SD vs. HD: What’s the Difference and Why Use Both?

Blog 1 min read | Jul 21, 2023 | JW Player


Those of you looking to implement video content on your website may still wonder what the difference is between SD and HD. If the details between these two video quality terms still confuse you, you’re not entirely alone.

They stand for standard definition and high-definition. There is a major difference between the two. If you already watch TV, you plainly see a difference, but may not understand what the technical details are on video resolution.

It may seem obvious, but there are clear and distinct use cases for both SD and HD, even within the realm of the highest performing streaming devices and platforms.

Believe it or not, HD isn’t always the resolution of preference for every situation.

In fact, you might be surprised to learn all the different ways SD is preferable to HD for an optimal viewing experience.

Let’s take a look at what these are and how the differences factor into publishing high-quality video to your website.

What is Standard Definition?

All digital resolution images are measured in number of pixels, which are single points of color on a screen. Combining these points creates an image. How sharp the image is all goes by how many pixels there are, no matter the aspect ratio.

In standard definition, 480 pixels are used to create a digital image in any video. Otherwise known as SD, standard definition is certainly not new. It’s been a standard in video for well over 20 years now.

While 480 pixels was once exciting for picture quality two decades ago, it’s now considered the lowest form of digital imagery. Even so, it can become very useful for videos on your website for those with lower internet speeds. While SD quality is usually blurry in resolution compared to higher resolution, it’s one way to keep a video playing when slow internet makes downloading a high-definition video time-consuming.

Those of you who post videos of tutorials or general information about your company can find standard definition video very useful as a playback option. Considering many people use their phones to watch videos, SD should always be made as a playback choice if download speeds make HD streaming far too slow.

HD live streaming is revolutionizing how the world connects and how organizations engage with audiences. In a time when we rely on live streaming for everything from watching a major sporting event and attending a college lecture to tuning into a religious service or fitness class, standard definition is no longer good enough. High definition live streaming gives audiences the best possible viewing experience.

If you’re a broadcaster, brand, publisher, or creator who’s intrigued by HD live streaming, this guide is for you. We’re going to review:

  • What HD video is
  • The differences between high definition video and standard definition video
  • How to live stream in HD
  • What multi-bitrate streaming is

What is High Definition?

The “HD” in “HD video” stands for “high definition.” High definition videos have a higher resolution than standard definition videos, which are also known as “SD” videos.

Resolution indicates how detailed a video is by measuring the number of pixels in a standard aspect ratio frame of 16:9. Resolution is expressed as the width times height of pixels in a frame. For example, 1,280 x 720 indicates that the frame is 1,280 pixels wide by 720 pixels high. Because 1,280 pixels is a standard width, resolution is often abbreviated as just the frame’s height, such as 720p, for example.

Common high definition video modes

There are several common HD video modes that you need to know about and will encounter as you broadcast or watch live streams. Here’s a quick overview:

Video mode Commonly known as Frame size (width x height in pixels) Type of scanning
720p HD Ready 1,280×720 Progressive
1080i Full HD 1,920×1,080 Interlaced
1080p Full HD 1,920×1,080 Progressive
1440p Quad HD 2,560×1,440 Progressive

As you can see, each video mode has both a name and abbreviation that corresponds to its dimensions. When we get to higher-quality HD video modes, we also encounter differences in scanning modes. 1080i uses interlaced scanning, while 1080p uses progressive scanning. In interlaced scanning, only half of the lines in a screen are displayed at any one time. With progressive scanning, all of the lines in a screen are displayed at the same time.

A caveat about HD live streaming

Typically, the higher the resolution, the better the image. However, higher resolution video files are usually larger than SD videos and require more bandwidth to stream.

If your audience has a high-speed internet connection that can keep up with an HD stream, they’ll enjoy an optimal viewing experience. However, if your audience has a slow internet connection, HD quality can slow down the stream, create lag, and result in a pixelated video. While it may be tempting to always opt for the highest resolution while live streaming, it’s better to optimize for the best viewing experience.

Use cases for HD live streaming

With that caveat in mind, you may have to be judicious about when you use HD video and when you don’t. HD live streaming is the best option when you know your audience has a fast internet connection. It’s also good for video content in which details matter. Examples include live sporting events, where viewers need to see where the ball is clearly, or a retail live stream, when it’s important for consumers to see the details of the products being advertised.

You know your audience better than anyone, and if you think the majority of them will be tuning into your live stream with slower internet connections, think twice about capturing video in the highest definition possible. Keep reading this guide to HD live streaming to learn options for optimizing video quality no matter what your audience’s internet connection is like.

Differences between High Definition and Standard Definition video

As you know, HD stands for “high definition” and SD stands for “standard definition.” So what’s the cutoff for a high definition resolution? Generally, a resolution of 720p or above is considered high definition, and anything below that, such as 480p, is considered standard definition.

