The Rise of HDTV

March 2008

Your technogeek is state of the art when it comes to his 24-inch iMac and his imminent fiberoptic broadband connection. But alas, he is way behind the curve when it comes to topics such as LCD  and plasma TVs and the arrival of HDTV.

So what’s a computer columnist do when he doesn’t know much about a topic. He steals. Thank you David Pogue. Your recent e-mail newsletter on this topic was just what I needed. Hope you don’t mind. And by the end of this column, hopefully I’ll know more than I do here at the beginning.

For one thing, we all gotta pay attention to this because starting next year if you have one of those dinosaur sets like I do with a picture tube and only analog capability, you will no longer be able to receive over-the-air broadcast signals. The guys in Washington have mandated that all broadcasts be digital beginning February 17, 2009.

This is because the current analog signal being broadcast takes a huge portion of the radio frequency spectrum. All the mobile carriers and others in need of wireless spectrum have been lusting after that. (More about this next month.) So the government decreed that all broadcasts will be digital because digital signals take up only a fraction the spectrum compared to analog.

To make this transition easier, the government is giving everyone a $40 coupon to buy a converter. You can learn more and get your coupon at www.dtv2009.gov.

But most people are buying new TVs anyway — LCD and plasma TVs and rear-projection sets. The cost has dropped dramatically, and everyone wants high definition, or HD.

You know what HD looks like, because you’ve seen it in WalMart or Best Buy. It’s spectacular. According to Pogue, though, half the people who buy an HDTV set end up using it to only watch SDTV (standard-definition TV) — and about 25% don’t even realize it. What’s more, SDTV typically looks worse on HDTV than on your old TV with a picture tube. The stores report that a lot of customers get angry when their new TV looks terrible at home compared to how it looked in the store.

So where can you get an HD signal? Most major network affiliates are now broadcasting in HD. And most new TVs now have an HD tuner built in. But if you rely on an antenna or a cable box, you’ll need to replace it with a digital one. Most cable and satellite companies now offer a selection of HD channels along with regular SDTV offerings.

Another option is optical disk. Up until mid-February, there were two competing formats — Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD — that let you watch movies on your HDTV. But then Wal-Mart announced they would only sell Blu-ray, and then Toshiba announced that it was discontinuing manufacture of HD DVD. Currently there are only a few hundred movies available in each format. And of course you’ll need to buy a player.

So if you don’t already have HDTV, you’ll probably be getting one — and you’ll face some difficult choices.

First off, is: LCD or Plasma or rear projection? Pogue says both LCD and plasma offer an amazing picture. And problems such as “burn-in” for plasma and limited viewing angle for LCD aren’t much of a factor any more. He says LCD sets are brighter. As a rough guideline plasma has a truer color and is better in darker rooms, and LCD has more vivid color and is better in brighter rooms. LCD costs more.

Second: do you go for 720p or 1080 p (a measure of resolution)? Pogue says it’s mostly moot, because the only current way to get a 1080p signal is to buy a Blu Ray or HD DVD player. He also says for the most part there’s no difference between the two — with the exception if you’re sitting closer than 10 feet to your TV and it’s bigger than 55 inches. In which situation you might see some pixel structure on a 720p TV. Of course, the 1080p is much more expensive.

Rear projection TVs getting better, but still has a limited viewing angle. They do offer the biggest size at the best price.

So that’s as much as I know. I definitely see one of these sets in my future — probably when I get my fiberoptic connection, which will be my single source for Internet, telephone, and TV. And man, I’ll be state of the art all the way, then.

© 2008 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D

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