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Legacy survivors in modern times: TV and monitor resolutions

Although modern technology moves forward at breakneck speed, there are still old-fashioned solutions that are resilient enough to stand the test of time. Like digital equivalents of living fossils, they have managed to survive the disruptive effect of technological innovation and still thrive in highly modern IT-environments.

In this series, we will take a closer look at some of these technological dinosaurs that are still present in our modern times. This article will focus on pieces of legacy technology that will surely interest the whizkids or movie and gaming buffs amongst us: TV and monitor resolutions.

Bigger, sharper and more detailed

Downsizing is generally king in the ever-changing world of technological innovation. To give you an example: modern and state-of-the-art circuitry (microelectronics anyone?) is often many times smaller than the thinnest human hair. There is however a noticeable exception to the “smaller-is-better movement”.

Television screens and computer monitors dedicated to graphic design are getting larger and larger (albeit thinner too). After all, we all want to watch the latest Netflix presentations, real-life soaps or the epic downfall of our favorite sports team (fans from certain football teams based in Amsterdam and Manchester know what we mean) on properly-sized screens and in high resolution.

Limitations of legacy screen resolutions

Original and vastly popular analog television standards, such as PAL (pretty much the default standard in most of Western Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the Pacific), NTSC (dominant in North and Central America) and SECAM (the Soviet Union, several African countries), had specific resolutions and refreshment speeds that were determined by the technological limitations of the times in which they were created. PAL has 576 compared with 480 lines with NTSC, meaning that PAL has a significantly (20%) higher resolution than its former chief rival for global screen resolution dominance.

Legacy resolutions in the age of HDTV and 4k

In our digital day and age, formats such as HDTV, 4k and Ultra HD are king. After all, we want to see real tears when the next dramatic enactment in our favorite television show unfolds. And we want to be able to count the exact number of whiskers on the leopard’s majestic face when the stealthy feline pounces on its unsuspecting prey in good old David Attenborough’s next BBC Earth production.

The surge of modern, high-resolution formats must surely have driven the old analog screen formats to the junkyard of tech history. Well, not really. Although the modern formats don’t have the limitations of the older ones, the newbies are often designed to be compatible with their seemingly outdated predecessors.

Especially when it comes to frame rates, digital TV, HDTV, and Ultra HD are still strongly rooted in PAL and NTSC, analog video standards that are more than 65 years old. For example, DVD’s are still in either the NTSC or PAL formats. Even with formats such as Blu-ray, there are cases where the film or main video content may be in HD, but some of the supplementary video features may be in the standard resolution NTSC or PAL formats. Many play-back devices, such as non-HDMI equipped DVD players plugged into big and fancy HDTVs, are still NTSC or PAL-based.

So count your blessings that these legacy resolution technologies still play a role in the modern technology landscape. It saves you the trauma of ditching your carefully collected DVD collection of guilty pleasures and treasured eighties and nineties classics.

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