1080p vs. 720p -- Which should you buy?

Evan Powell, September 10, 2008

Unless you've been living in the wilderness for the last couple of years, you know that 1080p projectors are all the rage these days. They are performing better than ever, and the home theater marketplace eagerly soaks up the news of each new 1080p home theater projector announcement. However, 1080p is not the only game in town. Though they don't get the same media attention, 720p projectors have dropped well below $1,500 (some are below $1,000), and they continue to deliver outstanding picture quality for the money. So the question a lot of people are asking is this ... "Am I better off going with 1080p, or would one of the hot new 720p projectors be the more practical choice?"

Now, we love the new 1080p projectors, no question about it. For those who want the absolute best and most pristine picture quality, 1080p is the way to go. Not only do you get the highest resolution, but in many cases you get better contrast, black levels, and onboard video processing than is available in less pricey models. However, despite all of the enthusiasm surrounding the 1080p format, for many buyers on a budget the ideal solution is still the 720p projector.

There are several reasons for this. First, the vast majority of folks are still watching standard definition DVD, having not yet upgraded to Blu-ray. That makes good sense because, practically speaking, there are many thousands of DVDs available, and not so many Blu-ray discs. So if your viewing material is primarily DVDs with maybe some HD sports on broadcast HDTV, the 1080p projectors will give you almost nothing in image quality that the 720p projectors don't already give you. All HD sports broadcasts from Fox, ESPN, and ABC are in native 720p, and they will look as clear and razor sharp as they can possibly look when displayed on a native 720p projector. The additional resolution of a 1080p projector won't make most HD sports broadcasts look any higher in actual resolution since the signals are limited to 720 lines of video information per frame.

Meanwhile, standard definition DVD (in the NTSC world) has only 480 lines of video per frame. On a 720p projector, the DVD signal is rescaled to 720 lines, and on a 1080p projector it is rescaled to 1080 lines. Assuming the use of a high quality upscaling DVD player or video processor, there is the potential that the 1080p image will look a tiny bit better than the 720p picture. However, the difference will not be significant, and in many cases it will not even be noticeable even in a side by side viewing. The reason is that DVD picture quality is fundamentally limited by the fact that there are only 480 lines per frame of video information in the source. So the DVD source cannot use the full resolution power of either a 720p or a 1080p projector.

However, though DVD and HD sports broadcasts are what many people are most interested in, that may not be you. A lot of prime time television programming on CBS, NBC, and other networks is broadcast in 1080i. The new 1080p projectors do have the potential to make this type of programming slightly sharper than it will appear on most 720p projectors. There will not be a night and day difference, since 1080i signals compressed into 720p displays already looks amazingly good (a lot better than you'd imagine they could). But there is the potential for a slightly sharper image from HDTV 1080i broadcasts when using a 1080p projector. And due to the increased resolution you may notice less visible pixelation on the 1080p models, depending on how close you sit to the screen. Nevertheless, the reality is that 1080p projectors displaying HDTV 1080i will give you just a slightly better picture than you'll get with a good 720p projector. The bottom line is that for most budget smart consumers who are happy watching DVD and HDTV, the incremental performance of the 1080p projector will definitely not be worth the added expense.

On the other hand, you may be looking for the best possible video picture you can afford. If so, you not only need a 1080p projector, but you need a Blu-ray player to go along with it. Blu-ray is by far the most important new video source on the market. Blu-ray discs pack a full 1920x1080 resolution per frame of video, and they look their absolute best when displayed on a native 1080p projector. If you consider yourself to be a videophile or a serious hobbyist who spends money to stay out on the cutting edge of video technology, matching a new Blu-ray player with one of the newly released 1080p projectors will give you a whole new world of video clarity. It is an opportunity to upgrade your home theater that you won't want to miss.

So if you are a true videophile who wants the very best picture possible, it is time to think seriously about the new 1080p models on the market. However, most folks are not driven to pursue video perfection at any cost like the videophiles are. They just want a big, high quality picture at the lowest price. If that sounds like you, don't be distracted by the hype over 1080p. And don't allow the ridiculously low prices of the latest 720p projectors to mislead you into thinking they are not great products. They constitute outstanding alternatives to 1080p, and at prices below $1,500 (with some below $1,000) they remain the best deals by far for the cost-conscious consumer who rents DVDs and watches Monday Night Football.

