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Should you care about the difference between 720p and 1080p?

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In the lead up to next gen, we've been noticing a lot of discussion about 720p vs. 1080p, and how game changing (zing!) 1080p is over its lower-resolution brethren. We won't deny you that if you take a screenshot of a game at the two rivaling resolutions, you will undoubtedly see some differences up close. But is that the entire story? Should gamers really care?

It is fairly well-known by now that the PlayStation 4 version of Call of Duty: Ghosts looks better than the Xbox One version. The PS4's COD is running at 1080p/60 frames per second, and the Xbox One version is running at 720p (upscaled to 1080p, more on that later)/60 frames per second. It is undeniable that upon close inspection, the PS4 version looks better. 

Here's where things get tricky: When was the last time you were playing a console game and you sat very close to your television?

Not often, right? As an informal poll done a few years ago at Gawker shows, the average distance people sit from their HDTV is 6-10 feet away. If we then take into account the current average LCD HDTV size (in the United States), 40-46 inches, it probably doesn't matter which of the two resolutions you see on your TV. According to HD Guru, the optimum distance to sit from your 40-46 inch HDTV is about five and a half feet, to six feet away. That means if you are sitting further than six feet away from your 46 inch television, you are missing out on some of the 1080p-ness of it all.

Another question comes in during this debate: What about the Xbox One's internal scaler? A scaler essentially changes the output resolution of the input signal to match the display resolution of your TV. The PS4 version of Call of Duty: Ghosts is native at 1080p. That means the game comes in, the game goes out, and doesn't even touch the scaler. The Xbox One version, however, is processed through the scaler. So it comes in at 720p, and goes out to your TV at 1080p.

A good scaler won't just blow up the source, it will also do some post-processing runs and clean up the output video. Because of this, some of the difference in quality between the two console version can be made up. Making that divide even narrower when you are sitting eight feet away on the couch. The good people of Digital Foundry did a comparison between the PS4 and Xbox One versions of Battlefield 4, which are running at 900p and 720p respectively. In the end, they deemed the PS4 version to be slightly better, but the Xbox One puts in a great showing because the scaler does a good job of putting out a good 1080p video, while the PS4 does not.

While the PS4 has an advantage on graphical quality in this first wave of games, it doesn't tell the whole tale. Because both machines are powerful and can make a game look exceptionally high quality, the matchup between these two consoles comes down to cost, features, and where your friends play. If you want the best graphics, skip these consoles and build yourself a powerful gaming PC. Don't let the deciding factor of the console you choose be a few pixels. 

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26 comments

  • ermocrate - February 23, 2014 6:22 a.m.

    First of all 720-1080 are not the same, as the graphic shows, it depends a lot on your TV and the distance you use to play. Second the entire PC sentence is simply false, you play PC games usually 3ft away from the monitor with a 22/24 inches screen, that means your PC looks like a 1080p 60" TV from 10 feet, no matter what the resolution of the screen is, higher resolution are simply not noticeable from human eyes, and if you use a larger PC monitor or you play closer than 3 feet you may need a better monitor for the PC to make the game look like a console version at 1080p... More than 1080p resolution it's only better if you have huge TVs or if you play too close to the TV.
  • Mactre330 - November 25, 2013 6:55 p.m.

    I had 2k13 on the xbox 360 and on the PS3 while the 360 was 1080p and the PS3 was 720p what I noticed was when playing on a TV of 42" the 360 was slightly better no big deal. Is there a difference yes there is a big difference. Playing on my 52" Sharp Aquos the 360 looks great so great that the PS3 looked like pure shit. If your TV is under 50" and you don't plan on going 50" or bigger than it won't matter. My knock on the PS3 was that most games were 720p. I will be switching to the PS4 with the 1080p I think xbox stepped back with the 720p and finding out they couldn't go higher on call of duty just took the cake. Launch day games always suck and the xbox one can't handle ghosts to run at 1080p wtf. I play games I don't skype, Facebook, don't play kinect style games and don't care if I can use it like a cable box. I want crispy 1080p using the best capability of my TV.
  • MyCoolWhiteLies - November 12, 2013 10:16 a.m.

    While the resolution discrepancy is potentially telling of the systems' powers, I think it's pretty funny how many people are acting like they'd ever be aware of the difference while actually playing. The difference between 720p and 1080p is only noticeable if you're really close or trying REALLY hard to pay attention to it. If you're actually engaged in a game, it will be completely unnoticeable. It's like how you stop noticing the 3D in most 3D movies after about 15 minutes.
  • rayden54 - January 6, 2014 5:43 p.m.

