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The Lowdown on High-Definition TV
If you want the best picture money can buy, high-definition television (HDTV) offers jaw-dropping clarity. But when you start making decisions about which set to buy, that picture looks muddy.
As with any new technology, the prices are falling - they already dropped about 40 percent over the last three years, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, and are likely to fall further. And the bells and whistles are becoming more sophisticated as competition increases. So there's a lot to be said for waiting. But if you want your HDTV now, here's what you need to think about on the way to the store: The first decision is whether you want an HDTV with an integrated receiver, referred to as HD-ready, or one that is simply a monitor that requires adding a separate receiver.
While plug and play might seem attractive, there are good reasons to consider an external receiver - even though it will cost you, at minimum, an extra $500. Buying an HDTV is a lot like buying a stereo system. You can get a perfectly adequate one in a box, but if its parts break or later prove inadequate, you might as well throw the whole thing away. The same is true of an HDTV system. Not very far down the road, you could be receiving an array of services that you might want to display on your television set - data via your cable company or music and video downloaded via your ISP. If your built-in receiver isn't very versatile, you'll end up spending big dollars for set-top boxes and special cabling or just deciding that the old HDTV doesn't do the job. Right now, if all you want to do is receive HDTV via satellite, you'll want a high-definition satellite receiver, which negates the need for an internal receiver. If all you're going to do is watch video, and your DVD player has a component video jack, all you'll need are component cables.
With the display and receiver separate, the TV is "future-proof," says Jim Barry, spokesman for the CEA and former editor of Video Magazine. Decisions about which HDTV is best require understanding some pretty esoteric numbers. One of them is the aspect ratio. The other is the resolution at which the images are displayed. Don't fall asleep yet. These can be critical considerations. And it's something that the 20-year-old kid at the discount electronics store probably can't explain. The traditional analog television screen has a 4:3 aspect ratio. That means for every 4 inches of width, there are 3 inches of height, yielding a nearly square screen. Ideally, HDTV screens more closely resemble a movie-theater screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio. Some small-size, lower-cost HDTV sets have 4:3 aspect ratios. While the price might initially look attractive, you'll actually lose size on some programming because the image has been shot or converted especially for HDTV viewing and won't fill the screen vertically and will be cut off horizontally. Another comparison is the resolution at which the images are displayed. Standard analog sets scan at 525i. The 525 is the number of horizontal lines of resolution that produce the picture. The i stands for interlaced, which means that one moment there are even-numbered lines on the screen, and the next moment there are odd-numbered lines on the screen. The rate at which this switches is so fast that your eyes are tricked into seeing the whole image. HDTV is different. All the lines are scanned at the same time. Right now there are two main standards, with experts rooting for both sides. Some HDTVs have a 720p resolution. That means it can scan 720 lines at a time. Others operate at 1080i, which means it scans 540 lines at a time, but does it twice as quickly as a 720p model. Which is better? You'll have to decide for yourself, but sports fans tend to prefer the faster refresh of the 1080i, insisting that it creates a denser image that can handle motion better. One word of warning: Some sets that are advertised as HDTV are actually not. If you're looking at a set that offers enhanced-definition TV, or EDTV, check the specs carefully. It likely scans at 480p to less than 720p. While the picture is probably better than a standard TV - especially when you're doing the comparing in a discount electronics store - these sets do not meet the standards for HDTV. What Will You Watch? Finally, part of your initial consideration ought to be what you're going to watch. And be prepared - there's a real dearth of HD programming. A little recent history can help explain what seems like an inexplicable situation.
In 1997, in the midst of a rapidly increasing appetite for a communications spectrum, Congress, as part of the Balanced Budget Act, fiddled with how the communications spectrum is allocated. It gave radio and TV broadcasters valuable digital spectrum space in addition to the analog space they already held. In return, broadcasters were required to convert their signals to digital by 2006 so they could turn off their analog broadcasts and return the broad analog portions of their spectrum to the Federal Communications Commission for resale. This big chunk of potentially available spectrum was envisioned as the key to the expansion of the wireless industry, as well as part of the solution to a bloated national debt.
