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Does TV Resolution Matter?

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You’ve heard all the hype about high-definition TV, ultra-high definition and more. But does this mad race to jame more pixels on a screen actually matter? Tune in to learn more about the human eye and digital resolution.


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Hey BrainStuff, Jonathan here. Every year I attend CES, an annual event highlighting the newest cutting-edge technology in everything from autos to televisions.

And when we’re talking about TV, we’re talking about one big thing: resolution. In just a few years we’ve seen the race move from 720 to 1080p, to 4k and beyond.

And this brings us to today’s question: Does TV resolution matter?

Spoiler alert, the answer is “yes”. Absolutely. Or maybe a better way to say it is “yes, absolutely… asterisk”. Before we get to all the weird stuff that asterisk represents, we need to understand resolution itself.

Resolution starts with the pixel. A pixel is the smallest possible unit of a digital image – a single point of light. When you hear manufacturers talking about “resolution,” they‘re describing the number of pixels on a given screen.

So an old-school cathode-ray TV would display the equivalent of 300,000 pixels on the screen, while an HDTV could pack more than 2 million pixels into the frame.

The standard way for TV-makers to classify resolution is with numbers followed by a letter. The numbers indicate the rows of horizontal pixels. So think 480i, 1080p and so on.

The bigger the number, the more pixels on the screen.

Using more pixels to create an image creates a smoother, less blocky or pixelated image. So at first glance, it sounds as if more pixels equals a better experience, right?

Not so fast, slick.

Here’s where our asterisk comes in. Pixel density itself is not the only factor in the race toward a better, sharper image. If we’re looking at resolution as the ability to discern fine details, several other factors come into play.

For instance, what’s the source of the image? What role does color play? How close – or far – are you from the screen? And how big is the screen?

If you’re watching a small enough screen - say, 26 inches - from 10 or more feet away, your eye won’t be able to tell the difference between anything from 480 to 4k. The farther you are away from the image source, the smoother the picture appears.

As for the size of the screen: Well, sure, you could have a 26-inch TV with 1080-line resolution, and it would still have the same number of pixels as a 55 inch TV with otherwise identical specs. But the pixels would be physically smaller. So in this context, size definitely matters.

If you put a 26-inch HDTV with 720-line resolution next to another 26-inch HDTV with 1080, you may not be able to tell a difference between the two.

These are just a few of the pertinent factors in the overall equation. There’s another big question here, too: “Does the human eye have a resolution limit?

It is true that, after a certain point, the human eye is unable to notice – or appreciate – the differences between some pixel densities.

With the right source material, equipment and viewing distance, 4k really can make a difference. For example, if you’re sitting a few feet from a 60-inch 4k Television with an ultra high definition video feed, you’ll be able to tell if it suddenly switches to regular HD. Or - brace yourself - standard definition.

The limits of HDTV aren’t a failure of technology – they’re a limit of biology. If we can’t tell the difference between a lower-resolution 26-inch TV and an HD version, then there’s not much incentive to buy the latest ultra high definition TV set.

But this isn’t the end of the story. The race for higher resolution continues. Cameras that shoot in 4k have already become the norm, and each year brings new innovations. These ultra-high definition technologies may not make for a better picture on a home television, but in a movie theatre, it makes a big difference.

And in the future, we might not care as much about resolution. It’s possible that other technologies, like High Dynamic Range, may become the next big thing.


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