Editors' Note: For a more recent discussion of this same topic, check out 720p vs. 1080p HDTV: The final word.
For HDTV buyers, as for digital camera buyers, resolution is a hot topic these days. In my previous column, I talked about "budget" plasmas that offered only EDTV, or Enhanced Definition (480p), resolution. Now I'm going to go to the opposite end of the resolution spectrum and talk about the ultra-HD, or 1080p, displays that attracted a lot of attention at this year's Consumer Electronics Show. Few of these sets have hit the market yet, but I'm getting a steady stream of reader e-mail asking (a) when they'll be available, (b) how much they'll cost, and (c) whether they're worth waiting for.
Ultra-HD is actually LG's marketing term for these super high-res sets. Others prefer to substitute true or full for ultra. Monikers aside, 1080p resolution--which equates to 1,920x1,080 pixels--is the latest HD Holy Grail. That's because 1080p monitors are theoretically capable of displaying every pixel of the highest-resolution HD broadcasts. On paper, they should offer more than twice the resolution of today's 1,280x720, or 720p, HDTVs, such as Samsung's 61-inch HL-P6163W.
What about 1080i, you ask? That format--the former king of the HDTV hill--actually boasts an identical 1,920x1,080 resolution but displays the images in an interlaced format (the i in 1080i). To cut to the chase, it "paints" the odd-numbered lines of resolution on your screen, then alternates with the even-numbered lines--all within a fraction of a second. Progressive-scan formats such as 480p, 720p, and 1080p display all of the lines of resolution sequentially in a single pass. Ideally, progressive-scan makes for a smoother, cleaner image. At the same time, interlaced formats aren't really an option in microdisplay (DLP and LCD rear-projection) and other fixed-pixel (plasma and LCD flat-panel) TVs. That's why these sets are leapfrogging 1080i, going directly from 720p to 1080p.
Sharp's 1080p-capable 45-inch LCD flat panel
A handful of 1080p sets are already on the market, including Sony's Qualia 006, a 70-inch rear-projection set powered by LCoS technology
, and Sharp's LC-45GX6U
, a 45-inch Aquos LCD flat panel that's currently sitting in our lab undergoing testing. LG has models due out soon, and Samsung's much-anticipated, next-generation 1080p DLP
sets are supposed to arrive in May. Among them is a 67-inch model, the HLR6768W
, our Next Big Thing winner
at this year's Consumer Electronics Show. It will retail for $6,000.
Not surprisingly, you'll have to pay a premium to get the latest and greatest technology. For more "mainstream" (read: found at your local Best Buy) models such as the Samsungs and the LGs
, you can expect to pay an extra $1,000 to $2,000 for the bump in resolution. Sony's Qualia 006 is a specialty high-end product that goes for around $13,000, while Sharp's 45-inch LCD can be found for around $6,000. Yes, these are big
big-ticket items. But when you're already spending three or four grand on a TV, you're probably going to consider blowing another grand or two for "best of breed" privileges. It's only human nature.
Will you wait for a 1080p HDTV? Is it worth the extra cost?
So, should you?
Well, this is where things get a little complicated. I recently returned from Sony's 2005 line show
in Las Vegas, where company reps were showing off the Qualia 006's capabilities in a special demonstration. As part of the demonstration, they played a scene from the Spider-Man 2
DVD (yes, it's a Sony Pictures flick--in case there was any doubt in your mind). They then brought in a ringer, firing up the high-def Blu-ray version of the same film using a $3,000 Japan-only Blu-ray player/recorder connected via FireWire (or, as Sony calls it, iLink). The set was fed a 1080i signal but upconverted
it to 1080p. (Sony reps said future Blu-ray players would be capable of outputting a native 1080p signal.)
Truth is, Spidey and Doc Ock looked spectacular. The picture clearly looked better than what I'm used to seeing on my large-screen HDTV (I've watched the original Spider-Man
in HD, thanks to HBO). The colors popped, the image was ultrasharp and impressively three-dimensional. I was sold. Unfortunately, I was also short about $13,000.
"On a large set like Qualia 006, you're going to see a difference," our resident video guru, senior editor David Katzmaier, confirmed when I got back. "But I defy you to distinguish the two on a smaller set like the Sharp 45-inch LCD from 10 feet away."
In other words, apparent resolution (the amount of detail you see) has much more to do with how far you're sitting from the television--its relative screen size--than it does with the set's native resolution. If you sit close enough and feed the Sharp LCD a good HD source, you'll probably be able to detect a difference in detail between 720p and 1080i material. But not every installation allows you to sit close enough. Another thing to consider: even if the display has a native resolution of 1080p on paper, it can't necessarily display all 2 million-plus pixels in the real world. For example, the Sharp actually wasn't as sharp as it claimed to be; it couldn't resolve every line of a 1080i resolution test pattern.
The moral of the story? If you're thinking of going big, really big (a 60-inch screen or larger), the extra resolution may make it worth the difference--as long as you have a pristine HD source to feed into the set. Fact is, with most of today's HD broadcasts, you'll be hard pressed to see a difference in picture quality when you compare the image on the current 1,280x720 (720p) Samsung DLP versus an upcoming 1,920x1,080 (1080p) model. Of course, if and when such high-def formats as Blu-ray or HD-DVD
take off, the equation may change. But it will probably be at least three or four years before that stuff is anywhere near as affordable as current DVD hardware and software.
And lastly: Those of you thinking of running your computer through a 1080p set, just be aware that you may not necessarily get to use all that extra resolution--even if you have the right high-end graphics card. For instance, the Sharp set we're testing allows you to max out at only 1,280x1,024 resolution. As for the next-gen Xbox
or the PS3
, we can only pray they're capable of outputting 1080p (via a connection that 1,920x1,080 HDTVs can accept). If they are, well, it's a whole new ballgame.
David Carnoy is an executive editor for CNET Reviews.