    That's funny. "Noticing the 3D" in 3D movies is part of why I can barely stand them. Every time something zooms toward the screen, they make my eyes go out of focus.
  • Sjoeki - November 5, 2013 10:44 a.m.

    Got the change to play the Xbox One and the PS4 on the first look, wich is an anual game show here in the netherlands, and as nice as the games looked I just couldn't understand why they placed the gamers at less then a meter from the screens. Cables on the controllers and the headsets made it impossible to go back anymore and up close like that you really notice every jagged edge. Story and gameplay are way more important then graphics in my book but if you only get 10 minutes to play a next gen game you tend to focus on the graphics.
  • Eightboll812 - November 5, 2013 9:14 a.m.

    You can't quite use the same argument for TVs to compare consoles, since TVs only display a flat image and consoles also render that image first as a 3D model, then to what your TV displays. A system that is underpowered graphics, will struggle first as polygon counts increase in next gen games, then to render them in high resolution. An extreme example would be to note that Minecraft won't look great no matter whether you put it on a 4K TV or SD. Aside from the point that PCs are far ahead of next gen consoles, if you are buying a console then you are comparing the two options. It's not encouraging that we are starting this next gen debate where the last one started which is 720p upscaling. I can't tell a huge difference between 720p and 1080p, but I can tell a difference. **If** I'm choosing a console for the next 5 years, not choosing a PC, I'd like to know that I'm not choosing one that's already tapped out, that I'm choosing one that has a little more to give over the next 5 years. Since I'm choosing between games that are almost all cross platform, why not choose the one that looks better even if it's only a little better? If you love Kinect, if you love Halo, if you love *LIVE* TV, get Xbone, but if none of those things are compelling reasons to you, I don't see how the obvious choice doesn't naturally become PS4. The bottom line, is that 1) Both are the same basic hardware architecture, and same GPU manufacturer, but 2) PS4 is running a higher end version of the GPU, some report up to 50% more powerful, and devs similarly reporting 50% more powerful. 3) Things will become "more optimized" (whatever that means) as the gen progresses, but referring back to points 1 & 2, PS4 will always offer a little "more" whether it be greater polygon count, greater draw distance, greater resolution, or higher frame rate. PS4 will be able to do more of that list while Xbone will always be trading off one against the other. There is no escaping this conclusion if anyone is reasonably open minded. That's why it matters, **IF** you are buying a console, not a PC. I actually agree with a lot of the points below, especially around good gameplay vs graphics and indie games. It's why I built a PC last year. Most of those I play on PC. But for something that I would choose to play on a console, like BF4 multiplayer perhaps, I still would like it to look better especially when looking better costs me less money.
  • CitizenWolfie - November 5, 2013 6:51 a.m.

    I honestly can't tell that much of a difference between 720p and 1080i/p and I suppose that's why I've never really bothered too much with the tedious ongoing console vs PC debate. Most of my favourite gaming experiences of this generation have been indie titles that focused on great gameplay above glossy graphics and given the choice, I'd rather pick 20 great games that are fun but not much to look at than one great looking game with no personality. Besides which, whether I'm playing in SD or 1080p I still can't see a goddamn thing in Battlefield 4.
  • Shinn - November 4, 2013 9:11 p.m.

    I've seen a lot of console vs PC arguments, for years console gamers have told everyone that upscaled 480p and 360p games are just as good as the PC equivalents where applicable. I genuinely don't understand why there's such a fuss over such a minor difference in quality. Yes the Xbox One is less powerful, but why does that warrant a heated argument? Infinity Ward has chosen the lower resolution because they feel that this will have the smallest affect in picture quality whilst achieving the same framerate as PS4. If you feel so strongly about strongly about picture quality, consider building a nice PC to play at 120 fps on 1080p with far more image post-processing.
  • jedisamurai - November 4, 2013 6:05 p.m.

    You're kidding right? You've GOT to be kidding me!!!! It's bad enough that the PS3 didn't have any upscaling (DVDs look like garbage on a PS3), but YOU'RE ACTUALLY TELLING ME THE PS4 WON'T HAVE UPSCALING EITHER?????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! What the heck????? This is supposed to be new, cutting edge technology. This means Blu Rays will look ok. DVDs will look awful. And games will look great. And you're paying hundreds of dollars for content that looks no better than it did before (except for the games). Yuck!!!!!
  • Eightboll812 - November 4, 2013 8:33 p.m.

