How Can You Make DVDs Look Better on Your HDTV?

Although we live in the age of HD video that doesn’t mean all of us have upgraded our old DVDs to HD content. Let’s look at how you can improve the appearance of standard definition content on your high definition television.

Dear How-To Geek,

I finally got around to getting an HDTV complete with a new cable box that has HD capability and, based on the reviews and articles I read on HTG no less, a really sweet Chromecast. I can’t get over how great it looks. It’s not like I didn’t see a HDTV set at friends’ houses or sports bars before this but seeing it in your living room and watching whatever you want is a different experience.

In fact the only thing I’m not happy with is watching old DVDs. I have tons of DVDs purchases over the last twenty or so years, and I’m in no hurry to replace them with Blu-ray discs or digital downloads but when I watch them with my old DVD player hooked up to my new TV they look terrible. I don’t just mean “Oh, hah hah, this isn’t Blu-ray” terrible,  I mean I feel like I’m watching home movies from the 1980s. If it helps any, the DVD player is (or I suppose I should way) a very highly rated DVD player purchased back around 2004 or so. It’s still going strong and the output still looks great on standard definitions sets for what that’s worth.

Is there anything I can do? Am I just becoming acclimated to the quality of new HD content and DVDs will simply never look the same again?


DVD Dismayed

Like a good doctor, we’re going to give it to you straight. Once you’ve watched enough HD content you will never be able to look at SD content the same way again. It’s just like the general march of technology: we had a really sweet Palm-based smartphone roughly ten years ago that, at the time, was absolutely amazing, but if you compare it to the modern quad-core smartphone experience it’s like using telegraph.

In that regard you just have to accept that SD content, no matter how well prepared, can’t compete with the same content remastered from the same high quality source in HD. That said there are some very practical steps you can take to improve the quality of old content when displayed on a newer high definition screen. First, let’s take a look the technical aspects of the different mediums and why exactly old content looks so awful on new HDTV sets. From that basic overview we can look at ways to to improve the content you have.

480 vs. 1080 Content

The easiest way to understand the problems inherent with displaying good looking standard definition content on a high definition screen is to look at the inherent limitations of the standard definition format.

The broadcast and television display standard from the 1950s until its decommissioning in 2009 was the NTSC analog standard which dictated the display resolution of all NTSC compliant displays. NTSC was replaced by the HD-friendly ATSC standard.

The resolution of the analog transmissions and displays outlined by NTSC standards is commonly referred to as 480i and 480p now. The -i and -p suffix refer to interlaced or progressive and are related to how the information is rendered and displayed on the screen, but both have exactly the same total resolution: 640 horizontal lines and 480 vertical lines for a total resolution of 337,920 pixels.

By contrast 1080i and 1080p content has 1,920 horizontal lines and 1,080 vertical lines for a total resolution of 2,073,600 pixels. It’s one thing to compare the shorthand names for SD and HD content, 480 and 1080, and say, “Oh yes, that’s clearly more,” but it’s another thing to do the math on the actual pixel count and see that an HDTV set can display ~500 percent more information than a standard definition set. The difference in display area really becomes apparent when you compare the total resolution of 1080p, 720p, and 480p visually.

When laid out like it is in the graphic above, it becomes obvious that you can easily stack the pixels supplied by old standard definition content multiple times in the same display space provided by HDTV sets.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could just stretch out the old 480 signal from your DVD player to fit the higher resolution display? You can, albeit with mixed results. Let’s take a look at how.

Upscaling: The Problem and The Solution

We learned in the last section that standard definition video has a native resolution of 640×480 and 1080 HD content has a native resolution of 1920×1080. Video looks best when the source video is displayed on a screen that shares its native resolution. This is why your DVDs look best to your eye when displayed on your old standard definition display; they’re 480 resolution content designed in a 480 resolution era for a 480 resolution screen.

With the advent of HDTV sets, however, it became necessary to make old content fit newer screens. This is where video scaling comes in. Nobody wants to watch standard definition reruns of the X-Files, for example, where the screen looks like this.

But, without video scaling, that’s exactly what it would look like. If your HDTV set just passed along the data it was given with no attempt to scale anything you’d enjoy a tiny little 480p image that took up approximately 16 percent of the total display area your 1080p HDTV set is capable of using.

Instead what happens is that a video scaling algorithm is employed and that 480p video is expanded to fill the screen. As we noted in the title of this section, however, that mechanism is both a problem and a solution depending on how it’s deployed.

All modern HDTV sets perform video scaling, in this application known as upscaling as they are taking a small image and scaling it up to a large one. Whatever video input they get, they scale up to their native resolution (1,920 x 1080 in the case of 1080 resolutions sets).

Just because all HDTV sets perform upscaling to present lower resolution video sources at a size that covers the whole screen doesn’t mean they’re doing a great job though. Most sets have lackluster scaling algorithms and do a poor job enlarging the image. That’s the problem with upscaling: most of the time it’s done very poorly.

The problem here, however, is also the solution. You can circumvent the upscaling algorithms in the HDTV set by providing a signal that has already been upscaled by a superior upscaling algorithm. If your HDTV set receives a signal for a video source already in its native format then it will blindly accept the signal and no scaling algorithm will be applied.

To that end you’ll need to replace your old DVD player which, based on the age you mentioned, was created before the widespread adoption of HDTV sets and most likely doesn’t have an upscaling algorithm as it was designed for the very 480 resolution content we’ve been discussing.

If you check the manual for your DVD player or do a little search engine work and find that it doesn’t upscale (or has poor upscaling abilities) you should consider picking up a new player. The price of DVD players has plummeted and you can now pick up a very highly rated upscaling player for under $50 (like the $40 Sony DVPSR510H). If you’re interested in purchasing Blu-ray media you can always pick up a Blu-ray player with well reviewed DVD upscaling like the $80 Sony BDPS32000. While more than a few consumers have forgone Blu-ray altogether if you’re already planning on purchasing a new disc-based media player the extra $40 for the aforementioned Blu-ray player also gets you access to a bunch of modern features like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu streaming as well as local content streaming over Wi-Fi.

No amount of wishing or wizardry will turn your old DVD content into a stack of Blu-ray discs but a good upscaling DVD player can do wonders for the picture. Good luck!

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Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.