1080p Does Matter – Here’s When (Screen Size vs. Viewing Distance vs. Resolution)

I’ve read various articles debating the importance of the 1080p. I want to set the record straight once and for all: if you are serious about properly setting up your viewing room, you will definitely benefit from 1080p (and even 1440p.) Why? Because the 1080p resolution is the first to deliver enough detail to your eyeball when you are seated at the proper distance from the screen. But don’t just take my word for it: read on for the proof.

There are a few obvious factors to being able to detect resolution differences: the resolution of the screen, the size of the screen, and the viewing distance. To be able to detect differences between resolutions, the screen must be large enough and you must sit close enough. So the question becomes “How do I know if need a higher resolution or not?”. Here is your answer.

Based on the resolving ability of the human eye (with 20/20 vision it is possible to resolve 1/60th of a degree of an arc), it is possible to estimate when the differences between resolutions will become apparent. Using the Home Theater Calculator spreadsheet as a base, I created a chart showing, for any given screen size, how close you need to sit to be able to detect some or all of the benefits of a higher resolution screen. (Click the picture below for a larger version.)

Resolution vs. Screen Size vs. Viewing Distance Chart

What the chart shows is that, for a 50-inch screen, the benefits of 720p vs. 480p start to become apparent at viewing distances closer than 14.6 feet and become fully apparent at 9.8 feet. For the same screen size, the benefits of 1080p vs. 720p start to become apparent when closer than 9.8 feet and become full apparent at 6.5 feet. In my opinion, 6.5 feet is closer than most people will sit to their 50″ plasma TV (even through the THX recommended viewing distance for a 50″ screen is 5.6 ft). So, most consumers will not be able to see the full benefit of their 1080p TV.

However, front projectors and rear projection displays are a different story. They make it very easy to obtain large screen sizes. Plus, LCD and Plasma displays are constantly getting larger and less expensive. In my home, for example, I have a 123-inch screen and a projector with a 1280×720 resolution. For a 123-inch screen, the benefits of 720p vs. 480p starts to become apparent at viewing distances closer than 36 feet (14 feet behind my back wall) and become fully apparent at 24 feet (2 feet behind my back wall). For the same screen size, the benefits of 1080p vs. 720p start to become apparent when closer than 24 feet and become full apparent at 16 feet (just between the first and second row of seating in my theater). This means that people in the back row of my home theater would see some improvement if I purchased a 1080p projector and that people in the front row would notice a drastic improvement. (Note: the THX recommended max viewing distance for a 123″ screen is 13.7 feet).

So, how close should you be sitting to your TV? Obviously, you need to look at your room and see what makes sense for how you will be using it. If you have a dedicated viewing room and can place seating anywhere you want, you can use this chart as a guideline. It’s based on THX and SMPTE specifications for movie theaters; the details are available in the Home Theater Calculator spreadsheet.

Recommended Seating Distances and Resolution Benefits

Looking at this chart, it is apparent that 1080p is the lowest resolution to fall within the recommended seating distance range. Any resolution less than 1080p is not detailed enough if you are sitting the proper distance from the screen. For me and many people with large projection screens, 1080p is the minimum resolution you’d want.

In fact, you could probably even benefit from 1440p. If you haven’t heard of 1440p, you will. Here’s a link to some info on Audioholics.com. It is part of the HDMI 1.3 spec, along with 48-bit color depth, and will probably surface for the public in 2009 or so. You’ll partially be able to see the benefits of 1440p at the THX Max Recommended viewing distance and the resolution benefits will be fully apparent if you are just a little closer. I’ve read of plans for resolutions reaching 2160p but I don’t see any benefit; you’d have to sit too darn close to the screen to notice any improvement. If you sit too close, you can’t see the far edges of the screen.

In conclusion

If you are a videophile with a properly setup viewing room, you should definitely be able to notice the resolution enhancement that 1080p brings. However, if you are an average consumer with a flat panel on the far wall of your family room, you are not likely to be close enough to notice any advantage. Check the chart above and use that to make your decision.

ISF states the the most important aspects of picture quality are (in order): 1) contrast ratio, 2) color saturation, 3) color accuracy, 4) resolution. Resolution is 4th on the list and plasma is generally superior to LCD in all of the other areas (but much more prone to reflections/glare.) So pick your display size, then measure your seating distance, and then use the charts above to figure out if you would benefit from the larger screen size. So be sure to calibrate your screen! I recommend the following for calibration.

Recommended Calibration Tools

“I don’t like reading charts – just tell me what resolution I need”

If you don’t like reading charts and are looking for a quick answer, enter you screen size below to see how close you’ll need to sit to fully appreciate various screen resolutions.