Because it has a more dense concentration of pixels, high definition video shows more detailed images than standard definition videos. SD videos are, therefore, of lower quality. HD videos are best for high quality streaming where details matter, while standard definition is best for audiences with slower internet connections. HD uses more bandwidth than SD, so if your audience doesn’t have fast internet, a high definition live stream can result in a poor viewing experience with lots of buffering.

So, which is better: high definition video or standard definition video? Standard definition can tarnish the quality of a stream and leave a bad impression. Plus, SD technology is on its way out. To avoid compromising the viewing experience for people with slower internet connections, 720p HD Ready is a great option, as it uses less bandwidth than higher HD video modes. Multi-bitrate and adaptive streaming are also good workarounds to this problem. We’ll discuss these in more detail later on in this guide.

Here’s a cheat sheet that summarizes the differences between high definition and standard definition video quality:

Category High Definition (HD) Standard Definition (SD)
What is it? Higher quality video with more details Lower quality video
Resolution 720p+ <720p (usually 480p)
Best for High quality streaming where details matter Audiences with slower internet connections
Overall winner High definition

As you can see, the main difference between SD resolution and HD is in the clarity of the video during a viewing experience. Standard definition is always going to be slightly blurrier compared to high-definition, even if that might not matter depending on the use of the video.

If you’re just providing basic information or apps tutorials intended to be viewed on a smartphone, SD is perfectly acceptable to most people. That’s because it takes far less bandwidth to do SD streaming or video, making it easier for viewers with limited data or battery life.

In this case, SD is actually a better alternative than HD to provide a satisfactory user experience. The dip in video quality is hardly a deterrent to consuming the content.

Those of you creating videos requiring more visual detail will want to focus exclusively on HD content for better quality. This should be viewed on devices that are sure to provide guaranteed high speeds in streaming capability.

Multi-bitrate streaming vs. adaptive bitrate streaming

You know all about HD videos and SD videos. You understand that even though HD videos are better in quality than SD videos, they use up more bandwidth and can be difficult for audiences with slower internet connections to enjoy. While we advise live streaming in 720p to offer high quality that’s accessible on slower connections, you may not want to limit the quality of your stream. Is there a way to give viewers with fast internet connections the highest HD level possible, while also giving audiences with poor internet connections the ability to watch the stream?

Absolutely. That’s where multi-bitrate streaming and adaptive bitrate streaming come in handy. Here’s an overview of each option to help you decide if you should implement them on your next live stream.

Multi-bitrate streaming

Multi-bitrate (MBR) streaming lets viewers choose their own adventure. Broadcasters can record a live stream in the highest resolution they like. Then, instead of being forced to watch a predetermined resolution of the stream, audiences can choose the highest resolution their internet connection will support.

Multi-bitrate streaming improves the viewing experience without crushing data usage or desktop bandwidth. Viewers choose the best quality for their device and internet. If their internet connection is unstable and slows down, they can downgrade the stream quality. If their internet is fast and reliable, they can choose the highest quality resolution the broadcaster offers.

Multi-bitrate streaming example

Let’s say you’re live streaming a basketball game. You film it in 1440p and make it available in 480p, 720p, 1080p, and 1440p for your audience.

Viewer 1

Someone might tune in from their smartphone on their train commute. While they’re connected to LTE data, they opt to watch the stream in 1080p to get high quality without draining all of their data. When the train goes into a tunnel for a few minutes, they downgrade to 480p to reduce lag as much as possible.

Viewer 2

Another viewer might be tuning in on a 60” ultra high definition television and with a stable ethernet connection. This person will probably watch on 1440p the whole time to take advantage of the best resolution you have to offer, and their large screen size.

Adaptive bitrate streaming

Adaptive bitrate (ABR) streaming is like the autopilot mode of multi-bitrate streaming. Broadcasters can stream in the highest possible resolution their internet, recording devices, encoder, and streaming platform allow. Viewers have access to various levels of resolutions. However, rather than having to manually choose the quality of the stream, ABR optimizes the viewing experience by automatically choosing the highest quality resolution the viewer’s connection can handle. Adaptive bitrate streaming can change the video resolution in real time.

Adaptive bitrate streaming example

Let’s see how our example for MBR changes when the live stream offers ABR instead. As a reminder, you’re a broadcaster live streaming a basketball game in 1440p.

Viewer 1

Rather than the commuter having to experience lag when their train enters the tunnel, and manually change their streaming settings to a lower resolution, ABR automatically drops the stream to 480p while they’re in the tunnel, then raises it back to HD when they’re out of the tunnel. With ABR, the viewer doesn’t miss a second of the game and can sit back and enjoy, instead of thinking about video settings.