Either way, if you have not yet stepped up to the exciting experience of very large screen (100" diagonal and larger) home theater, there has never been a better time to do it.


Reader Comments(38 comments)

Posted Mar 6, 2012 3:05:01 AM

By Mandy

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Which is the better tv to buy if i mostly use my tv for gaming on my ps3? I also have alot of Dvd's that i like to watch. So which is the better pixel rate to stick with? 1080p or720p? Also which would be better an LCD 1080p, LED 1080p, LCD 720p or LED 720p. Im on a fixed income but lnow where i can get a good deal as well as my family is willing to pitch in as well. I'll take as much advice as anyone can give. Thank You so much.

Posted Dec 30, 2011 6:49:36 AM

By Roy

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Just an FYI, cameras are completely different. Pixel count isn't nearly as important as quality per pixel. If you have a camera that shoots 1080p with bad resolution and bad pixel quality then you will get a 1080p picture made with bad pixels, and vise-versa. However, with TVs 1080p is the overall resolution, 1080p is sharper than 720p. Remember though, unless you have a Blu-Ray player, most things are 720p anyway, they're just digitally upscaled to to 1080p. (Examples XBOX 360, Digital Boxes)

Cheers!

Posted Jan 7, 2011 8:38:03 PM

By Naresh Dhakar

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One simple thing I want to know here. In which projector SD content will look better - 720p or 1080p, given that all other things are identical. My second question - In which projector Blue ray Disk (1080p) content will look better, 720p or 1080p, given that all other things are identical?

Posted Aug 14, 2010 9:11:25 PM

By Rambo

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My 5MP camera takes better pictures than any 10MP cameras in the family. It gives professional results and it can even take pictures in the dark. Why is that? Because a good picture is not just about pixel count.

Posted Apr 5, 2010 7:53:59 AM

By Alex

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Nice article. I also found a HD Trailer Search Enginge wich finds Trailer with 1080p or 720p. http://www.new-trailer.de

Posted Mar 11, 2010 2:20:05 AM

By Alex

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To Dr D: Just like pcs, when the cpu clock defined the speed of a ccmputer, which is wrong, you can't judge a product based entirely on one aspect. To make a long story short, compare a 42" 720p Plasma screen with a 42" 1080p LCD screen and you will know what I'm talking out! (BTW, don't be surprised if the Plasma is more expensive than the LCD) On that note, what a shame that LCD is taking over Plasma, just because plasma is late with 1080p craze. The real messed up thing, is that they're pushing LCD technology for only one reason: cheaper to make, which now selling them at the same price as Plasma monitors. Just like in music, we went down from vinyl, to tape, to CD, to MP3! Pure regression. Same with PAL/SECAM/NTSC, or even the adoption of VHS over the superior format of Beta, probably because it was cheaper to produce. I could go on.. sorry...

Posted Apr 23, 2009 12:39:20 PM

By Fore!

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Here's my 2 cents worth. If you have a good 720p projector you can get much better bang for you home theater buck investing in other parts of your system. For example, instead of upgrading to a 1080p projector I bought an anamorphic lens (Panamorph UH380 - the good thing about a nice piece of glass is that it doesn't wear out or become obsolete, and I got an excellent deal on a lightly used one) and switched out my screen for a 120x50 2.4:1. The positive impact for my movie viewing experience was far more dramatic than any 1080p projector would have been, and potentially for far less money depending on the 1080p projector chosen (I have a bias for DLP over LCD). My projector is a SIM2 HT300 Plus which continues to give a fantastic picture with outstanding color and blacks. And at 720p I get better resolution than someone using zooming to get a 2.4:1 picture with a 1080p projector.

Posted Feb 25, 2009 10:43:03 AM

By Shawn Peterson

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I have a quick question about 1080i vs. 720p. I thought a 1080i signal is 1920 x 1080, meaning it has 1920 pixels of horizontal resolution (1920 vertical scan lines), and since each frame is interlaced and drawn 1/60th of a second, it has 540 pixels of vertical resolution (540 horizontal scan lines). Likewise, a 720p signal has 1280 pixels of horizontal resolution (1280 vertical scan lines) and 720 pixels of vertical resolution (720 horizontal scan lines), so if you convert from 720p to 1080i, you actually gain horizontal resolution, is this correct?

