HD vs. SD – Is It Worth Paying Extra For HD Digital Videos?

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I recently got this question from a site visitor and thought it’s probably something a lot of site visitors are wondering, so here goes.

Neo is just as much The One in SD as he is in HD.

High Definition (HD) vs. Standard Definition (SD)

In a nutshell, the difference between high definition and standard definition images is the number of pixels contained in the image on display. HD images have more pixels per square inch than standard definition videos. Okay fine, but what does that really mean?

It means that HD images can show much finer detail than SD images. Here’s a simple analogy that should explain why.

Imagine you have a 3×5″ card, and you’ve been asked to draw a picture of a flower on it. You’re given your choice of two drawing tools: either a preschooler-type crayon (the really big ones) or a finely sharpened pencil. If you choose the crayon, your picture can’t possibly include as much detail as you could provide with the pencil drawing, because the crayon draws a much thicker line and you’re limited to the size of a 3×5″ card. And that’s just like the difference between SD and HD: the HD image shows finer detail because it “draws” the image with smaller, and more, pixels than an SD image can.

But not so fast! This is a very simplified example, intended to clarify the concept of HD vs. SD. In real life, the differences can be much more subtle. In real life, the upgrade to HD quality won’t be noticeable to most of us most of the time.


Have you seen these people in HD? Are you sure you really want to?


Videophiles: Move Along, There’s Nothing For You To See Here

Let me say right up front that video fanatics, the type of people who were all over Laserdiscs back in the day and have a home theater setup with equipment that looks like it belongs in a lab at NASA, are yelling at me through their screens right now that not only is the higher quality of an HD image noticeable, it’s critical to one’s enjoyment of any film.

To people like them, sure. The difference is noticeable. There are some people who would never go back to “consumer-grade” speakers after using super-expensive audio professional grade speakers, either. But I’m not one of them, and neither are most of you. This post is for the rest of us, the ordinary joes and janes who just want to watch our TV shows and movies in peace, with images that look clear to us.

And let’s face it, for anyone over the age of 40 who’s already had to start using reading glasses as it is, there’s an upper limit to how much clarity we can expect, even when viewing the real world around us!

So with that said, onward.


HD vs. SD: HD Is Wasted On An SD Screen

This pixels-per-square-inch thing comes into play on the device side, too. Even if you have an image that’s super high-def, 1080p, a device that can only display 720 pixels per square inch isn’t capable of displaying all that extra fine detail.

So if the device you plan to use for watching digital videos doesn’t have an HD display (you can check this in the device’s product details either in the user guide that came with it or on the manufacturer’s website), there’s no point in paying extra to watch HD videos on it.


How much fine detail are you getting on a 3.5″ screen, anyway?

HD vs. SD: HD Is Wasted On A Small Screen

You probably already know that when you’re shopping for digital cameras, the higher the “megapixel” setting, the better the quality of your digital photos will be. That’s because the higher the pixel count, the more pixels there are per square inch. The more pixels there are per square inch, the higher the resolution. The higher the resolution, the finer the detail on your pictures will be. But the extra pixels in a high-def image aren’t distinguishable by the human eye when the image is small.

You know how sometimes when you’re online, you’ll see a small (or “thumbnail”) version of an image that looks pretty clear, and when you click on it to load the full-size image, the enlarged image looks fuzzy? That usually happens when the image was saved at a low resolution setting. The image looks fine to your eyes when it’s small but the bigger it gets, the worse it looks.

So if you’re intending to view digital video on a small screen, not only will you NOT notice the loss of finer details in a standard definition video, you also won’t notice the increase in finer details in an HD video.


But How Small Is The “Small” When I Say “Small Screen”?

I’ve watched both the SD and HD versions of The Matrix and Constantine, two movies with a lot of digital special effects, on my Kindle Fire HD’s 7″ screen, and didn’t notice any difference whatsoever for either movie.

I repeated the experiment on my 37″ diagonal HD television set, and again, did not notice any significant difference. I think this is because even though the image is a lot larger on my TV, I’m still sitting at least 12 feet away from the screen when I’m watching it. I don’t have a huge living room, this distance is mostly because the TV is mounted on the wall. The further I get from any image, whether on TV, my computer, my phone, my Kindle Fire or even in real life, the less I’m going to notice fine detail.

In my opinion, the difference between SD and HD is most noticeable on broadcast, network TV. But when I’m watching the news, a sitcom or a panel discussion show, I’m focused much more on what the people are saying than whether or not I can count the freckles on their noses.


Admit it: if we’d never heard of Blu-ray or HD, we’d have been perfectly content to keep watching DVDs and we would still be impressed by their image quality.

Don’t Forget How Amazing We All Thought DVD Resolution Was When DVDs First Became A Thing

If you’re old enough to have owned a movie on VHS (or even—GASP!—Betamax) and then replaced it with a new copy on DVD, surely you remember being awe-struck by the tremendous increase in image clarity. At the time you might even have said something like, “It’s like I’m right there, IN the movie! It’s like I’m actually IN The Field of Dreams!” Well guess what? That image was in standard def.

