A practical guide to understanding, buying and enjoying HDTV
High Definition Televisions (HDTVs) are selling at a brisk pace that will only increase in the new year. There is much to know before investing in HDTV, but armed with a little knowledge you will not only get the right type and model, but save money and know how to get the most from your new television.
Getting the Picture
For your HDTV to display high definition images you must supply it with a high definition signal. If you are a cable or satellite subscriber, just call your service provider and have them install a high definition box. You may have to pay for an upgrade or additional monthly fees, so speak with them before you buy your new set. Even if there are extra charges, they are well worth it because if you use standard cable or satellite signals, you are likely to be disappointed as the picture won't look anything like the impressive images you see in stores. Even with an HDTV upgrade to your cable or satellite service, please note that not all subscription channels are broadcasting in high definition. For example, HBO, ESPN, and National Geographic have high definition offerings, but Sci-Fi Channel and Comedy Central do not. Over time you will see more and more subscription channels transition to high definition.
You can also receive high definition broadcasts for free with an antenna, but only networks such as ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX, not cable channels such as ESPN or HBO. The size and type of antenna you need will depend on the terrain where you live and your proximity to the broadcast towers. A rooftop antenna is always best, but digital signals tend to be easier to tune than analog signals and often a set-top antenna is all you need. The legendary Zenith Silver Sensor, now known as the Philips PHDTV1, is an extremely effective set-top antenna that is available for well under $50. To learn more about antennas, visit www.antennaweb.org.
Now that you know how to get a proper high definition picture on your screen, it's time to look at the types of TVs and the technology behind them. All can produce a stunning picture but have their pros and cons. They come in two form factors, rear projection and flat panel. (Front projection is available as well, but is a very small part of the market and won't be covered here.)
Rear projection provides the most screen size for the money and can produce images with a sense of depth that can look very much like film. Rear projection sets are available in sizes from 37 inches to over 70 inches and if you want a screen bigger than 50 inches and watch a lot of movies, this is a great choice. The primary types of rear projection are CRT, LCD, DLP, and LCoS, also known as SXRD and D-ILA.
CRT, or cathode ray tube, is the same technology used in old tube TVs. It uses three tubes, red, green, and blue that project onto the screen. This technology is very rare today because it requires a large, heavy TV and the image, though very natural-looking, lacks the ultra-sharp look of more recent technologies. If you can find a premium-quality CRT set for sale used (a good place to look is craigslist.org), they are selling at dirt cheap prices and can be a great introduction into HDTV. Just be sure to look carefully in the picture for burned-in images before buying and be aware that most of these sets lack the HDMI inputs required by upconverting DVD players. The best brands to look for are Pioneer, Sony XBR, Hitachi Ultravision, and Mitsubishi.
LCD, DLP, and LCoS rear projection sets use a lamp and optics to create the image projected on the screen. The image itself is created in different ways. Most of them require you to replace a lamp every 1500 to 3000 hours, often at an expense of $200 or more.
LCD stands for Liquid Crystal Display and uses one or three tiny LCD panels (think miniature versions of your laptop display) to create the image. This technology is less common in projection sets nowadays as more advanced technologies have become available, but good LCD projection sets are very affordable, often significantly less than the other technologies. Sony's Bravia LCD projection TVs are exceptional values and have the best picture quality of their type.
DLP, or Digital Light Projection, was developed by Texas Instruments and uses millions of tiny mirrors and a spinning color wheel to create the image. (Samsung has a model that uses LEDs rather than a lamp, which eliminates expensive lamp replacements.) DLP sets create very sharp, colorful images but some individuals occasionally see rainbows in the picture because of the spinning color wheel. Not everyone sees these rainbows (for example, I don't but have friends that do) and the ability to see them seems to vary from individual to individual, so if DLP looks good to you don't hesitate to but one. The best DLP sets come from Mitsubishi and Samsung.
LCoS, or Liquid Crystal on Silicon, use reflective silicon panels instead of the mirrors used by DLP. Three panels, red, green, and blue, are used so there is no spinning color wheel and hence no rainbow effect. SXRD is Sony's name for LCoS; D-ILA is used by JVC. Both companies produce a great TV, but Sony was recently given the nod by Consumer Reports as having the more reliable implementation of the technology (reliable meaning less chance of needing a repair.) The very best of the Sony SXRD sets carry the XBR label and if you want a rear projection set, a Sony XBR SXRD is probably the best you can buy.
Flat panel TVs are the fastest growing segment of the HDTV market, and it is easy to see why. The thin, flat profile is very unobtrusive and the sets can be hung on a wall if desired, and the picture is ultra-detailed and sharp. The downside is if you want a really big screen, it costs much more to get it in a flat panel than in a rear projection set. The two types of flat panel sets are plasma and LCD. Both are considered very reliable (Consumer Reports recently gave both technologies top marks for reliability) and do not require an expensive lamp replacement down the road.
Plasma sets use inert gas trapped between two glass panels in conjunction with an electric field. (Contrary to an urban legend, this gas does not leak out and need replaced.) The electric field turns the gas into plasma, which stimulates phosphors to create the image. Phosphors are used in conventional CRT tube TVs, which is one reason plasma sets often mimic the color and contrast of a classic TV but in a different form factor and of course, much sharper. The best plasma sets available are the new KURO models from Pioneer. They are also the most expensive, but if you want the best, it's worth it. Other top-quality plasma sets are available from Panasonic and Samsung.