Posted Feb 17, 2009 12:07:01 AM

By Typo

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I'm looking for a good projector for console gaming and watching Blu-ray movies. What's a good choice? I'm leaning more towards a entry level 1080p projector for the movie aspect. I know most games don't do 1080p.

Posted Feb 12, 2009 8:09:55 AM

By jeff haddow

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I have a Benq W500 720p projector. It will play 1080p content via it's HDMI input. The image was always very good via my sons Playstation 3, about the same as my old HD DVD player. I have just installed a Pioneer BDP 51FD Blu-ray player. Now I can see just how good Blu-ray is. The image has improved so much that I still can't believe it. It makes my $1000.00 projector look like a $5000.00 projector It really is that good. The Dolby HD audio is also far better than Dolby Digital. So if you want to see what you are missing go out and spent the extra ยข200.00 bucks on the player and stay away from the cheap units.

Posted Feb 11, 2009 6:35:54 PM

By Derek

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I own a 50" TV, and at that size, I can easily see a difference between even 720p and 1080i content downconverted to 1366x768 (the max resolution for my TV). I have a hard time believing that I wouldn't see a difference between 1080p and 720p.

If I stand more than 13 feet away, though, this difference is very difficult to distinguish. With a projector, as with a TV, it would have a lot to do with how far away you are from the TV.

Posted Nov 17, 2008 11:20:50 AM

By Mister Smith

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The argument is whether or not the extra expense is justified for the net gain in sharpness that most folks will experience when going from 720p to 1080p. This is the most misleading and easily manipulated part of HD tech and it actually contributes to slowing growth of the technology because it makes folks aprehensive about purchasing either. We have heard this argument for years, even when very few of the HTs in our homes had available content to display at 1080 I or P. Technically, there is a difference between the two, the question is "can the average viewer with average HD content availability utilize 1080p to the extent that it is worth two to three times as much as a very good 720p setup?"

Posted Nov 3, 2008 2:24:26 PM

By Dr. D

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A 1080p projectors have more detail over 720p but the visual quality isn't twice as good to justify double the price. It's much like speakers, once you get to one price point the extra audio quality you get for spending a lot more is much smaller. Not to mention, a lot of people have cable or DishNetwork/DirecTV programming which are far from being perfect since they're compressed more (it's much better to get local broadcasting over the air). So, unless you're going to be watching a lot of BluRay movies or have one of those big satellite dishes then I say go with 720p.

Also, 720p isn't dead. It will probably take 2-3yrs before 1080p projectors are below $1,000 and that's the common price point for people to accept it as the defacto standard to get for a home theater. Of course, if you're rich then you won't even be reading this article since you'll just get the best that's available. And there's nothing wrong with that...but anyone even considering 720p vs 1080p tells me they should go 720p since budget is an issue otherwise there would be no debating the choice.

Posted Oct 4, 2008 10:53:12 AM

By Ron Doerge

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It has been interesting to read some of the previous comments. I am the Pres/CEO of The Projector Place and have been in the AV industry for over 40 years. I just wanted to comment that I do see some web comments that are really off the wall. I also want to verify that Evan Powell is the Number one authority on projectors in this country and I know of no one in the industry that is more respected by his professional peers. You may disagree with Evan but the odds are the right answer is in Evan's favor.

Posted Sep 25, 2008 12:51:12 PM

By Leonard Eckian

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There is a great deal of variation in individual's visual acuity and that is why you will see people reporting that they can't see rainbows while others can, and some people complain about screendoor while others don't. If you have 2 people looking at a screen and one sees screendoor and the other doesn't you can be sure that person who doesn't see screendoor will not be able to tell the difference between 1080P and 720P. With good vision you will see a very noticeable difference in image detail between 1080P and 720P. This is particulary noticeable when viewing closeups of people faces on a HDTV news broacast that is being broadcast live in 1080i. The limiting issue is the video source itself. All HDTV broadcast are not created equal and as the quality of the sources improve the 1080P advantage will be clearly visible to everyone except for those with poor eyesight.

Posted Sep 24, 2008 8:59:25 PM

By Natja K.