DVD image quality is nothing to sneeze at, and until people who sell HD devices and videos starting publicizing this notion that DVD image quality doesn’t cut the mustard, we were all just fine with it.


HD Isn’t Doing The Actors Or The Audience Any Favors

Until the advent of HD TV, I was happy to believe that Johnny Depp’s face was as smooth and flawless as a piece of Limoges porcelain. I was not happy when that bubble was burst wide open the first time I saw him in an interview segment on my HD TV.

Every celebrity and public figure, no matter how beautiful or handsome, is imperfect. And HD is great at literally bringing all those tiny imperfections into sharp focus. It’s not for nothing that some TV shows are being shot in slightly soft focus now, or that more celebrities seem to be getting facelifts and collagen injections than ever before.


In Conclusion…

Since HD digital movies run anywhere from $2 – $5 higher than their SD counterparts, and HD digital TV shows can be as much as $20 higher per season than the SD versions, the choice between HD and SD really can have a significant impact on your budget.

For all the reasons above, for most of us, it’s not worth the extra spend.

Also See:

Managing Your Amazon Instant Video Library

Amazon Instant Video Restrictions

Amazon Instant Video Myths & Facts

When And How To Stop Sharing A Family Account For Your Digital Content

Watch With The D-Media Mom: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Wilderness Dumbass Movies


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  1. Comment by OGRE:

    I agree! If there is no difference in sound there isn’t really that big of a difference unless you’re looking for it. Most up-sampling works just fine; that being said, you might notice artifacts when there is an almost black background.

    I have a few DVDs with DTS surround instead of Dolby Digital, there is a bigger difference in sound than there is in picture I would say. I usually only purchase on Blu-Ray when there is DTS sound. Like Top Gun, I have that on Blu-Ray because the sound is DTS. There is a huge noticeable difference!

    Like he says in the article, if you can spare the change the picture is slightly better, but every TV made now can up-sample, so there isn’t “that” big of a difference.

  2. Comment by CJS:

    I do not see or hear a difference between HD and SD, and would not pay more for HD.

    Recently Amazon Instant Video started pushing HD streaming. I had no idea I was watching an HD program because the image did not look one bit different to me.
    Unfortunately if your connection supports HD their streaming defaults to HD.

    The only difference I see is how quickly it uses up my data allotment–since my ISP has imposed a data cap–and I have no intention of spending more with my ‘provider’ so I can watch HD programming.

    SD only for me.

  3. Comment by Lv:

    Lol, you say that there is no noticeable diferende between sd and hd and then you say how many details you can notice on an actor’s face.

    There is a TREMENDOUS difference between SD and HD.

    • Comment by Mom:

      I never said there’s “no noticeable difference,” I say the difference isn’t so great that it’s worth paying more for, and that what IS most noticeable isn’t stuff you WANT to notice anyway. I acknowledge right up front that videophiles feel very strongly that there IS a big difference and it IS worth paying for, but the point of the piece is that for the great majority of viewers who are NOT videophiles, the difference isn’t worth paying for. From the post:

      To people like [videophiles], sure. The difference is noticeable. There are some people who would never go back to “consumer-grade” speakers after using super-expensive audio professional grade speakers, either. But I’m not one of them, and neither are most of you. This post is for the rest of us, the ordinary joes and janes who just want to watch our TV shows and movies in peace, with images that look clear to us.

      • Comment by WorcesterWhat:

        ^^ Ask not “is there a difference,” ask “who cares”?

        • Comment by Mom:

          Judging by the fact that this is among the most popular posts of all time on the site and gets new visits every day, I think a LOT of people care. =’)

          • Comment by Gman:

            Yes, it does matter. I have seen SD and HD content on tv. I must say that I prefer HD for shows and movies originally shot in HD format, but for older shows and movies SD will suffice. I do believe turning SD DVD movies into HD DVD or Blue Ray format is definitely a waste of time and money. I would buy DVD movies that were shot originally in SD, rather than buy a new HD DVD or Blue Ray version of it.

  4. Comment by George:

    There is a differance in video quality as Mom noted, but the difference is not appreciable by most viewers. I think the upgrade in picture quality is offset by a larger issue. When you use HD you are using twice to three times the bandwidth. If you have unlimited data plan on your broadband, Cable, or Phone Service, you will find that using HD will consume your allowed plan usage a great deal faster than SD.

  5. Comment by rick:

    If you have a 1080p tv upwards there is a massive difference in quality. So much so i contacted xbox to cancel my sd film so i could change it to hd. Downside is sd film 1gb hd 6gb. That shows you how much detailed the difference is.