Plasma sets can be prone to burn-in if you leave a static image displayed on the set for too long, so be careful if you buy a plasma TV. Of special note are Panasonic and Samsung models that use technology to make burn-in all but impossible. Both are to be credited for developing the technology and it's nice to have the peace of mind knowing your set has it.
LCD flat panels use large LCD panels to create the image. These are usually more expensive than plasma sets of the same size, but have a very bright, super-detailed image that consumers are embracing in a very big way. They are also free from any worries of burn-in and likely to be the most cost-effective and reliable in the long run. Some of the best LCD TVs are from Sony, Samsung, and Toshiba, and Westinghouse and Insignia both have some nice looking value-priced models. My particular favorites in LCD sets are the 42-inch Toshiba 42HL167 and 42HL67 models, which both provide high-end picture quality at very affordable prices. The primary difference between them is the 42HL67 has 720p resolution and the 42HL167 has 1080p resolution. The 720 and 1080 are the number of lines and the "p" stands for progressive scanning, meaning the entire image is drawn in a single pass. Interlaced signals, as in 1080i, are drawn in two passes.
1080p and Mass Consumer Confusion
You have probably heard a lot about "1080p Full HD" and "1080p True HD". This is all pure marketing nonsense and to say that only 1080p is full, true high definition is both inaccurate and a disservice to the consumer. The other HDTV resolutions, 720p and 1080i, are also considered high definition and in fact, of the two Toshiba models mentioned above, Consumer Reports said they preferred the 720p 42HL67, finding it to have better black reproduction to the 1080p 42HL167. This just goes to show you should evaluate a TV with your eyes, not the numbers. Besides, it is unlikely you could tell the difference between a 1080p and 720p image in screen sizes smaller than 55 inches. The differences you see between different models are likely to be related to the quality of the TV itself, not whether it is 720p or 1080p. If you think a 720p model has a better picture than a competing 1080p model, go with your judgment and buy it if it suits your needs.
What's more, there are absolutely no broadcasters transmitting a 1080p signal. CBS and NBC broadcast in 1080i, and ABC and FOX transmit in 720p. Among cable and satellite subscription channels ESPN broadcasts in 720p and most all others, such as HBO, HD Net and the Voom channels carried by Dish Network, are all 1080i.
So what happens if you feed your 1080p TV a 1080i or 720p signal? It simply converts it to 1080p for display on the screen. The same occurs with your 720p TV displaying a football game broadcast by CBS in 1080i. The TV converts the 1080i signal to 720p and sends it to the screen. One thing you may have noticed about all HDTVs is they look pretty incredible when displaying a high definition signal and you probably never gave the numbers a second thought. To reiterate, don't worry about the numbers too much and select your TV by picture quality, size and price.
Setting the Picture Properly
Speaking of picture quality, the picture settings play a large role and usually are not accurate right out of the box. A good starting point is to change the TV from "Vivid" to "Standard" mode, set the color temperature from "cool" to "warm", and turn down the "picture" or "contrast" setting down between 10 percent and 50 percent depending on the TV you own. For the best results, get a setup disc such as Digital Video Essentials to walk you through setting your picture properly. Digital Video Essentials is available on HD DVD and Blu-ray and is easily found online and in stores.
Don't Get Strangled By Cables!
Cables are another piece of the puzzle and if you are not careful, you will lose your shirt buying them. HDMI cables are required to connect HDTVs to cable boxes and disc players, and many consumers are taken aback when they see these cables selling in big-box stores for between $80 and $150 apiece. These negative gut reactions are correct as they are telltale signs you are being ripped off. Excellent quality, gold-plated HDMI cables can be purchased for under $5.00 from Monoprice.com and they perform identically to the $150 models. (Yes, I said under five dollars for an HDMI cable!)
Thinking Out of the Big Box
Speaking of big-box stores, they aren't always the best place to buy your TV. Selection tends to be excellent, but prices aren't always the best and there is often sales pressure to buy extended warranties and overpriced accessories such as $150 HDMI cables. The best place to buy your TV is usually from locally owned, independent retailers where service is usually superior and prices often lower. Another compelling alternative is buying online. I recently purchased a large projection TV and a 42-inch LCD set online and the transaction went perfectly in both cases, at a significant savings in each case. For example, I obtained the 42-inch set, which was selling for $1,699 MSRP at the big-box store, for $1250 delivered from an online retailer. When you consider sales tax and delivery fees that would be charged by the big-box store, my savings came to over $600, around 50 percent more than I actually paid.
If you purchase online, know ahead of time if the TV is defective upon arrival, you will probably have to schedule a service call rather than simply return it to the store for another one. Given the lack of service I have seen at big-box stores regarding warranty problems, I would not say you are necessarily giving anything up in this regard. You also should make sure the company you are ordering from is reputable. Be sure to check out resellerratings.com before placing an order if you are unfamiliar with the company you want to do business with. Some of the best online retailers are onecall.com, crutchfield.com, abtelectronics.com, bhphotovideo.com, vanns.com, and, of course, amazon.com. Some, such as onecall.com, even offer advice from experts on their toll-free lines. You can order with confidence from any of these companies and enjoy great savings and great service.
If this guide has been helpful, you can download a convenient pdf reference version from my website, www.soundadviceblog.com. Here's hoping you find the TV of your dreams at a price you can afford, and welcome to the wonderful world of HDTV!
(Read past columns by Don Lindich at www.soundadviceblog.com, and contact him using the "submit question" link on that site.)