By Krissy Rushing
February 17, 2009. While it may seem like a way off, this is the day we will all move to a new, better digital TV world, whether we like it or not. This day two years in the future is the deadline Congress has issued for old-school analog TV signals to be turned off, and digital TV signals to take over. In fact, if you choose to keep your old analog TV after this DTV transition date, you'll need to purchase a special box to convert the new digital broadcasts into the old analog format! But the question is: Why would you want to do that? The cost of a good HDTV set is now affordable enough, there is enough HD content available now to make it worth your while, and the benefits of an immersive and crystal-clear picture and enveloping surround sound are well worth effort.
So if you haven't already taken the high-def plunge, get off your couch where you are probably watching fuzzy analog video and get shopping for an HDTV, which will let you take full advantage of the increased resolution that high-def TV has to offer. Armed with a little information about the various DTV and HDTV formats and televisions available, buying an HDTV is simple. We promise you'll never watch another football game is analog again.
Getting a True High-Def Picture
The resolution of your set, and therefore the image quality, depends on how many lines of horizontal and vertical resolution your TV set has. The more lines of resolution, the more pixels; the more pixels, the better the image quality. It's that simple.
When you start shopping for a digital television set, it's important to know what you are looking for. Standard-definition TV (SDTV) sets are digital, but they aren't high-def. Some have a 4:3 aspect ratio (meaning they look square instead of rectangle), while others have a widescreen, 16:9 (rectangular) aspect ratio, so don't be fooled into thinking that just because a TV is widescreen, it's also high-def. The highest resolution available on a standard-definition TV 480i. That means that there are 480 horizontal lines of picture detail. The "I" in this nomenclature stands for "interlaced," meaning that only half the available lines of resolution are shown on the TV's screen at once.
You may also see the designation "enhanced definition" or EDTV on some sets, which means they are capable of 480p. The "P" stands for "progressive," which means that all the available lines of resolution are shown simultaneously onscreen, resulting in a more detailed picture than interlaced images. While these sets are better than analog TVs, they don't offer as awesome an image as a high-def display.
For a true high-definition experience, there are three standards: 720p, 1080i, and 1080p. Because 1080p offers 1,080 lines of resolution and is progressive, it offers the best potential picture when used with the proper source material. 1080p is currently the highest in high-def, and is growing in popularity, with manufacturers offering more 1080p choices than ever this year.
Another big difference between HDTV, SDTV and EDTV is that the latter two are more compressed than HDTV, allowing broadcasters to transmit more programs in these formats. HDTV is less compressed, and therefore takes up more room, but the proof is in the picture with more detail and extremely lifelike images.
If you are shopping for a new television, go with a high-def model. Not only do most satellite and cable companies offer high-def content, but with the new HD DVD and Blu-ray high-definition DVD formats, even more HD source material is available. Watching high-def broadcasts or high-def DVDs on an SDTV or EDTV will not give you a high-def image, because TVs can only display at their native resolution. You need a high-def signal and a true HDTV to get bona fide high-definition images. Another plus of HDTV is that it is capable of decoding 5.1 surround sound, a big part of the immersive home theater experience and yet another reason to get on the high-def bandwagon.
Which TV Is Right For Me?
The first question people ask after they decide to take the HDTV plunge is: "What kind of TV should I get?" There are the infinitely popular flat-panel displays, as well as rear projection and direct-view sets, all of which offer different benefits.
LCD Flat-Panel TVs
The biggest advantage of LCD displays is that they offer incredibly bright images, which makes them ideal for daytime use, or use in a room with a lot of uncontrollable light. Special surface coatings on LCD displays help eliminate room reflections. LCDs are also available in smaller sizes than plasma, which makes them a great choice for smaller systems, such as a secondary bedroom system or kitchen countertop display. LCDs don't consume as much energy as their plasma brethren, and aren't as heavy.
LCDs have a reputation for having slower video response times than plasmas. This means when you are watching source material such as sports or an action movie, you may notice "motion lag." This drawback, however is quickly becoming a non-issue with the better manufacturers addressing this problem on newer sets. Check the "refresh rate" on your LCD before you buy; the lower the refresh rate, the less problem you will have with motion lag.
LCDs are also known for having a narrower viewing angle, which means that if you aren't sitting front and center, the quality of your image may suffer. But like motion lag, viewing angles are getting better and better as the technology evolves, so don't rule out an LCD before you demo one firsthand. Additionally, because they are so bright, LCDs can have a difficult time "turning off" all that brightness for dark scenes, which means that blacks may appear dark grey instead of true black. And finally, plasma displays have a bit of an edge when it comes to price points at larger sizes. LCDs are slightly more expensive in the larger sizes, but are getting cheaper all the time.
Plasma Flat-Panel TVs
Plasma TVs offer a great picture. They have wide viewing angles, which affords everyone in the room an excellent picture whether you are sitting directly in front of the set or off to either side. Plasmas have great black levels, high contrast, and don't suffer from slow motion response times.
In the past, the biggest concern with purchasing a plasma has been that they can fall prey to what's known as "burn in." Burn-in is when a static image, such as those stubborn station logos that haunt the lower right corner of your screen, are left onscreen for too long, and the ghost or shadow of that image is emblazoned on your screen even after the logo is gone. This phenomenon has been exaggerated a bit, and can be lessened by adjusting your TV's brightness. What a lot of people don't realize is that TVs are calibrated to be extremely bright on a showroom floor, where they have to compete with fluorescent lighting and other TV sets. By toning the brightness down, you will lessen the effects of burn in on your plasma. Plasma manufacturers are also improving the technology so that burn-in is less of a factor today than it was just a few years ago.
A direct-view TV uses tubes to create the onscreen image. Direct-view TVs are inexpensive options and offer a very good picture, as well as unbeatable viewing angles and black levels. Of course, we live in a new world where form factor is important, and direct-view TVs are cumbersome, bulky, and very heavy. Also, some tube TVs are analog, meaning they won't work with your HD sources, so be careful when you are shopping to ascertain what the native resolution of the display is before you throw down your credit card.
There are several types of rear-projection displays, including DLP, LCD, and LCoS--also known as microdisplays--as well as CRT. CRT TV sets are very bulky and are being phased out by the microdisplays, which are easier to calibrate, slimmer, and brighter.
Microdisplays, (which are based on microchips), are the new generation of rear-projection TV sets. They are svelter than CRT and direct-view sets, but they require that you eventually change the lamp inside. They are also very bright. If you are interested in microdisplay technology, you will need to decide which type of microdisplay set to choose, DLP, LCD or LCoS, all of which have their own unique benefits. Demo the various formats to determine which type is best for you. DLP and LCoS for example, have great black levels, while LCD doesn't suffer from "Rainbow Effect" that victimizes some DLP sets.
Once you decide what kind of set you are going to get, its time to consider what sources you are going to feed your HDTV. There are several options:
Cable is a great source for high-def content. There are many cable HDTV networks, as well as local HDTV stations, and most cable companies offer set-top boxes and high-def digital video recorders (TiVo-like devices). If you purchase a digital cable ready TV, you will not need a set-top box; you just need a CableCARD, which you can get from your cable provider.
While getting high-def over satellite does mean that the satellite company will have to install an antenna on the exterior of your home or roof, the high-def available via satellite are plentiful. Loads of HD coverage is available, including sports channels, HDNet, and much more. You'll need a HD satellite receiver, which you can get from your satellite service provider.
Some HD content is available over-the-air, at no cost. You'll need an antenna to receive the signal and a set-top box to decode it, however. You also won't receive premium high-def channels such as HBO or ESPN, but mostly local affiliates.