Full HD: Hip or Hype?

Full HD is the latest buzzphrase in television marketing. If we want the latest and greatest in HDTV, we want Full HD—or so we’re told. But is it possible to have too much of a good thing?   Full HD is marketing-ese for 1080p. Since alphanumeric monikers tend to leave us cold, the name is an adroit way of turning something seemingly dry and technical into something that sounds more desirable, something you’ve just got to have—unless you want your neighbor smirking at you because his home theater system is Full HD and yours is only, well, partial HD.   I first wrote about 1080p for Audio Video Interiors in 1998, when HDTV was still gleaming on the horizon. But I didn’t hear the phrase Full HD until relatively recently. Now it’s rampant in TV ads, reviews, and all the assorted information and misinformation that surrounds digital television. When I realized what it meant, I began wondering why this, why now?

The Case for Full HD

What is 1080p, a.k.a. Full HD? Since I’ve written about this subject here before, I’ll keep the definition brief. It’s high-definition television with 1080 by 1920 pixels, delivered in full frames. The p is what distinguishes 1080p from 1080i, which uses an interlacing process to deliver gapped pairs of half-frames.   But 1080p and 1080i aren’t the only forms taken by HDTV. There is also a 720p format that delivers 720 by 1280 pixels. If 1080p is Full HD, then this other format must be less than Full HD, right? After all, it has fewer pixels.   The case for Full HD seems even clearer if you count the total number pixels onscreen. Multiply 720 by 1280 and you get 921,600 pixels. Multiple 1080 by 1920 and you get 2,073,600 pixels. Now it makes perfect sense, right? Full HD has more than two million pixels and that inferior HD has fewer than a million. Case closed. Send the jury home. Let’s go to the bar across the street from the courthouse and get wasted. We can drink and watch basketball games in Full HD.

1080p Is Off the Air

Not so fast. Maybe this isn’t as cut and dried at it seems at first. True, 1080p has more than twice the pixel count of 720p. But if you have all the facts, some of them will continue niggling at the back of your mind.   For one thing, the people who devised the HDTV standard didn’t even bother to provide for 1080p (at least, not in practice). The broadcast standard they had in mind included 1080i, 720p, and standard-def formats like 480i. Since 1080p isn’t part of the broadcast standard, at least not yet, there are no 1080p broadcasts. CBS and NBC, for instance, use 1080i, while ABC and Fox prefer 720p.   You can get a true 1080p signal from Blu-ray or HD DVD disc, and potentially from some PC and game sources. The format has also gained traction as a production standard. But due to the initial setting of broadcast standards, there are lots of working HDTVs that don’t support 1080p. Most of them are 1080i. In those that do offer 1080p, it’s often just an upconversion standard—these Full HD sets accepts signals in other formats and displays them in 1080p. In the case of 1080i to 1080p, this is a straightforward line doubling.   As far as HDTV’s founding fathers were concerned, 1080i and 720p were both designated as HDTV, to distinguish them from SDTV formats like 480p and 480i. This whole notion that 720p is less than Full HD is relatively new and largely marketing-driven.   It’s all so confusing, isn’t it? But there’s one more point that makes everything perfectly clear. All these DTV formats have to go through a bottleneck that puts their relative merits on a different basis than that implied by the number of pixels. Actually, two bottlenecks. They’re your eyes.

Believe Your Eyes

Eyesight is ultimately what mocks the Full HD hype. Even if you have 20/20 vision, your eyes can’t distinguish the pixel size of 1080p vs. 720p on screens of 42 inches or less. Even at 50 inches, the difference is debatable. Up at 70 inches, you may see differences—but even then, things like video artifacts, video noise, and the limits of source material (whether HD or not) take their toll.   Furthermore, with movie content, there is effectively no difference between 1080p and 1080i. True, 35mm to 70mm film is an extraordinarily high-resolution medium, so movies shot on film can be sharp enough to take advantage of 1080 by 1920 resolution (or better, in the distant future).   But movies are shot at 24 frames per second, and the display of progressive video including 1080p is always 60fps or a multiple of that (or for 1080i, 60 fields, 30 frames). So a process called 3:2 pulldown comes into play to translate 24fps to 60fps. Whether 3:2 pulldown happens in the HDTV or in the Blu-ray/HD DVD player is irrelevant. It just happens, because without it, you wouldn’t get a watchable picture. So the p in 1080p doesn’t add anything to a movie that you wouldn’t get from a 1080i set.   My smarter colleague at Home Theater, video editor Geoff Morrison, explains it all here, here, and especially here.   I’m not saying Full HD/1080p is a bad thing. If you’re buying any kind of wall-hogging front-projection system, and plan to spend a lot of time watching Blu-ray or HD DVD, 1080p is a must. I’d also want it if I were buying a flat-panel or rear-projection set of 50 inches and up. Since a little headroom is never a bad thing, make that 42. Even so, I have no intention of dumping the smaller of my two HDTV sets, a 32-inch 768p LCD, to get 1080p.   Why the Full HD hype? The real story—the one you won’t read in a lot of reviews, and certainly not in any ad—is that profit margins are plummeting swiftly in the TV manufacturing industry. While this is nothing short of fantastic for consumers, it’s also nearly catastrophic for TV makers. They need to sell us bigger TVs, because they make more money on bigger sizes. And they desperately need a “step up” feature to persuade us that a slightly more expensive medium-sized LCD or plasma is better than a slightly less expensive one. Full HD spells “performance,” while 720p and 768p are “value.”   That’s why you’re hearing so much about Full HD. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. Just know what you’re buying.   Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

Home Theater

Time for a TV upgrade? Here’s what you need to know about 4K Ultra HD TV

Ultra HD 4K has quickly taken over the world of TVs. But what is Ultra HD 4K, how does it work, and most importantly, should you upgrade, or keep your old TV? We explain it all right here.
Gaming

Xbox One S vs. Xbox One X: Is the costly upgrade worth the money?

