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Tech Terms Demystified: 1080p vs. 1080i

I've written about car audio for Crutchfield since 2003, after four years as Crutchfield Sales Advisor, and 10 years as a music teacher. I'm an avid music listener, with a real love of classical and film music. I love having a great system in my car, and I'll still match the system in my 98 Ford Ranger (may it rest in piece) up against anything else I've heard for great SQ. I attended West Virginia University, where I received a Master's Degree in Music Performance and a Bachelor's Degree in History. Let's Go Mountaineers!

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If you're researching buying a new HDTV, you may have come across this question: "1080p vs. 1080i - which is better?" Not surprising, actually. "1080p vs. 1080i" is one of the most common searches on the Crutchfield web site. Let's take a look at what 1080p and 1080i are, and why it's important to know about them when you're searching for a new TV.

1080p and 1080i refer to resolution - that is, the amount of picture detail provided by the display (your television) or the source (DVD, television broadcast, etc.). 1080i has been around for a while. It, as well as 720p, are the standards most commonly seen in HDTV broadcasts. The recent rise of Blu-ray Disc players and new generation video games have raised the bar, providing us with ready sources of 1080p video.

The "p" in 1080p refers to progressive scan and the "i" in 1080i refers to interlaced scan, terms that have their origin back in the days of cathode ray tube televisions. The important distinction between 1080p and 1080i is the amount of information, in the form of pixels that they present. In fact, a 1080p signal contains twice the information, measured in pixels per second, as does a 1080i signal.

Counting pixels
Sounds like a no-brainer, really. Twice as much information? I'll take 1080p, please.

But let's put a little context on that number. A conventional standard-definition television (SDTV) picture is 480i, and presents about 18.25 million pixels per second. HDTV signals, in the form of a 1080i signal, will present over 62 million. If you've compared an SDTV signal to an HDTV signal you know that the difference in quality is startling.

But because our eyes can only take in so much information, the jump in perceived quality between what you see with a 1080i picture and a 1080p picture isn't quite as dramatic. It's the law of diminishing returns - twice as many pixels doesn't make the picture look twice as good to the human eye.

Answering the big question
Which brings us to the real crux of the question - should your next television support 1080p video sources? If picture quality is something you pay attention to, then the answer is probably yes But there are a couple of factors you should weigh. First, consider the size of the television.

If you're buying a small HDTV (32" or less), your decision will probably be made for you, since few smaller models support 1080p video. But for screens 40" or larger, support for 1080p has become very common - it's no longer an expensive "high-end" feature. It's when you're considering a larger TV - say 50" or larger - that the decision becomes most crucial. The exceptional picture detail and depth in 1080p video is more readily apparent on 50+" screens. 

Movie lovers should definitely consider a 1080p-capable TV because 1080p is the resolution of Blu-ray movies - the highest-quality source available for watching movies at home. And while Blu-ray is currently the primary source for 1080p material, it isn't the only on. Some select HDTV and pay-per-view movie channels offer 1080p content, and there's even 1080p video offerings available online.

So should you seriously consider 1080p compatibility in your new television? If you're looking for a large television, and will be viewing 1080p video sources, then the answer's most likely yes. You'll be getting the best out of your sources, and truly enjoying the very best picture that is available.

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