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I think Evan Powell hit the nail firmly on the head. While I am not as much in agreement with Leonard R. Eckian's comments here and there, and feel they are a bit over the top. Obviously Leonard is a die hard 1080p videophile. Now I have seen Blu-ray via hdmi through both native 1080p and native 720p models. I have a very, very picky eye, and even standing there seeking out even the slightest of improvements in native 1080p projectors using Blu-ray via hdmi, I did in fact see a slightly sharper image, and naturally better blacks and contrast(but mind you-there are plenty of 720p projectors that have the same or superior blacks and contrast as most 1080p models). But honestly the difference is not really that big. Let's face it- both are indeed true HD. The only difference is that one has more pixels than the other which means a sharper image. So in my opinion 1080p offers better sharpness which means a slightly clearer picture. So on that level I do indeed agree. But I have seen many projectors in action, both 720p and 1080p native with Blu-ray and though I see a difference and a superior image with the 1080p signal, I do not agree that 1080p is that significant of an improvement over 720p because it is an overstatement to say it is. Evan Powell's article seem to suggest this opinion somewhat as well.

Posted Sep 23, 2008 7:57:32 AM

By Leonard R. Eckian

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If your viewing distance is 1.7 times the acutal screen width or less, and you have good eyesight, it is very easy to see the difference between 720P and 1080P with high definition source material. Once you have seen and your eyes have grown accustomed to 1080P you will not want to go back to a 720P experience. Since 720P, by definition compromises video fidelity it is not a desirable choice.

Posted Sep 19, 2008 6:35:15 AM

By blackjack57

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There is a VERY visible difference between watching SD dvd's on a 720p projector and watching Blu-rays or HDTV on a 720p projector. As far as the difference between watching the same blu-rays and HD content on a 720p or a 1080 projector? Not nearly as much of a difference. Slight improvments only and the general population won't notice the differnce at all. Its up to each individual to decide if the 1080p premium is a good ROI.

Posted Sep 13, 2008 9:54:34 AM

By Kevin P

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My 0.0025 (South African)cents I currently use a Panasonic PTAE500 and have never felt the pictures lack detail/resolution, and thats just playing DVDs. I look forward to using it with a blu ray player to see what 720p looks like. Without having seen any of new crop of 1080p projectors I am sure they will have a significantly better picture but probably due to their better black levels / contrast ratios rather than the extra pixels. For the time being I can't help but think that 1080p models are overpriced. Sure there have been improvements but if the lens on the old ptae100 was good enough to show the chicken wire effect surley its good enough to show the extra pixels? Sure it will probably need faster processor chips. But a playstation 3 has to process these images and seems to do it at a much more reasonable price, and don't get me started about the lamp costs. I going to hold off until lamps are replaced by LEDs and some kind standard exists for 3D projection

Posted Sep 12, 2008 2:08:30 PM

By Leonard R. Eckian

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Max you will see a big difference because the 1080P projector in addition to more resolution will have better contrast, black level and shadow detail. This is not like two identical cars one with a 4 cycl. and one with a 6 cycl.--The 1080P projector in addition to the higher resolution will have many other improvements not available in any 720P projector.

Posted Sep 12, 2008 1:02:13 PM

By Max

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Yes yes, I see what people are saying. But the question is this:

If you have 2 identical setups (Blu-Ray player, 100" screen, darkness, etc) and you run a $2500 1080p projector side by side with a $1200 720p projector, how much of a difference can you actually SEE when watching a Blu-Ray DVD?

Posted Sep 12, 2008 6:49:08 AM

By alan h

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the only exception to what they are saying above is the three chip dlp projectors at 720p still outperform the 1 chip 1080p projectors, my infocus 777 three chip 720p has a much better picture than my neighbors 1080p jvc.

Posted Sep 12, 2008 5:50:34 AM

By Leonard Eckian

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Reader Beware: Some diehard 720 people are saying a good 720P projector is better than an entry-level 1080P projector--that is just a myth--720P technology is over and done with and has been for 3 years. As soon as 1080P went mainstream all meaningful improvements to 720P projectors ceased. The only valid reason to go 720P is to save money in the short term. The unstoppable movement in video content is to 1080P. Do you want to buy down-rezzing (720P) technology that is being left behind or newer 1080P technolgy that fully meets the true HDTV format?

