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