Enter screen size: inches diagonal

  • For 480p (720×480) resolution, you must sit:
    feet or closer for full benefit
  • For 720p (1280×720) resolution, you must sit:
    feet or closer for full benefit
  • For 1080p (1920×1080) resolution, you must sit:
    feet or closer for full benefit
  • For 4k (3840×2160) resolution, you must sit:
    feet or closer for full benefit
  • For 8k (7680×4320) resolution, you must sit:
    feet or closer for full benefit
Written by in: Home Theater | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Last updated on: 2014-May-27 |

818 Comments »

  • Bill Boyd says:

    Thanks for a VERY useful site, Carlton, which I have used several times since HD TV sets came out some years back. Just replaced a 5 year old 50″ plasma set (that developed a horizontal line) with another 51″ plasma set, 720p, ($399), same brand (it was easy to put all the connections in the same places and not have to use a different remote). Our eyes are 9 to10 feet from the screen, and according to your excellent charts and calculator, we would not be able to see any difference between this set and a 1080p set costing several hundred dollars more! Thanks for helping me keep money in my pocket, and keep up the good work!

    • Carlton Bale says:

      Thanks Bill for the kind words – enjoy your new TV! I love the image quality Plasma produces due to the extremely low black levels.

      • Bill Boyd says:

        I, too, love the image quality of “deep” black levels of plasma sets. I also enjoy the fast refresh rates (much less fast action “smudging” than LCD’s or LED’s, to my eyes) and the wide viewing angles of plasma sets. It seems to me that 50″ plasma sets, for the buyer, are the financial “sweet spot” in HDTV sets at the present time; I’m sorry they’re going away.

        • I will give the edge to Plasma on response and viewing angle and even price. But each of those advantages is small and rapidly diminishing.

          In fact, the cost advantage is due primarily to a fire sale, lately. Higher cost for both tooling and building. Manufacturers are trying to milk out the last potential for recovery of their expenses.

          In the past two years, LED TVs (especially LG and Visio in my opinion), have nailed rich blacks with terrific “selective dimming” capability. The result is stunning. I would have thought that it might cut the shadow detail to achieve improved contrast, but if this is the case, I certainly cannot detect the loss.

          Now, consider the disadvantages:
          a) 5~7 year operational life compared to 25 years or more
          b) Consumes more power
          c) Start up delay (not sure… please comment)
          d) Much bulkier unit than newer LEDs

          • Carlton Bale says:

            OLED has all of the advantages of Plasma and of LCD and none of the disadvantages. Once manufacturing scales up, LCD will feel the same downward pressure Plasma feels today.

          • johnL says:

            Yea right dude.. I had a plasma TV for years and ended up giving it away.. Recently bought a led…horrible motion blur.. So bad it hurt my eyes i dont know who in there right mind would want an led over plasma..in the case of motion blur and smooth image, plasma simply cannot be matched the way the plasma screen produces the image that enables it to refresh the image so much faster than a led

      • Ben G. says:

        Would it be possible to update the calculator to input different visual acuity than the “normal” 20/20. While there is a lot of people with worse vision, most people can actually see better than 20/20

        • Jason says:

          What’s germane to the topic is the resolution of the eye, not the focus. Our eye simply does not have the “resolution receptors” to detect the amount of lines that are present in the higher resolution displays at a specific distance.

        • Kevin says:

          If 20/20 vision refers to what an average adult can see, how is it that most people have better than average vision?

  • Very informative. You have helped me out immensely.

  • Hi Carlton

    I am thinking of building out a piece of my basement to create a small home theater. (8’Wx13’Lx7’2″H Looking to get two sets of two seats and a sound system and maybe a 4K Tv. Any ideas on brands and specific products that could fit this small space yet give me a quality experience and keep the wife happy as well.

    Thanks
    Mike D.

  • vsrihari007 says:

    Does this calibration take viewing angle into account? Apologize if I missed it

  • bill says:

    I’m confused. When I tried your calculator, for a 24″ 720p tv, it says I must sit 5 feet or CLOSER for full benefit. I thought the closer you sit to a lower resolution screen the less sharp the picture is compared to a 1080p? Thus it would seem that sitting 5 feet or FARTHER would make the differences between 720p and 1080p less apparent.
    ???

    • I see where you are confused… The closer you sit to any raster or dot matrix image, the more you are likely to discern the individual pixels. But, I wouldn’t characterize this as “less sharp”. The sharpness doesn’t change with viewing distance…

      But, for any image dpi, there is a distance past which your eyes cannot see the benefit of HIGHER dpi (or more lines of a fixed width screen). This is just a matter of anatomy. Your retina (or eye-brain apparatus) has a maximum resolution. Carlton’s calculator helps you to find that benefit cliff. Past that distance, spending money on resolution is wasted, because you cannot enjoy the extra pixels—UNLESS you plan to occasionally use the projector or screen at other sizes or distances. In that case, the extra resolution can’t hurt.

  • What? says:

    Hu … At 3 meters I need to have a 164″ screen in order to have benefit with a 4k screen ??

  • I have a question: how bad will a 576p signal (europe) look in 50″ fullhd tv at 8/10ft from the set? Or is it wise to choose a 42″ set instead?

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