  6. Comment by Elena:

    Thank you for this very clear explanation! I am amazed that people misread your article. You never said there is no difference. On the contrary, you clearly say there is and we have to decide what we want to choose.
    I decided to buy a couple of SD comedies for passing the time and I do not care of the detail. However, I would like to ask whether in a couple of years time, I would be able to watch them again? Will the technology be compatible? Thanks!

    • Comment by Mom:

      Elena – The answer to your question doesn’t actually have anything to do with HD vs. SD, because both kinds of digital movies are the exact same file type. It’s just that for HD, the file is a lot larger because there’s a lot more data in it for rendering all that superfine detail. I don’t see the digital file format of .mp4 going extinct in my lifetime, and that’s the most common file format for commercial digital video. The file may be “wrapped” in some kind of DRM security layer, but the video itself on Amazon Instant Videos and iTunes digital videos is MP4. So the question then becomes, how likely is it that MP4 will be replaced by some newer format? It’s possible, maybe even likely, but the impact on consumers who’ve purchased digital videos from major vendors (e.g., Amazon, iTunes) will be minimal.

      I have a lot more to say about this in order to explain things more fully, so I think I better dedicate a blog post to it this week. Check back on the site Wednesday or Thursday for the new post, to get the full scoop. You can also just sign up for the email delivery option (right-hand sidebar, near the top) and then you’ll be sure to get the post when it’s published.

  7. Comment by anthony:

    I just glanced through the comments so if some one has pointed this out already pls forgive me—- one other, sort of vital, difference is the size of the image(Video).. when i see a SD movie on my 46″ LCD there are two large black bands on top and bottom of the video and when i see a HD movie there are none(Both bought on iTunes).. ok some one will come and say its the aspect ratio! but then still 99percent of sd movies will have those bands(i.e. that size) as they do not possess the details req. for a aspect ratio that fills the larger displays… Having said that i have seen some(not many) hd movie having those bands… And at the end of it all depends on the size of your tv- if you have a big one then HD matters and if you have one on the smaller side then it doesn’t…..

  8. Comment by Mary Ann:

    Please forgive me if I missed something, but just what *is* the resolution of SD on Amazon Instant Video, and what is the resolution of HD? I thought SD meant 480i analog 4:3 (that nasty stuff we got on SD TV sets) and HD meant 720p 16:9 quality or better. But the SD movie I watched on Amazon the other night looked way better than an analog TV.

    • Comment by Mom:

      I couldn’t find anything on the Amazon site to answer your question, but over on the Tom’s Guide site it says the digital video from both Netflix and Amazon streams at a minimum of 480p for standard def, but will be better if your A/V equipment is higher def than that. Per that site, most often, both Netflix and Amazon Instant Video content streams at 1080p on an HD video screen (e.g., TV, tablet, etc.).

  9. Comment by Tom Wagstaff (@t_wagstaff):

    Bravo! You’ve totally convinced me – I’m defaulting to SD from now on. From my UK provider HD is 50-80% more than the SD version – I’d rather have 50-80% more films to watch…

  10. Comment by Charles Chambers:

    Good article. The only thing I have to be nit picky about is that you said “How much detail will you notice on a 3.5″ screen,” except you are showing a device with a 5″ screen.

    • Comment by Mom:

      Thanks. The images aren’t intended to exactly match the text unless I specifically make reference to them, which is why the text doesn’t say something like “as on the device shown above.” As it happens, that Samsung player comes in a 3.5″ model as well.

  11. Comment by randnoell:

    Does SD & HD use the same amount of Bandwidth?

    • Comment by Mom:

      No, HD uses up to 3x the bandwidth, depending on the quality of the video stream (e.g., HD vs. “Ultra HD” quality). See this Netflix Help page for more information about recommended internet connection speeds for various video quality levels (note that you don’t have to be a Netflix subscriber, the page is public).

  12. Comment by Virginia:

    Thanks so very much. I appreciate the clear explanation. And, you just saved me $5. Have a good day.

  13. Comment by shawna:

    Im buying mickey for my son on his tablet for airplane ride, can you only watch sd when your online?

    • Comment by Mom:

      You can watch either HD or SD, but I suggest going with SD on a plane because in-flight networks are often slow (which can cause buggering problems, where the film stops and starts a lot) and if the airline charges you by the megabyte you’ll pay a LOT more for the HD version. Alternatively, you could buy the HD version ahead of time and simply download the entire program to his tablet. Then he won’t have to connect to the internet at all while viewing it.

  14. Comment by mo:

    If I buy hd on vudu can I stream in hd and sd

  15. Comment by Leslie:

    Thank you, this article was very helpful.

  16. Comment by Vidya:

    Very good Article.. Actually, it doesn’t make much difference ordinary joes and janes.. Sometimes unnecessarily we follow others with out understanding the need. Ask people, how much they enjoy movies in HD.. In today’s fast world who got the time to watch movies on TV.. so why bother.. Your articles must have helped many people who were contemplating to move to HD