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

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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