Whether you're a movie nerd, a gamer or an armature filmmaker, you've probably heard of NTSC and PAL. But what is the difference? And how are these formats still relevant today?
Americans use NTSC; All others use PAL
NTSC is an analog color system for television used in North America, Central America and parts of South America. PAL is an analogue color television 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 the power consumption. In North America, electrical power is generated at 60 Hz. On other continents the standard is 50 Hz, but this difference is stronger than expected.
Why performance makes a big difference
The refresh rate (frame rate) of an analog TV is directly proportional to its energy consumption. Just because a TV operates at 60 Hz does not mean it displays 60 frames per second.
Analog televisions use a cathode ray tube (CRT) to emit light onto the back of a screen. These tubes are not like projectors – they can not fill a canvas at once. Instead, they quickly emit light from the top of a screen. As a result, the image at the top of the screen fades out when the CRT rays on the bottom of the screen are lit.
To fix this issue, analog TVs "nest" a picture. That is, they skip every other line on a screen to take a picture that looks uniform to the human eye. As a result of this "skipping", 60 Hz NTSC TVs operate at 29.97 FPS and 50 Hz PAL TVs at 25 FPS.
PAL is technically superior
American readers are not happy about their extra 4.97 frames per second. Apart from the frame rate, PAL NTSC is technically superior.
When the US began broadcasting color television in the early 1950s, the name of the game was backward-compatible. Most Americans already had black-and-white televisions, so it was no problem to ensure that color TV was compatible with older televisions. As a result, NTSC remains at the black-and-white resolution (525 lines), operates at low bandwidth frequencies, and is generally unreliable.
Other continents did not want to deal with the unreliability of NTSC and just waited to get better on color television technology. Regular color television broadcasts did not come to England until 1966, when the BBC consolidated the PAL format. PAL should tackle the problems with NTSC. It has a higher resolution (625 lines), works with high bandwidth and is more reliable than NTSC. (This of course means that PAL does not work with black and white sets.)
Okay, enough of the history lesson. Why is all this important now? We always talk about analogue TVs, but what about digital TVs?
Why does this matter in the digital age?
The errors (or characteristics) of NTSC and PAL are mainly determined by the operation of analog TV sets. Digital TVs are capable of overcoming these limitations (especially frame rates), but we still see that NTSC and PAL are used today. Why?
Well, it's mostly about compatibility. If you transmit video information using an analog cable (RCA, coaxial, SCART, S-Video), your TV must be able to decode that information. While some modern televisions support both NTSC and PAL formats, it is possible that your TV supports only one of the two formats. Attempting to connect an Australian game console or a DVD player to an American TV using an RCA cable may not work.
There is also the problem of cable television and radio television (now ATSC, not NTSC). Both formats are now digital, but still work at 30 or 60 FPS to support old tube TVs. Depending on your TV's country of origin, your video signal may not be decoded if you use analogue cables.
To work around this, you need to buy an NTSC / PAL compatible HDMI converter box and they are expensive. But hey, it costs less than a new TV and comes in handy if you're inevitably buying a TV without analogue connections.
Some new televisions have no analogue connections
If you bought a TV last year, maybe you noticed something weird. It has some HDMI ports, maybe a DisplayPort, but it lacks the colorful cinch ports you're used to. Analog video finally dies.
This fixes the issue of NTSC / PAL compatibility because you are no longer able to use old video sources with new TVs. Is not that nice?
In the future, you may need to purchase an NTSC / PAL compatible HDMI converter box. Again, they are pretty expensive right now. As demand increases, they should cost less.