    No, your the one kidding dude. PS3 has had upscaling since, oh, around mid 2007. It was added in 1.8. And this article clearly states PS4 has upscaling, else how is BF4 upscaled from 900P to 1080P? Obviously you're one of the fanboys who throws idiotic FUD based on stuff they read somewhere on some fanboy website years ago and forgot to keep up with the times.
  • Eightboll812 - November 4, 2013 8:52 p.m.

    In case you need a source: https://support.us.playstation.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/357
  • jedisamurai - November 5, 2013 12:01 p.m.

    Thank you SOOOOO much!!!! I've literally been frustrated by PS3 outputting dvds at 480i for five years!!! After countless hours wasted looking through every setting under the sun, google seaches that went nowhere, and endless frustration I finally know how to turn on upscaling! It DOES exist! Hallelujah!!!! That article lists the wrong location though. Once I understood that it WAS possible I was finally able to find it thanks to this manual: http://manuals.playstation.net/document/en/ps3/current/settings/bdsettings.html
  • jedisamurai - November 5, 2013 12:07 p.m.

    Hey, hey. Enough of the fanboy crap, alright? The PS3 has difficult settings to figure out. I'm a computer tech by profession and have been for years. I write product reviews for computer products for Amazon in my spare time. I didn't "read it somewhere" that the PS3 has no upscaling. I tried to find the setting to turn it on and couldn't. I scoured the Internet. Eventually I gave up because it appeared that the feature was never implemented. Would YOU keep looking for a feature for YEARS when you couldn't turn it on immediately? Of course not! You'd use your Xbox or whatever for DVDs and move on with your life! If you want to defend your position, be like Eightboll812 and deliver some useful facts. I freely admit that I was mistaken, but don't think I should be blamed for the fact that the feature was hard to find (why it's not on automatically and why on Earth there is a setting for it I will never know). I doubt you keep up with the times much more than I do. I evaluate products before they are released. Just because I don't scour technical forums looking for solutions to problems that don't appear to have one doesn't make information or options that I share "idiotic". Good grief.
  • Eightboll812 - November 5, 2013 3:07 p.m.

    I apologize. You came across with the "all caps" and a billion extra question marks and exclamations, sounding like someone deliberately throwing FUD. So I responded in kind. The funny thing is, I've been telling my wife for years, "why do you always put DVDs in the old DVD player, when it looks better in the PS3?"
  • jedisamurai - November 5, 2013 5:36 p.m.

    I learned to type exclamations in all caps by reading comic books. I use them in my reviews and stories that I write as well. Maybe I should start using italics instead.
  • taokaka - November 4, 2013 5:50 p.m.

    A while ago I was contemplating whether getting a 1080p tv for my bedroom to replace the 720p 32 inch was worth it and I channeled my inner nerd to calculate the answer instead of googling it like a normal person. I used rayleighs criterion, θ=1.22λ / D Which is a formula which can be used to find the distance from the TV I would lose the capability to distinguish a pixel from the one next to it. I had to estimate a value for the diameter of my pupil (D), and I tested both ends of the visible spectrum (λ) to find that my TV was fine as is. After I did that I went crazy with finding the optimal distance to sit from all my electronic devices. I also came to the conclusion that PC monitors need ridiculously high resolutions because of how close we sit to them, which helped me to understand why PC gamers make such a big fuss over resolution.
  • Doctalen - November 4, 2013 8:22 p.m.

    You know I've heard the same argument you've made half a dozen times and yet even when I game on my laptop it kind buzzes over my head. Just by mentioning the equation you used made it click :p
  • Brizee - November 4, 2013 5:28 p.m.

    Y'know when I first read this: http://www.cinemablend.com/games/Gaming-Media-Defend-Xbox-One-Higher-Price-Lower-Resolution-60283.html I thought they must be overreacting but fell onto the cliche tree and hit every branch on the way down... so kudos for that I suppose...
  • shawksta - November 4, 2013 2 p.m.

    I personally wont care But I will appreciate when I see an improvement.
  • JMarsella09 - November 4, 2013 1:13 p.m.

    I don't generally care about graphics, but I do have a tendency to sit rather close to the television, as in between 1-2 feet. So if there is some difference between 720 and 1080p, I will notice. The real question is will I care.

Showing 1-20 of 26 comments

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