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What is Video Quality?

By Christian Roemer

TVs have gone through quite a profound transformation over the past 60 years. First, they were just black and white. Then, they were basically pieces of furniture. Then, they went flat, skinny, huge, small, and everything in between. For now, we’re going to talk about something way less scary: video quality.

So what is video quality? Well, it’s the quality of video (queue dad joke, whomp whomp music here) that a TV or computer monitor can show. The way that video quality is measured is via an alphanumeric system, and it’s actually a bit easier to understand than it might seem. Here’s what you need to know.

Picture Quality (Resolution)

Picture quality--or resolution--is measured in pixels. Pixels are little squares of color that combine to make the pictures you see on your TV screen. A good rule of thumb is that the higher the pixel count, the clearer the picture will look. Here are the most common resolutions that you’ll come across.

480P - This is the lowest resolution that you’ll see these days. Nothing really comes this low by standard anymore, but if you get VHS tapes digitized, this will be the quality they come in. That’s because 480P is the max resolution that VHS film allows.

720P - 720P is a lot better than 480P, but it’s still pretty archaic by modern standards. This was a resolution that made a brief appearance in the 90s, but it didn’t last too long. 720P is technically the lowest resolution possible to have HD (but it won’t look very good).

1080P - 1080P is the minimum resolution required for High Definition (HD). Any HD television will have at least 1080P resolution. What the number literally means is that the picture has 1080 pixels from top to bottom.

2k - This resolution was basically a stepping stone to modern luxury TVs. Folks WAY overpaid for this resolution a few years ago.

4k/UHD - 4k is currently the creme de la creme of picture quality. Even though most TV broadcasts can’t accommodate it, and few people have the required equipment to watch anything in true 4k (also called Ultra HD), it’s still cool to brag about to your friends.

Frame Rate/Refresh Rate

Frame rate is the other term you’ll see thrown around when it comes to picture quality. To get an idea of what frame rate means, you have to think of the way that movies are made. For a really long time, the only way to make moving pictures was to stitch together a bunch of still pictures. That’s why film, when you break it all down, is really just a whole bunch of different photos put in sequential order that your brain translates into motion. Frame rate refers to the amount of frames (or pictures) your TV screen can show per second. Frame rate is measured in either Frames per Second (FPS), Hertz, or frame frequency. They all mean the same thing, so don’t let the terminology fool you.

The effect that frame rate has on your viewing experience is that a higher frame rate will show much smoother movement than a lower frame rate. Lower FPS can look really choppy, while extraordinarily high FPS can look unnaturally smooth.

16 FPS - This is the minimum frames per second that the human brain requires to see movement. Anything lower than that, the brain will process what it’s seeing as separate still images.

24/25/30 FPS - This is the frame rate of VHS tapes. These rates are basically the maximum FPS that standard film allows.

60 Hz - With this frame rate, at least when it comes to modern TVs, we start getting into some interesting territory. Very few films are actually shot with 60 frames per second, because it can look unnatural and fake. Most broadcasts max out at 60 Hz, so anything over that starts to get a little strange.

120 Hz - A TV with 120 Hz refreshes its screen an astonishing 120 times per second. That’s basically mind-boggling. Because most broadcasts are in 60 Hz, the TV has to compensate with technology to make sure the refresh rate isn’t redundant. Sometimes, having this high of a frame rate can make real stuff look like CGI, which isn’t always a pleasant experience.

240 Hz - 240 Hz is basically reserved for gamers and people with more money than sense. Very few pieces of technology can actually process the videos needed to take care of this frequency, but it comes in handy with video games. The more frames you can see when you’re gaming, the better chance you have to play well. Otherwise, if you’re just watching Netflix and ESPN, you’ll never actually need 240 Hz.

There you have it! Now you know everything you need to know about screen resolutions and frame rates. Unless you’re a competitive gamer, anything 120 Hz and under will be fine for you, and 4k UHD is basically useless right now. The more you know!

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