Congress made the 2006 deadline contingent on 85 percent of U.S. households owning digital television sets. Today, despite good intentions, few expect that deadline to be met, and the discussion surrounding the issue is increasingly contentious. All commercial broadcast stations, under the law, were to meet a May 31, 2002, deadline to convert at least part of their systems to digital broadcast capability. As of April 2002, only 300 of the 1,300 stations have these digital broadcast systems in place, and the FCC is dithering over what comes next. Complicating the issue is cable's reluctance to embrace HDTV, because adding it to the lineup cuts down on the number of channels a cable operator can offer. Just because your cable company says it has converted to digital has no bearing at all on whether it is providing HDTV signals. It could be - a few, like Philadelphia's Comcast, are. But the only way you'll know is by calling and asking. And even then, the customer service representative may not understand what you want. Meanwhile, over-the-air networks like ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and PBS have made the conversion and are broadcasting most of prime time in HDTV. Their major affiliate stations have usually converted as well. You can check your location by going to the National Association of Broadcasters' website (www.nab.org). The upshot is that in almost every locale, the best way to receive available HDTV signals is via a rooftop antenna - just like in the 1950s. An old-fashioned antenna will do, if you still happen to have one on your roof, but new models from Terk or Channel Master are less conspicuous, easy to install and cost less than $100. If you want more than over-the-air channels, signing up for satellite delivery is a good idea.
HDNet offers sports broadcasts in high definition, and Home Box Office and Showtime both offer movies converted for broadcast on HDTV. Even if you're already a satellite subscriber, you'll need an upgraded DirecTV or Dish receiver on your roof and more cables running down into your house. Choosing a Screen Now for the fun part. Start by finding a retailer who has bothered to hook up its digital sets to either HDNet or an antenna so you can do an adequate visual comparison. HBO, Showtime or a DVD aren't really good tests because much rides on the quality of the movie's conversion to high definition. You might prefer a specialty store where the salespeople know what they're talking about. Or try Sears, where the national management, at least, has made a commitment to effectively marketing HDTV. There are three basic choices - conventional picture tube, rear projection and front projection. Factors in the decision about which to buy include cost, room size and whether you plan to build this system in or move in a year or two.
Conventional TV: Conventional televisions are the oldest technology available. There are HDTV sets for as little as $1,000, but the aspect ratios on these are often 4:3. As the prices go up, the features improve. Toshiba, for instance, makes a very respectable 55-inch, 16:9-aspect HD-ready set with decent built-in speakers for $2,800. Rear projection: Moving up one level are rear-projection high-definition monitors with a cathode ray tube screen. These look a lot like a chunky, conventional big-screen TV.
They take up vast floor space, although that problem can be partially resolved by building them into the wall. All the major manufacturers sell them. Low-price models fade at the edges. Mitsubishi's well-regarded 73-inch, rear-projection model retails for $10,500. Plasma screens are the state of the art of rear projection. Prices have fallen significantly in the last year, while useful life has increased to about 3,000 hours, up from 1,000 a couple of years ago. Expect to pay at least $10,000 for a screen that's 50 inches or less. Pioneer Electronics' top-of-the line, 50-inch screen has a suggested retail price of $17,500. Chet Davis, a seller and installer of home theater systems offered by Gramophone in Detroit, says plasma screens are a compromise in many homes where d©cor is an issue. Because they are only about 4 inches thick, they can be hung on the wall and even covered when not in use. And while the display is dramatic, plasma screens don't require the light control that a front-projection home-theater system demands. Front projection: If you're eyeing a front-projection television with a big screen, be prepared to make a serious investment - at minimum $15,000 or $20,000 for a complete setup. You'll start by picking out a projector and a screen. Front projectors are capable of filling screens that are 100 inches or larger, depending on the quality of the projector. They have terrific color accuracy and sharpness, but the systems require a completely darkened room - an expense in itself if the room has windows. They come without sound systems and without receivers for HDTV, two more expenses you have to consider. In choosing a front projector, the most critical issue is the scan rate. Standard scan rates for video display are 15.75 kHz. Projectors that have a minimum scan rate of 31.5 kHz usually have a built-in line doubler, which draws twice as many lines of video information on the screen, creating a more film-like picture. Images also can be line-tripled (48 kHz or higher) or line-quadrupled (64 kHz or higher). Projectors that can handle higher scan rates are a better investment for HDTV viewers. If you get one with a DLP chip, you also can use it as a computer monitor - toggling between work, the Web and prime time. Installing front projection is probably not a do-it-yourself project. A skilled installation technician who comes to your home can ensure that front projectors perform optimally.
And then all you need is a recliner.