SD vs. HD: What Streamers Need to Know About Video Resolutions

By Emily KringsOct 18, 2023

In a world with 4K and 8K ultra-high definition (UHD) video resolutions, it’s sometimes jarring to remember that standard definition (SD) and high definition (HD) are still quite common online. 

This is particularly true regarding live streaming because every viewer’s network connection is different – and most people don’t yet have reliable bandwidth to stream those ultra HD resolutions smoothly. 

As a business or content creator, you want to deliver a quality live streaming experience for your audience, and video quality is one of the most critical factors. 

In this article, we’ll talk through video resolution with a focus on SD vs. HD – and how to choose the right one for your live stream.

Table of Contents

A Primer on Video Resolution

To understand video resolution, think of a mosaic. This is like an artistic image with lots of individual squares that all fit together to make a picture. If the total size of the mosaic stays constant, then the quantity of those individual pieces will dictate how clear and detailed an image you’ll see. 

When it comes to video resolution, those squares are called pixels, and they’re used to measure how detailed the picture quality is for a video – specifically, whether a video is in standard definition (SD) resolution or high definition (HD) resolution. 

SD is defined as 720x480 pixels, and it was the standard used by television broadcasts and DVDs for years. 

HD is a bit sharper, starting at a resolution of 1280x720 pixels (720p) and going up to a resolution of 1920x1080 (Full HD). 

Understanding and choosing the right video resolution for your stream will directly impact the viewer experience, which is why it’s so important to get this right! Let’s dive deeper into SD and HD so you can figure out which setting is best for your live stream.

What is SD Video?

SD is the acronym for standard definition video, with a resolution of 720x480 pixels. While the majority of today’s televisions, computers, and handheld devices support up to 4K video resolution, standard definition is still considered the baseline resolution for both broadcast and live streaming

Historically, SD featured an aspect ratio of 4:3, which feels a bit outdated for modern video. But the 480p SD resolution itself is still fairly common, and here’s why: the smaller size means it requires less bandwidth to download and watch. 

Viewers watching on smaller devices like smartphones, tablets, or netbooks won’t see as big of a difference in quality when streaming video content in either SD or HD. However, assuming all else is equal, viewers would rather see a higher-quality resolution. That’s why most streamers aim to stream their videos in HD.

What is HD Video?

HD is the acronym for high definition, which starts at the standard HD resolution of 720p (1080x720 pixels) and goes up to the Full HD resolution at 1080p (1920x1080 pixels). Unlike SD, the HD video resolution has an aspect ratio of 16:9.

Now, when trying to decide whether to stream HD, you may start looking at that standard HD resolution of 720p. This is a solid level of quality for live streaming without being as taxing as higher resolutions like Full HD.

On the other hand, if you want to maximize quality while still staying within the realm of what a typical viewer’s bandwidth can support, then 1080p may be the better option. Note that while Ultra HD 4K streaming is possible, it’s pretty rare – many people rely on their phone’s data connection to tune into live streams, and 4K is still a prohibitive amount of data to continuously deliver over these networks while maintaining smooth playback for users. 

We’ll cover the different types of video resolutions and what internet bandwidth you’ll need in order to work with it. But first, let’s explore further how SD vs. HD stack up.

SD vs. HD Video Quality for Streaming

At this point, you should have a good idea of SD vs. HD in terms of the video quality they represent and the amount of bandwidth you’ll need to live stream in either resolution. 

Knowing that higher resolutions equal better video quality but also require greater bandwidth, you have to strike a balance between the visual sharpness of your stream and the smoothness of your stream’s playback. That means knowing the best internet speed for streaming at your desired resolution.

Here’s a good rule of thumb that we recommend here at Maestro: if you can support at least a 5 Mbps bitrate, you should go with Full HD at 30 frames per second. With a Full HD resolution at 30 fps, your stream will have that sought-after compromise between sharpness and smooth playback.

Note that your internet connection’s upload speed should have some breathing room here, meaning if you’re aiming for a 5 Mbps bitrate, then your internet should be able to upload at faster speeds than that. Some experts recommend an upload speed of 3X your target bitrate, roughly 15 Mbps, while others say it should be at least 30% higher, representing 6.5 Mbps. 

