The 1080 and 720 in 1080p and 720p stand for vertical screen resolution, or height, in pixels. The more pixels there are in an image, the clearer it will be. As such, a screen resolution of 1920x1080 (two million pixels when multiplied) should appear twice as sharp as a resolution of 1280x720 (fewer than one million pixels). Meanwhile, the p in 1080p and 720p stands for progressive scanning, which updates full frame images more quickly than traditionally interlaced content.

Comparison chart

1080p versus 720p comparison chart
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Screen Resolution 1920x1080 (two million pixels when multiplied) 1280x720 (fewer than one million pixels when multiplied)
Display Technology Progressive (that's what the "p" stands for) Progressive (that's what the "p" stands for)
HDTV Usage The FCC includes 1080p in its definition of high-definition (HD) quality video. Less widely used HDTV format, but becoming more common. The FCC includes 720p in its definition of high-definition (HD) quality video. Widely used HDTV format.

Picture Quality

For many, there will be little to no noticeable difference between 1080p—known as Full HD—and 720p—known as HD—. However, those who pay more attention will definitely notice that 1080p results in a smoother, clearer image, and that 1080p is clearer than 1080i.

Comparing the visual quality of different resolutions and standards. Click to enlarge.
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Comparing the visual quality of different resolutions and standards. Click to enlarge.

Not everything comes down to resolution, however. Image smoothness is affected by many other factors, including how big a TV is, how close one sits to it, what DVD player is in use, what a TV's refresh rate is or what its aspect ratio is set to, and even what the frame rate of the video or game content is.

The video below offers a summary of the differences between 1080p and 720p in terms of picture quality.

Content Availability and Creation

The FCC defines high-definition (HD) quality video as 720p, 1080p, and 1080i, and all modern TVs carry support for at least 720p resolution, with many supporting 1080p. Some video content is filmed or trimmed to a smaller vertical resolution than 1080 pixels—or it's interlaced, rather than progressively scanned—but it is still considered HD.

When watching digital TV, video quality can vary wildly. Those who want the best picture quality need to change their TV's settings to accommodate changing video feeds. New TVs may attempt to automatically change settings to whatever is most appropriate, but they may fail to do so in some cases.

HD DVDs contain 720p content and sometimes 1080p, while all Blu-ray discs contain 1080p content. Regular DVD quality can vary considerably, with some displaying content at a resolution lower than 720p, such as 480p. Moreover, there are still DVD players around that only carry support for up to 480p or 480i, meaning a viewer cannot get the full experience of any high-definition DVD they insert into the player.

Netflix typically streams at 720p, but with the release and expansion of what it calls "Super HD," users are able to stream more and more content at 1080p quality with a high-speed internet connection. Apple TV allows users to choose between 720p and 1080p streaming. DirecTV displays a "1080pHD" logo on 1080p pay-per-view content, and all their latest DirecTV Cinema content is in 1080p. On YouTube and Vimeo, high quality videos often allow for 720p or even 1080p streaming.

Modern smartphones, like the iPhone 5c/5s, the Samsung Galaxy S5, and the HTC One, tend to film at 1080p quality and at 30 frames per second, if not better. Again, resolution is not all there is to picture quality, but for the average user, modern smartphones' video recording capabilities have the potential to be just as good for casual video-making as cheap camcorders.

1080p and 720p in Gaming

Screen resolution can be especially important in video gaming. Because there are more pixels in 1080p, less anti-aliasing is required for a smooth visual experience. This means that 1080p will not only likely look better than 720p, but will lead to a better gaming experience overall, as anti-aliasing can slow down a console or computer.

The following video further discusses the differences between 1080p and 720p and what the two concepts mean for gamers.

References

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"1080p vs 720p." Diffen.com. Diffen LLC, n.d. Web. 21 Sep 2016. < >