bandwidth usage is critical – mobile, streaming
- Basic HD is sufficient – broadcasting, security systems
For living room television viewing and gaming, 1080p is highly recommended on any set 40” and larger. The boost in visual quality over 720p will be obvious when displaying high quality Blu-ray or broadcast source material.
But there are plenty of applications where settling for 720p makes sense to save on bandwidth while still providing an HD experience. For smartphones, tablets and smaller televisions, 720p also remains a smart fit.
Overall, both 720p and 1080p qualify as HD resolutions. 720p ushered in a new era of crystal clear digital television. Then 1080p took image quality even further.
While newer formats like 4K and 8K exist now, 1080p arguably remains the most versatile resolution today. It still delivers stunning image quality that will please most viewers. Plus it strikes a great balance between bandwidth efficiency and performance needs across a wide range of display applications.