The internet has revolutionized how humans communicate and learn. With the advancement of technical infrastructure over time, video has rapidly become the preferred mode for learning and content sharing with a worldwide audience.

If you are a video content creator, you have undoubtedly wondered what technical aspects of video hosting you need to be familiar with to create the best possible viewing experience for your students and audience.  There is so much talk of video quality, considerations on SD vs HD are likely made during video production as well as video publishing.

Researching the answer can unleash an avalanche of acronyms, abbreviations, and technical-sounding terms that bring more questions than answers. Luckily, we’re here to help you sort through this tangle of information, and zero-in on what metrics really matter when you’re deciding the best way to serve up your stellar content.

The Basics: Pixels and Resolution

The terminology related to video can sound like a lot of jargon, but the reality is a lot simpler than it seems. If you’ve ever watched a video online and suffered through grainy, pixelated footage (or constant buffering that interrupted playback), you’re already well aware of how resolution can affect your viewing experience. At the heart of it all?

The humble pixel.

A pixel (or “picture element”) is just a tiny dot or square of illumination on a screen, capable of displaying any one of millions of colors. Whatever device you’re using (a computer attached to a monitor, a flat-screen tv, or a phone) translates data from photo and video files into directions that tell each individual pixel what to display and for how long. Put together, all of these pixels then form images that humans can see and understand. The more pixels a device screen has, the clearer the overall picture and the finer the level of detail that can be displayed.

This level of detail is known in the graphics world as resolution, and for tech it’s usually expressed in numeric form, such as ‘1920 x 1080’. This equation tells us that a screen has 1,920 vertical pixels and 1,080 horizontal pixels available for display, giving the screen an overall density of 2,073,600 pixels with which to show every detail of an image or video.

In an effort to be efficient and to the point: This metric is often short-handed within the industry as, in the example above, 1080p (using just the second or horizontal number in the equation) or 2.1 megapixels (the number of total pixels available).

Ultimately, the top resolution of a device represents the cap on what that device can display. A screen set to a resolution of, say, 480p, can’t display the full benefits of a 1080p video.  The monitor you are using right now likely has a display resolution of 1920 x 1080.

Now that we know what we’re actually talking about when we refer to resolution, we can talk about how all of this affects eLearning and video course creators.

HD vs SD - Does It Matter

The DL on SD vs HD

If you’re offering video as part of your ecommerce site, elearning course, or blog then resolution considerations need to play a part in your overall content strategy.

Standard definition (or SD) is a term for video and images that are compatible with lower-resolution output, usually topping out at about 480p (or 858 x 480).  The ‘p’ stands for progressive scanning.  That means it updates full frame images faster than traditionally interlaced content.

While this level of resolution was long an industry standard, rapid advances in screen technologies, as well as greater bandwidth accommodations for users, have meant that SD has slowly been losing favor over the years.

High-definition (HD) has become the new de-facto standard.  Videos in 720p, typically known as “standard HD” or just “HD”, are very popular on the web.  These videos come in at 1280 X 720.  Offering greater picture clarity and sharpness, HD has become the primary choice for content creators looking to create professional, high-quality output that will wow audiences with immersive imagery and pristine graphics.

And then you have 1080p video, known as “full HD”, coming in at 1920 X 1080.  When people typically say “HD” 1080p videos come to mind, but 720p videos are also technically HD.

Customers and video creators often ask 2 very popular questions when it comes to video hosting.  The first being about video length:  “how long should videos be?” or “is my video too short or too long?“.

And the second being “should I host my videos in 720p or 1080p?“.

At Spotlightr, we recommend 720p for most web, and especially eLearning, use-cases.  At the size most web videos are served, the difference between 720p and 1080p is not very noticeable.  It saves you on storage costs, bandwidth costs, and will stream better across most internet speeds.

Of course if your content really depends on the highest of quality (for example photography lessons), or you know your audience will always watch in full screen, then 1080p might be the better choice for you.

There are some resolution levels above HD, specifically Ultra-HD.  Commonly known as 4k video, it refers to the horizontal resolution which is around 4000 pixels (the ‘k’ stands for kilo, or 1000).  These display at 3840 x 2160, n of HD (nearly 8.3 megapixels).  While popular with content creators working in video game streaming—where graphics are an important component of gameplay—4k has been slower to roll out to broader audiences, though many see it as the inevitable future of video.

Standard-def and High-def: Pros and Cons

The selling points of HD video are hard to dispute: with high-definition, you get color-rich, crystal-clear video content that brings a polished and professional look straight to your target audience. High-definition videos also port seamlessly from one screen to another, meaning that they can look great on television, a tablet, or a smartphone. This dependable flexibility is helpful for creators looking for wide accessibility that doesn’t require a huge effort in production.

However, high-definition video also depends upon faster internet speeds for the best possible display. While bogged-down bandwidth is just an occasional occurrence in many places, slower internet speeds are extremely common throughout the world (according to surveys of global broadband speed).

While the mean download speed in the United States is 92.42 Mbps (megabytes per second), many countries in Africa have mean download speeds south of 5 Mbps. Even China has a mean download speed of just 2.06 Mbps–thanks to extensive rural districts.

This discrepancy in internet speeds means that a 5GB file that takes about ten minutes to download in the US at higher speeds can take over five hours for someone using a slower connection. In such cases, the benefits of higher-resolution video are lost in the frustration of slow-to-download, difficult-to-view videos that are plagued by buffering and loss of image quality.

Spotlightr does create multiple resolution versions of your video, so keep that in mind when uploading your content.  When uploading a video in 1080, we will produce a version that is 720 and 360 so that users with slow internet speeds can lower the resolution of the video to prevent the video from buffering.

On mobile you will often see standard definition video. SD creates smaller files that are faster to download, and requires less bandwidth to stream.  Popular for users with older tech equipment (or slower broadband access), standard definition is often the preferred video resolution.  It presents the best trade-off between visual quality and ease of use.

SD vs HD for eLearning

Battle Royale SD vs HD: Which Video Resolution Reigns Supreme?

Opting for certain resolution levels for your video output comes down to: a) knowing your audience, b) knowing how they prefer to consume your content, and c) knowing the average specs of the devices and internet services they use.

While the crisp, clear quality of HD video makes great sense for tech-savvy audiences in areas with high-speed internet connections, content aimed at broader or international audiences should consider whether the benefits of high-quality video are offset by potential technical frustrations that could mar the viewing experience.

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