Posted Sep 11, 2008 7:53:19 PM

By Loong soo kum

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To go 720p or 1080p will depend on a few factors in different part of the world. 1) Cost- 1080p prices are higher for blu-ray player and Projectors. In Malaysia, the Blu-ray disc cost about USD 45.00 per piece.Almost 2-3times the price of standard definition DVD. 2) Titles Release- At this point of times, disc titles are still limited. 3) Technology- Blu-ray player reading the data take a while to select the scene due to large amount of data in the disc and improvement need time to perfect. 4) 720p performance is acceptable with current SD DVD and is affordable. Will upgrade at a later date if all the above has improve for the better!

Posted Sep 11, 2008 4:21:42 PM

By HeadRusch

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One point about video games: You'll need a high-end videocard in your PC if you want to drive 1080p, and thats for PC games.

Xbox360's (which will still be with us for several more years) and the Sony PS3 (which will be with us even longer) do very few games at 1080p resolution natively.

Both are primarily 720p devices that will likely continue to output in 720p (or less) as the games use more of the systems processing for visual effects.

1080p gaming wont be with us for quite awhile unless you are talking about PC games, and if you are, make sure you have the horsepower in your machine to drive 1920x1080 pixels at a reasonable framerate.

Posted Sep 11, 2008 3:25:39 PM

By Douglas Pratt

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(Note: I'm *not* the Doug Pratt who publishes The DVD Newsletter.)

I own a Panasonic PT-AX200U, and I have absolutely no 1080 envy, thanks in part to the invisible pixel grid. Everyone who's seen my PT-AX200U has been totally blown away by the picture, whether watching widescreen 480p DVD, HDTV on a FiOS DVR set to 720p, or my son's Xbox 360.

Posted Sep 11, 2008 3:15:32 PM

By Boris H.

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There are two points missing in favour of 1080 projectors: 1. photography projection (one can easy see the difference to 720) 2. video games (with the very sharp 1080 picture) If you don't use projector for the above, 720 should do very well, even for Blue Ray.

Posted Sep 11, 2008 3:14:29 PM

By HeadRusch

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My .02 cents:

Native contrast levels, color accuracy, and the amount of light the projector throws should be far more important than 720p versus 1080p.

An entry-level LCD 1080p unit can be bested visually by higher-end 720p DLP units that are often priced less to begin with.

At the same screen size and the same seating distance from projectors of the same type (LCD and LCD or DLP and DLP), unless you are right on top of the screen *few* people would be able to distinguish a 1080p image from an 720p one without seeing them both side by side and comparing.

Only by freezing both displays on a single frame and comparing will differences (sometimes) be visible, and then it will greatly depend on the quality of encoding on the BD disc and how the movie was shot to begin with, the condition of the film stock when transferred, and if the film is new or old...where older films tend to show alot of grain in the image, which in turn can destroy detail (which is intended, by the way).

Having said all that....the days of 720p are coming to a close, in another year or two there wont be any new 720p displays being produced. And as such, the price of 1080p displays will again come down. Many of us have chosen to spend a small amount on a good quality DLP 720p projector in the short term, and upgrade to a higher quality 1080p unit somewhere down the line when they become more affordable.

The $2000-and-under LCD 1080p units do not impress me so far visually, and my "buy" point is closer to $1200 anyhow.

Posted Sep 11, 2008 3:00:17 PM

By Leonard R. Eckian

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I can't say I agree with this article because it is not just resolution that makes 1080P clearly superior to 720P, even to a novice. The 720P technology has been frozen over the past 2-3 years with no notable improvements in contrast or black level. One of the holy grails for front digital projectors has been to make products that rival CRT black level. This is beginning to be approached and achieved with the 1080P projectors whereas 720P projectors have not made that leap. If the only difference between 720P and 1080P was resolution this article would have merit however the manufacturers will not be putting out 720P projectors with 75000 to 1 contrast ratio anytime soon and probably never. If you want to truly enjoy dark movies you will have to buy a 1080P projector.

Posted Aug 23, 2007 2:55:26 AM

By bebby

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How should the question be answered when we are talking about own movies produced with HD-camcorders? I'm planning about buying a HD-camcorder and will probably watch a lot of my own movies. Which should I buy then? 1080p with 24p? Many thanks!

