Selecting a Home Theater Projector:
Should you go with 480p, 576p, or 720p?

Evan Powell, May 20, 2005

One of the first things you notice when you begin to shop for a home theater projector is that they come in different resolutions. That becomes Mystery No. 1 for the typical buyer—which resolution is best? And it is an important question, because getting the right resolution, or more to the point—avoiding the wrong resolution—will help you get the best possible picture relative to the amount you pay for it.

Most people looking for home theater projectors want to go with the widescreen, 16:9 format that is the native format for HDTV. There are three popular 16:9 resolution formats at the moment. The first is 854x480, the second is 1024x576, and the third is 1280x720. Since these are all progressive scan displays, they are designated as 480p, 576p, and 720p resolutions, respectively.

First off, let's debunk the common notion that higher resolution is always the better deal. That is simply not the case. Most of the current 480p projectors produce outstanding results with both standard definition and HDTV signals. In terms of performance for the money, they clearly represent the best home theater value we've ever seen in the industry. Well, that is, if you live in the world of NTSC 480-line video. Assuming

you do, your DVDs and standard television signals all have 480 lines of active video information, and the 854x480 projectors are designed to display them line-for-line without any vertical scaling. That produces the sharpest possible image from these sources.

Now, contrary to what you might imagine, stepping up in price to the next highest resolution, 1024x576, does not give you a sharper picture from DVD. Remember, you only have 480 lines of video information on that DVD. The projector cannot create additional picture information beyond that which it gets from the signal. So a 576p projector needs to take that 480 lines of information and redistribute it over 576 lines, a process which is called scaling. The best you can hope for is that it does a really good job at scaling the image, and if it does you won't lose much sharpness. But generally a picture scaled into a non-native format like this will appear a bit softer than it does when it is displayed in native 480-line format.

So why bother with a higher resolution? Well, the higher resolution does give you two benefits. First, since there are more pixels, there is typically somewhat reduced visible pixel structure. That means you can sit a bit closer to the screen without seeing the pixels. Second, there is the possibility of getting a slightly better HDTV picture. That is because the HD signal, which is either 1920x1080 or 1280x720, is being compressed into an array of 1024x576 rather than the lower resolution 854x480 array. Since the 576p model has more pixels, it has the potential to retain a bit more detail in the HDTV image.

However, these two advantages are minor. Pixelation on even the 480p DLP projectors is modest at best. Stepping up to 576p reduces visible pixelation somewhat, but it does not eliminate it. Meanwhile, the process of compressing an HDTV signal into a lower resolution array, no matter what it is, will always cause some loss of image detail. So whether it is compressed into 480 lines or 576 lines, the difference between the two is subtle at best.

The basic question then is this: Do you want to lay out more money to gain subtle improvements in pixelation and HDTV acuity, while compromising the sharpness of your DVD picture? Most people would think this is a dubious trade-off. Yet this is the value proposition being offered by the 1024x576 resolution projectors in the NTSC world.

On the other hand, everything changes if you live in a country where PAL or SECAM is the video standard. These systems deliver 576 lines of video per frame, rather than the 480 lines per frame of NTSC. So in this environment, the 1024x576 resolution projector is the ideal solution for DVD and standard definition video. Indeed, Texas Instruments dubbed their 1024x576 DLP chip the "Matterhorn" because of its unique applicability in the European market where PAL and SECAM are established standards.

Back on this side of the Atlantic however, the 1024x576 projector has become a solution in search of a problem. Except for those living in Brazil and Argentina, nobody in the Western hemisphere has a 576-line video source. So on a 576p projector everything must be scaled in a manner that represents an unattractive compromise for both standard definition and high definition sources.

The reality is that today's latest model 1280x720 resolution DLP projectors sell for under $3,000, and you can get the latest 1280x720 LCD projectors for under $2,000. The drop in prices of the 1280x720 models has left the 1024x576 projector aced out of the game in the western markets. There is no price point at which it would make sense to step up from 480p, but forego the incremental expense to get to 720p.

So in the NTSC world, if you want the best DVD picture quality for the money, the best 480p models deliver spectacular DVD quality and amazingly good HDTV as well, for a mere $1200 these days. If you want to allocate more in your budget for a projector to eliminate pixelation and get much sharper HDTV, there is simply no point in taking the interim step to 1024x576. The move to 1280x720 (or even higher), is the only move that makes sense.

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