Either way, you want to test your connection and ensure your internet can handle streaming in Full HD. We recommend conducting an internet test like this Google Fiber speed test to see if your upload speed is enough for Full HD.

If it’s not up to the standard you need, then you’ll either want to go with standard HD at 720p, or you’ll want to consider some of our tips below for improving your streaming quality.

3 Tips to Improve Your Streaming Quality

Obviously, the goal here should be to achieve the highest possible resolution without compromising the quality of your stream’s playback. Nobody in your audience should see buffering, lag, or gaps between frames.

So, if you want to improve your streaming quality, here are a few quick tips to help you move past SD and into HD for your live streams.

1. Get the Right Equipment and Software

It’s absolutely essential that you don’t have any weak links in your production chain for a live stream.

If you’re aiming for a Full HD resolution, your camera must support streaming in 1080p. It also means you’ll need a powerful computer with at least a quad-core processor and 8 GB of RAM (and a strong GPU and/or capture card if you’re streaming as a gaming content creator).

Similarly, you’ll need reliable streaming and encoding software to ensure you reach your streaming target. Thankfully, all-in-one solutions like Maestro can help you maximize your streaming quality without sacrificing performance.

→ Learn More About Maestro 

2. Switch to a Wired Connection

It may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many businesses and content creators choose to live stream their videos over a wireless connection.

This is a mistake unless you can connect to an incredibly fast and reliable Wi-Fi network. That’s because the wired connection is a physical one with minimal interference compared to Wi-Fi, which can easily be slowed down or disrupted by other devices on the network, physical obstructions like walls, and even other nearby Wi-Fi networks. 

Most importantly, Ethernet connections offer consistently faster speeds at lower latency than Wi-Fi connections, all on the same internet plan. If you haven’t tried streaming with a wired connection, this is one of the first things you should try to boost your streaming quality! 

3. Upgrade Your Internet Plan

Why Your Hotel Needs a Fiber Internet Connection — Motion VOIP

Again, it may seem obvious, but one of the easiest ways to improve your stream quality is simply getting a better internet connection – particularly regarding upload speed. 

Remember how a higher bandwidth means you can support a standard or even Full HD resolution? Well, if you test your connection and realize that it’s not sufficient for Full HD, your two options are either to go with the next lower resolution (such as from Full HD down to standard HD or from standard HD to SD) or pay for a better internet connection so you can stream at the resolution you want to hit.

Bonus Tips to Boost Streaming Quality

Aside from those three important tips, I wanted to point out a few other key elements that could boost the quality of your stream.

One is simply having better lighting. Just as lights can completely transform the quality of your still photography, they can also make or break the quality of your video streams. While video resolution certainly makes a big difference, don’t neglect quality lighting for your filming (for example, a 3-point lighting setup for a talking head video). This can elevate the visual quality of your stream without even achieving a better resolution.

Lastly, I want to remind you to do at least one or two test streams before you go live “for real.” It’s not good enough to hope your live stream is quality once you’ve gone live – you want to make sure. 

That’s why you should test the live stream using your actual setup, keeping an eye on your CPU usage, total bandwidth, and dropped frames to ensure that the quality will be there when it really counts. 

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Thank you for reading our SD vs. HD guide. We hope this post has helped you learn about video resolutions and streaming quality, so you can pinpoint the right resolution to aim for with your next live stream. Whether you target a video resolution of Full HD, standard HD, or SD on your stream, Maestro can help.

Maestro is an all-in-one streaming platform that strikes the perfect balance between the versatility and power of an enterprise-level video platform but at a much greater value that’s perfect for both brands and solopreneurs. 

Our live streaming solution allows you to input the ideal settings for live videos, customizing elements like frame rate, video resolution, audio bitrate, and keyframe interval, as well as tapping into powerful features like interactivity, analytics, and monetization options that you won’t find anywhere else.

Are you ready to go live and monetize your own high-quality videos on Maestro? Sign up today to get started for free.

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