The Xbox One X is officially here and pretty much everything rumored about it was true. Is the higher price point worth it, or does it put it out of reach for most consumers? Here's how it matches up to the Xbox One S.
Home Theater

Need more contrast in your life? Here’s what you need to know about HDR TVs

So what is HDR TV? In a nutshell, it’s the best thing to happen to TV since the arrival of 4K. Here's everything you need to know about the technology, what it can do, and why it’s a must-have.
Deals

Time to upgrade! Here are the best 4K TV deals for July 2018

There's no doubt that a good 4K smart TV is the best way to take your home entertainment setup to the next level so you can enjoy all of your favorite shows, movies, and games in glorious Ultra HD. We've got the best 4K TV deals right here.
Movies & TV

Do you have questions about Hulu and Hulu with Live TV? We've got answers

Not sure which Hulu subscription is right for you? We're here to help. This is your complete guide to Hulu and Hulu with Live TV, including content offerings for each service, pricing, internet requirements, and more.
Home Theater

The 7 best TVs you can buy right now, from budget to big screen

Looking for a new television? In an oversaturated market, buying power is at an all-time high, but you'll need to cut through the rough to find a diamond. We're here to help with our picks for the best TVs of 2018.
Home Theater

The best Dolby Atmos movies for your home theater sound as good as they look

If you've got your hands on some sweet Dolby Atmos gear, the next step is to find films that take advantage of it. These are our picks in every genre for the best Dolby Atmos movies currently available on Blu-ray and streaming services.
Home Theater

The ultimate surround sound guide: Different formats explained

Wondering which is the best surround sound format for your home theater system? Start by learning the technical differences between the various formats with our ultimate surround sound guide.
Photography

When you're ready to shoot seriously, these are the best DSLRs you can buy

For many photographers the DSLR is the go-to camera. With large selection of lenses, great low-light performance, and battery endurance, these DSLRs deliver terrific image quality for stills and videos.
Movies & TV

Binge away with our guide to the best on-demand streaming services

Looking to waste a weekend bingeing or just putting together a movie night? Find out everything you need, from prices to features, in our guide to the best online streaming sites and services for on-demand movies and TV shows.
Home Theater

How to install an HD antenna so you can start enjoying free television

Today's TV antennas will get you loads of free over-the-air broadcast TV, but setting them up can be a challenge. We walk you through how to install a TV antenna, and provide tips on picking the best antenna for your home.
Home Theater

These awesome A/V receivers will swarm you with surround sound at any budget

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to shopping for a receiver, so we assembled our favorites for 2018, at multiple price points and all loaded with features, from Dolby Atmos to 4K HDR, and much more.
Home Theater

We all cut cable, and now we’re just as screwed on streaming

As live TV streaming services like Sling TV and PlayStation Vue raise prices in tandem, it raises questions about whether these services were ever a viable alternative to cable in the first place.
Home Theater

Netflix vs. Hulu vs. Amazon Prime: Battle of the streaming giants

Trying to figure out which subscription streaming service to use while sticking to a frugal entertainment budget? Check out our updated comparison of the big three: Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Hulu.
Mobile

Want to watch Netflix in bed or browse the web? We have a tablet for everyone

There’s so much choice when shopping for a new tablet that it can be hard to pick the right one. From iPads to Android, these are our picks for the best tablets you can buy right now whatever your budget.
Movies & TV

Can't get enough lightsaber action? Get your Star Wars fix online with our guide

Few of us want to deal with DVDs or Blu-ray discs anymore. Unfortunately, the Star Wars movies are few and far between when it comes to streaming. If you want to watch Star Wars online, check out our guide on where to find them.
Home Theater

AT&T wants to make HBO more like Netflix, and it could be a disaster

After acquiring HBO parent company Time Warner, AT&T is pushing HBO to become more like Netflix, but for all of Netflix’s success, this plan might not be great for either HBO or its customers.
Home Theater

Why I still won’t wear wireless headphones

Wireless headphones promise liberation from cords, tangles, and snags, but there’s just one issue holding them back: battery life. And until manufacturers figure it out, sales numbers prove consumers aren’t yet biting.
Gaming

Google might be planning a game console. That doesn’t mean it will happen

A new report suggests that Google is working on a game console, code-named Yeti. The reports about Google's game console are likely true, but that doesn't mean we will ever see it.
Computing

MacOS Mojave brings evening elegance to your Mac experience

The MacOS Mojave public beta is out now, with an official release coming later this fall. Chock-full of quality-of-life upgrades, we took it for a test drive to get a sneak peek at what you can expect from the next major update to MacOS…
Health & Fitness

Ugh. I’m done with fitness trackers, and so is the world

In 2016, everyone was tracking their fitness. In 2017, people grew tired of it. In 2018, I’m done with it. I’m going tracker-free in my workouts from now on.
Mobile

iOS 12 is more evidence you should buy an iPhone, not an Android phone

The next version of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 12, will be compatible with devices all the way back to 2013’s iPhone 5S. Android phones from the same era didn’t even see 2016’s software update. It’s further evidence you…
Mobile

5 obviously stupid iPhone problems that iOS 12 doesn’t even try to fix

At WWDC 2018, Apple took the wraps off the latest version of its iOS operating system. iOS 12 introduces quite a bit of changes -- visually and under the hood -- but there are still some basics that it doesn’t address. Here are a few of…