Posted Feb 28, 2007 6:56:52 PM

By L-Squared

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I am about to invest in my 1st projector system and I am in a quandry over whether to buy a 720p vs 1080p. I hav ebeen leaning to the SIM2 Domino D35 but it actually costs more than the new Sony 1080p. Logic would seem to dictate that investment in a relatively expensive 720p will be money down the drain at SOME point in the future(who knows when). So it got me thinking (1) buy 1080p now or (2) buy cheaper 720P now and upgrade to 1080p later when more content is available. I do not plan to invest in Blue Ray and mostly watch traditional DVD's and cable TV (sports, movies, etc). Opinions?

2nd - is the Stewart Firehawk worth the money over a DA-Lite or Draper?

Posted Feb 23, 2007 9:51:42 AM

By Bobzdar

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Has anybody compared the quality when using 1080p vs 720p when using a 720p native projector? Just curious as my Optoma can down convert 1080p to 720p, but as the ps3 can display both, I'm wondering if it'll look better set to 1080p or 720p...

Posted Feb 22, 2007 1:15:53 PM

By Atropos

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"I think this depends on the player. For example, I currently have a PS3 with a HD1000 projector and if I try to play the Talladega Nights Blu Ray movie on those, then the movie is down converted to 480p. I have seen other postings were they say that if the movie comes with support for all resolutions then it will display correctly, however I am not sure about this.

I also connected the PS3 to an LVM-37w3 (1080p monitor) and the movie displayed correctly at 1080p there."

When your PS3 is connected to the HD1000, set video compatibility to 1080i. It'll display correctly. At least, it worked for me. :)

I don't know why, but if you're set to 720p on the PS3, it downconverts. Lame, huh? Set to 1080i and let the projector downconvert from there.

Posted Feb 17, 2007 8:23:53 AM

By dijuremo

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"If you are more interested in displaying a computer screen at 1024x768, then 1080 is what is needed, right? It seemed to me interlaced would be better for computer projection than 1080p, does it matter?"

Modern computer displays and graphic cards are all progressive, not interlaced.

If you are interested in displaying a computer at 1024x768 you do *not* need a 1080p capable display (TV, LCD, projector, etc). You just need a display capable of doing 1024x768.

Now if you want to display your computer image at 1080p, then the resolution will be 1920x1080. If you are planning on using it for gaming, you better get a hell of a good video card. Otherwise your fps count will be so low that the games will suck.

I currently have a PC with a Geforce 8800GTX running at 1080p (1920x1080) at highest settings in all games with an LVM-37w3 and it is just beautiful.

I also have another computer which was previously connected to an HP VP6120 projector at 1024x768 and then I upgraded to the HD1000 at 1280x720 (720p). However due to problems with the HD1000 not doing 1:1 image in the VGA input at 1280x720, I am going to return that projector and buy something else.

Posted Feb 17, 2007 8:16:53 AM

By dijuremo

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"Native BluRay or HD-DVD are backward compatable, aren't they? Will I be able to play, for instance, BluRay discs on a BluRay player and project at 720p with my Panasonic AE700? It won't up-convert from SD for some silly reason, will it?

Thanks."

I think this depends on the player. For example, I currently have a PS3 with a HD1000 projector and if I try to play the Talladega Nights Blu Ray movie on those, then the movie is down converted to 480p. I have seen other postings were they say that if the movie comes with support for all resolutions then it will display correctly, however I am not sure about this.

I also connected the PS3 to an LVM-37w3 (1080p monitor) and the movie displayed correctly at 1080p there.

Posted Feb 9, 2007 12:16:30 AM

By RJT

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If you are more interested in displaying a computer screen at 1024x768, then 1080 is what is needed, right? It seemed to me interlaced would be better for computer projection than 1080p, does it matter?

Posted Jan 26, 2007 11:41:00 AM

By Chris M.

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Native BluRay or HD-DVD are backward compatable, aren't they? Will I be able to play, for instance, BluRay discs on a BluRay player and project at 720p with my Panasonic AE700? It won't up-convert from SD for some silly reason, will it?

Thanks.

Posted Nov 23, 2006 7:19:28 PM

By JupiterOEK

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Great article for novice. How do they relate to the Standard television programs? I need to replace my benq because it is too dark to view regular tv. Please advise.

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