Clearing the Air on Resolution

Jan 1, 2007  •  Post A Comment

By Natalie Finn

Special to TelevisionWeek

One would be hard-pressed to find an HDTV expert who doesn’t think that 1080p is the future, in both broadcasting and display. It’s often referred to-by marketers in particular-as “true HD” or “full HD.” What’s polarizing consumers and industry insiders, however, is the question of whether it’s worth investing now in a 1080p display when there’s no 1080p television content capable of reaching it.

High-definition content is currently broadcast in either 720p or 1080i, with the numbers referring to how many horizontal resolution lines are in each frame and the letters designating either progressive scan or interlace technology. In a progressive scan format, lines of pixels scan into a frame in order, with each frame displayed on the screen for 1/60 of a second. Interlacing technology sends every odd-numbered scan line onto the screen, and then the even-numbered lines fill in the gaps, all within 1/30 of a second.

Most broadcasters and cable networks that currently produce content in HD have no plans to upgrade to 1080p anytime soon, though they all acknowledge that they will have to eventually.

1080i and 1080p monitors technically have the same level of resolution. Unlike tube displays, however, microdisplays (such as LCD rear-projections and digital light processing screens), flat-panel LCDs and plasma screens are inherently progressive, so those types of sets automatically convert incoming 1080i signals into progressive scans.

“The new devices are fixed pixel, meaning they’re only in progressive,” said Vincent Sollitto, CEO of HDTV maker Syntax-Brillian, whose Olevia brand has been in a programming partnership with ESPN HD. ESPN uses the 720p format. “While there isn’t any 1080p content today, because the transmission mediums are all based on 720p and 1080i, I think when the Blu-ray/HD-DVD thing settles out, there will be a 1080p standard created.” (Both Blu-ray and HD-DVD players utilize 1080p.)

Conversion Necessary

Strangely enough, while digital feature films and some prime-time series are produced in 1080p, there’s no 1080p transmission format and therefore 1080p sets would be unable to receive the feed. Instead, the sets upconvert 720p and 1080i signals into 1080p. And 1080p productions must be downconverted into 1080i or 720p before they can be televised on cable or satellite networks.

“To show a 1080i signal, many consumer HDTVs do the conversion from interlaced to progressive scan using an economical, `quickie’ approach that throws away half the vertical resolution in the 1080i image,” Roam Consulting President Peter Putnam wrote last year on his Web site, HDExpert.com. So a 1080i signal played back on a 1080p display just “doesn’t cut the mustard,” he wrote. “You will quickly see the loss in resolution, not to mention motion and picture artifacts. Add to that other garbage such as mosquito noise and macroblocking and you’ve got a pretty sorry-looking signal on your new big-screen 1080p TV.”

“As it stands now,” he continued, “converting 1080p to 1080i for broadcast is a winning combination. Picture quality is quite good and the `film look’ holds up well even when converted to interlaced scan.”

But while all the stars are not in alignment just yet, the appeal of an HDTV set that promises a brighter, sharper and less pixilated picture is going to attract consumers no matter what.

“While broadcast is going to lag, [1080p] is going to help differentiate products on the marketplace for the holiday season,” said Michael Gartenberg, VP and research director for JupiterResearch in New York. Consumers don’t have very short replacement cycles for things like big-screen TVs, he said, “so if you’re plunking down several thousand dollars for a 42-inch set, this notion of getting a 1080p is something the manufacturers are going to try to encourage pe ple to do as a way of future-proofing.

“It probably makes sense given things like Blu-ray and HD-DVD, [PlayStation 3] and Xbox support the highest resolution standards.”

“I say if the display is larger than 50 inches and the price point is right, go for it,” AVS Forum founder David Bott said, echoing product reviewers who have said that consumers won’t see much of a difference in resolution when viewing 720p or 1080i content on a 1080p set unless they’re seeing the image on a larger screen.