Viewer 2

With a stable internet connection, the viewer watching the game at home on an ultra HD television should be able to watch the game at 1440p the whole time. However, if the viewer’s three roommates decide to watch Netflix, FaceTime, and tune into a Zoom call during the game, there will be a higher bandwidth strain on the connection. In that case, ABR would reduce the resolution to 1080p or 720p to make it possible for the whole home to do what they need to do.

What’s the best resolution for live streaming?

The best and most commonly-used resolution for live streaming is HD Ready, or 720p. As the lowest resolution of HD video, 720p is a happy medium between video quality and bandwidth. Plus, with 482.5 billion hours live streamed on small, mobile screens globally in 2020, it’s difficult for most audiences to tell the difference between 720p and a higher resolution stream.

This resolution is also accessible to both publishers and audiences, because most entry-level devices can shoot in 720p, and most internet connections can easily support HD Ready footage.

How to live stream in HD

Ready to level up your live streams and go live in high definition? Keep reading to learn which tools you’ll need to launch a high definition live stream and how to go about doing this.

What you’ll need to live stream in high definition

If you’ve ever done any kind of live streaming, you probably already have most of the tools needed to stream in HD. Here’s the setup you’ll need to launch an HD live video stream:

  • A fast, stable internet connection with an upload speed of at least 15 mbps.
  • A live streaming platform, like Facebook Live, Twitch, or LinkedIn Live, which is where viewers will tune in to your live stream. While you have lots of options when it comes to platforms, we recommend JW Player for its comprehensive features.
  • An encoder, also known as streaming software, which broadcasts the video and audio from your device to your favorite streaming platform. While you could stream directly through a streaming platform, an encoder gives you the ability to use external cameras and microphones, manage multiple video cameras and mics, and share your screen. The result is a more sophisticated, professional production.
  • A computer or mobile phone from which you’ll access your streaming software and transmit your live stream.
  • A high definition camera, like the one on your phone or laptop, a webcam, or camcorder. If you want to upgrade your streaming setup, consider purchasing one of these cameras.
  • A microphone. While you can start with the microphone built into your camera, you’ll eventually want to upgrade to an external microphone so your audio matches your video quality. A lavalier mic is a great option for talking head-style videos or interviews, while boom mics are best for capturing a great range of audio.

You can begin with equipment you already have and a free encoder, then invest in more professional hardware and software as you develop your live streaming strategy.

How to live stream in HD

After you’ve gathered the above equipment, follow these steps to launch your HD live stream:

  1. Access your encoder via your computer or mobile device.
  2. Add sources to your encoder, such as video footage from your cameras and audio from external microphones.
  3. Set up a live stream to the streaming platform of your choice. Most platforms let you schedule a live stream or go live instantly.
  4. Select an HD quality stream in your streaming platform.
  5. Set up your HD-supported recording equipment, and prepare your on-screen talent.
  6. Test your internet connection and video set up to ensure it looks good to viewers and will be able to sustain an HD stream.
  7. Start your live stream!

The Best Devices for SD and HD Video Content

SD content is going to be better on smartphones, but also on tablets. While there are some exceptions with tablets, most of those devices stream video similarly to a smartphone.

SD can also work well on laptops and some desktops. Older computers obviously don’t have the power newer ones do, hence making SD a necessary video option. Overall, though, medium-sized screens are best using SD based on how the person views the video.

For HD video, TVs are usually considered first since it has a larger screen where one can enjoy more detailed visuals. Even so, many newer laptops and desktops can stream HD video without issue. It all comes down to how fast the person’s internet connection is.

Something like an iPad Pro tablet can also take on HD content from a streaming service without any loss of quality. Regardless, you always have to consider your audience and what kind of screens they’ll primarily be using to watch your videos.

Other Terms to Know About SD and HD

Some other terms exist in the realm of SD and HD video you should know about. One is the difference between 1080p and 1080i. You’ve likely seen that ‘i’ used on HD video and never sure what it meant.

This stands for interlaced video where the frame rate is doubled per second, hence helping the human eye perceive the image in better clarity. Despite the pixels being the same, any device with low scan rates can still display a clear interlaced video.

At one time, old analog TVs used interlaced signals to keep an image clear. In the world of HDTV, interlaced video is still sometimes used to help keep the image in HD without taking as much bandwidth.

In contrast to interlaced video is progressive. Have you always wondered what the p stands for after 720 or 1080? Now you know. Today, progressive video is more the standard on high-end devices for higher quality images.

Another term to know in the realm of SD is 360p. With this pixel rate, you’re getting the lowest possible resolution. Regardless, it’s still considered a standard on places like YouTube since it’s the lowest possible resolution that still looks halfway decent. For those watching live streaming videos on smartphones, 360p is another good option to use when low bandwidth is a problem.

Should You Use SD or HD On Your Videos?

It’s clear HD (high-definition) is always better in image quality. Whether you choose to use SD or HD all depends on what type of videos you’re producing. Just remember that offering both options is important to accommodate everyone watching on different devices.