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Is a Plasma HDTV Really High Definition at 1024x768 Resolution? YOU BETCHA!

By Chris Boylan

When surfing Google News today, I came across a blog post on a site called "Gizmo Cafe" which purports to disspell myths about HDTV and Consumer Electronics issues. In this blog the author was ranting about a retailer advertising a Magnavox plasma HDTV which the author felt did not meet the minimum criteria to be called an HDTV.

[Editor's Note: The author has since updated his post with some corrections, but the story was originally published on engadget, with a similar premise]

His evidence of this supposed gaff was that the HDTV in question featured a resolution of only 1024x768 pixels, when "everyone knows" that the minimum resolution of HDTV is 1280x720 pixels (a.k.a. "720p"). But his argument was flawed based on a couple of bad assumptions: a.)that all pixels are the same shape and b.)that the ATSC standards of digital television broadcasts have anything to do with whether a set can be called an HDTV.

In the year 2000, in an attempt to standardize the terminology and usage of the term "HDTV," the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) defined four criteria that must be met in order for a display device to be called an "HDTV."

These criteria are:
  • The ability to receive ATSC terrestrial digital transmissions and decode all ATSC Table 3 video formats
  • The ability to display vertical scan lines of 720 lines progressive (720p), 1080 lines interlaced (1080i), or higher
  • The ability to display an image in a widescreen 16:9 (width:height) aspect ratio
  • The ability to receive, reproduce, and/or output Dolby Digital audio
If a set meets these criteria (which the Magnavox set in question does), then it's an HDTV. Period.

Just taking into consideration the Magnavox set's resolution (1024x768) you would think that it has a 4:3 aspect ratio (non-widescreen), but this would only be the case if the plasma pixels were square in shape. They're actually not - they're rectangular as are the pixels of 95% of all the 42-inch HDTV plasma panels on the market today. 42-inch Plasma HDTV models made by Pioneer, Panasonic, Vizio, Philips, Samsung, etc. all feature the same 1024x768 resolution.

Larger size plasmas (50 inch and up) use square plasma pixels and offer resolutions of 1366x768 pixels or 1920x1080 pixels (1080p). But in the 42-inch size, 1024x768 is the most common HDTV resolution. To date, only Panasonic has come to market with a 42-inch plasma panel with more pixels, and they pushed it all the way out to 1080p (1920x1080 pixels) with the TH-42PZ700U.

Is the Magnavox set the ultimate expression of HDTV currently on the market? Probably not, but overall image quality has less to do with the exact number of pixels then it does with other factors such as color accuracy, contrast, moving image reproduction, color depth, and the quality of the set's on-board video processor which converts the incoming HD and SD resolution sources to the native resolution of the panel.

I've seen some plasma panels that measure in at 1024x768 pixels that are vastly superior to LCD and DLP sets that offer more pixels. But I've also seen some higher resolution plasma sets that compare unfavorably to LCD flat panels with the same number of pixels, just due to inferior on-board video processors.

Plasma is not "better" than LCD. And 1080p is not "better" than 720p. Resolution is just one of many factors that influence picture quality. As always, let your eyes decide what looks best to you. And let the stats and specs be damned.

What did you think?

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