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The Flavors of High Definition. By Les Goldberg

As high-definition video becomes more mainstream, understanding the "flavors" of high definition is crucial to finding the right fit for each show. It's often difficult to cut through the jargon and identify, which format is appropriate for your show. Here's a breakdown of what's out there, starting at the top.

1080i: Simply put, 1080i (1920 horizontal pixels x 1080 vertical pixels) is full-blown high definition. The "i" stands for interlaced, as opposed to progressive scanning. 1080i has more scanning lines, but also suffers from the drawbacks of interlaced scanning. It looks the best of all the high definition flavors, especially if you're going to project graphics onto a big screen. The slight downside: Higher bandwidth is needed when editing, increasing the drive space required. This can limit the workflow of the editor, as it requires him/her to pick and choose the media they want to work with before loading it onto the drive. The editor needs to go in with a plan.

720p: This format (1280 horizontal pixels x 720 vertical pixels) is a step down from 1080i. The "p" stands for progressive. 720p has fewer lines, but has the benefit of progressive scanning and a constant vertical resolution of 720 lines, so it handles motion more easily. 720p is an acquisition format because there are a variety of mid-priced camcorder solutions that require less bandwidth, therefore opening up the workflow of the editor.

HDV: Figuratively speaking, HDV is a bigger step down from 720p. For costconscious producers, HDV is a viable option. It only requires a tenth of the bandwidth of 720p, but suffers from compression and motion artifacts. HDV outputs 16 x 9 (1920 x 1080), but is acquired in the camera in 4 x 3 (1440 x 1080), which means that somehow inside the camera, through voodoo magic, the aspect ratio changes and stretches the picture. In addition, the compression rate of HDV is very high, and every time you compress, you lose quality. However, it is a good format to shoot video. But if detailed video is involved, it's smart to stick with 720p or 1080i. In all, though it is better than standard definition, HDV's high compression ratio results in a lower quality image.

Side-by-Side Comparison

  • If you put 1080i and 720p on two sideby- side plasmas, the truth is, they wouldn't look that different. However, when they're projected on the big screen, which is typically, if not always, the case in event staging, the difference is noticeable. With HDV, motion artifacts become more and more noticeable, especially as HD images get bigger and brighter.
  • Another defining factor among the three high-definition formats is how fast you are able to transfer information. Hypothetically speaking, if each format had a corresponding pipeline that it received information through, bigger pipelines would equal faster information transfer, resulting in crisper, clearer images. Using this example, 1080i's pipeline would be a water main; 720p would utilize a fire hose; HDV would work with a garden hose; and standard definition would have a straw.
  • Each format also has its followers in the broadcasting world. The Discovery Networks, CBS, and NBC are committed to using 1080i. Networks such as ABC, ESPN, and Fox are dedicated to using 720p.
  • As expected, higher quality does come with a price increase. If you have decided on high definition for your show, using 1080i will add approximately an additional 10% increase on your budget compared to 720p, which is the defining price point for an HD production. Compared to standard definition formats, HDV add about a five percent increase on your budget, 720p about 20 percent and 1080 would be around 30 percent.
  • Many big-name electronic companies are developing HD equipment, and sometimes it's hard to differentiate among them. The most popular formats are: Sony HD Cam, which shoots 1080i; and Panasonic DVC Pro HD, which shoots 720p. These products can do the reverse. Sony HD Cam can record in 720p and Panasonic DVC Pro HD can shoot 1080i, but they were not born to do so.
  • HDV can give you a high quality image for items such as smiley face videos, candid modules and eye candy at a very cost effective price, but if you are expecting to see clear details on a big screen, you will not get the desired effect.
  • We choose our equipment by comparing our needs to each format's capability. For us, the top performer is 1080i. It has never let us down.