A vintage TV test screen that says, "PLEASE STAND BY!"
Oleksii Arseniuk/Shutterstock

Whether you’re a movie nerd, a gamer, or an amateur filmmaker, you’ve probably heard of NTSC and PAL. But what’s the difference? And how are these formats still relevant today?

Americans Use NTSC; Everybody Else Uses PAL

At an elementary level, NTSC is an analog TV color system used in North America, Central America, and parts of South America. PAL is an analog TV color system used in Europe, Australia, parts of Asia, parts of Africa, and parts of South America.

The systems are incredibly similar, with the main difference being electrical consumption. In North America, electrical power is generated at 60 Hz. On other continents, the standard is 50 Hz, but this difference has a bigger impact than you might expect.

Why Power Makes a Big Difference

The refresh rate (frame rate) of an analog TV is directly proportional to its power consumption. But just because a TV operates at 60 Hz doesn’t mean it displays 60 frames per second.

Look familiar? These are two examples of interlacing. Notice the evenly spaced lines in the first image. Wikipedia

Analog TVs use a cathode-ray tube (CRT) to beam light against the backside of a screen. These tubes aren’t like projectors—they can’t fill up a screen in one go. Instead, they quickly beam light down from the top of a screen. As a result, though, the picture at the top of the screen starts to fade as the CRT beams light at the bottom of the screen.

To fix this issue, analog TVs “interlace” an image. That is, they skip every other line on a screen to hold an image that looks consistent to the human eye. As a result of this “skipping,” 60 Hz NTSC TVs operate at 29.97 FPS, and 50 Hz PAL TVs run at 25 FPS.

PAL Is Technically Superior

American readers, don’t get too excited about your extra 4.97 frames per second. Frame rate aside, PAL is technically superior to NTSC.

When the USA began broadcasting color TV in the early ’50s, the name of the game was backward compatibility. Most Americans already had black and white TV sets, so ensuring that color broadcasts were compatible with older TVs was a no-brainier. As a result, NTSC stuck with black and white resolution (525 lines), operates on low-bandwidth frequencies, and is generally unreliable.

Other continents didn’t want to deal with NTSC’s unreliability and simply waited for color TV technology to get better. Regular color TV broadcasts didn’t get to England until 1966 when the BBC solidified the PAL format. PAL was meant to address the problems with NTSC. It has an increased resolution (625 lines), works on high-bandwidth frequencies, and is more reliable than NTSC. (Of course, this means PAL doesn’t work with black and white sets.)

Okay, enough of the history lesson. Why does all of this matter now? We keep talking about analog TVs, but what about digital TVs?

Why Does This Matter in the Digital Age?

The faults (or features) of NTSC and PAL are dictated mainly by how analog TVs function. Digital TVs are fully capable of pushing past these limitations (specifically frame rates), but we still see NTSC and PAL in use today. Why?

Person watching a 4K, big screen TV.
Daniel Crason/Shutterstock

Well, it’s mostly an issue of compatibility. If you’re transmitting video information with an analog cable (RCA, coaxial, SCART, s-video), your TV has to be able to decode that information. While some modern TVs support both the NTSC and PAL formats, there’s a chance yours only supports one of the two. So, if you try to hook up an Australian game console or DVD player to an American TV via RCA cable, it might not work.

There’s also the issue of cable TV and broadcast TV (now called ATSC, not NTSC). Both formats are now digital, but they still operate on either 30 or 60 FPS to support old CRT TVs. Depending on your TV’s country of origin, it might not be able to decode your video signal if you’re using analog cables.

To get around this, you’re going to need to buy an NTSC/PAL compatible HDMI converter box, and they’re expensive. But hey, it costs less than a new TV, and it’ll come in handy when you inevitably buy a TV that doesn’t have any analog ports.

Some New TVs Don’t Have Analog Ports

If you’ve bought a TV in the last year, you may have noticed something strange. It’s got a few HDMI ports, maybe a DisplayPort, but it lacks the colorful RCA ports you’re used to. Analog video is finally dying.

This solves the NTSC/PAL compatibility problem by removing your ability to use old video sources with new TVs. Isn’t that nice?

In the future, you might have to buy an NTSC/PAL compatible HDMI converter box. Again, they’re kind of expensive right now. Once demand goes up, though, they should cost less.

Profile Photo for Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew Heinzman writes for How-To Geek and Review Geek. Like a jack-of-all-trades, he handles the writing and image editing for a mess of tech news articles, daily deals, product reviews, and complicated explainers.
Read Full Bio »