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Get the Picture

Improve your image by stepping up to high-definition TV
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Cigar of the Year, Jan/Feb 2005

I'm old enough to remember when TV was easy. You bought a set, plugged it in, fiddled with the rabbit ears—if you were technologically adventurous, maybe you climbed onto the roof and installed an outdoor antenna. No searching for the remote—there wasn't any. No monthly cable bills, or guys drilling holes through your wall to snake satellite TV wires into your living room. No TiVo, or even tape recordings to fuss with. Ah, sweet simplicity! Boy, did it stink.

The picture was black and white (did Red Skelton have red hair or far-left political leanings?). There was enough snow in the picture to make "Hawaii Five-0" look frigid. And you could count the number of program choices on your fingers. So we grumbled, fumbled in our wallets and upgraded, to a new color TV, a cable or satellite connection, a VCR, maybe a TiVo or DVD recorder—more complexity, more expense, but at least the Vast Wasteland of TV programming looks much better, and stretches out as far as the eye can see.

Now it's time to invest still more money and energy in our quest for couch potato nirvana. The upgrade to high-definition television (HDTV) looms near. The technology has existed for several years now, but with very little high-def programming available, there wasn't much reason to be an early adopter. Most of the first buyers of HD-compatible displays weren't watching HDTV at all, but liked the wide-screen picture for DVD playback.

Recently, though, the programming situation has changed dramatically. All the must-see sports events today are broadcast in HD, from the World Series to the holy of holies, the Super Bowl, with every grimace, grass stain and cheerleader's pom-pom revealed in exquisite detail. You want movies? Cable and satellite offer high-def movies 24 hours a day. And all the major networks now broadcast most of their prime-time schedules in HD, so "Everybody Loves Raymond" fans can see every wrinkle in the face of Doris Roberts (every technological breakthrough does have its price).

The combination of substantial HDTV program availability and falling prices for HD sets makes the case for upgrading pretty compelling. While the change from regular TV to HD isn't as dramatic as the move from black-and-white to color, it's pretty close.

The HDTV Advantage
What are the advantages of HDTV versus plain-vanilla TV?

Increased Resolution: How much sharper is an HDTV picture? A standard-definition set draws the screen using 480 horizontal lines, and only draws half of them on each pass down the tube (the lines are interlaced, creating the complete picture). HDTV content is broadcast in one of two formats: 1080i (more than a thousand horizontal lines—the "i" stands for interlaced) or 720p ("p" means progressive: there are 720 lines, but they're drawn on every pass). Either way, the dramatic image quality improvement is obvious at a glance. Think DVD quality is impressive? HDTV blows it away.

Wide-Screen Picture. The TV you grew up with had a nearly square picture tube—the ratio of width to height is 4:3. HDTV uses a wider 16:9 screen, perfect to view football fields and hockey rinks. And if you love movies, taking advantage of the full width of HDTV eliminates the cropping and pan-and-scan travesties that befoul films viewed on traditional TV screens. While there are still some high-def sets with 4:3 screens available (they show wide-screen content with black bars at the top and bottom), true 16:9 wide-screen sets are the only serious contenders.

Digital Reception: When we moved from analog audio (records and tapes) to CDs, we eliminated hiss, static and other flaws in favor of pure digital reproduction—when your music is delivered as binary 1s and 0s, a host of imperfections are instantly eliminated. The same holds true for video quality. With HDTV, even when it's broadcast over the air, the signal consists of numerically precise digital data, so "snow" and other common video problems disappear.

Surround-Sound Audio: One of the most striking advantages of HDTV has nothing to do with high-def pictures—it's the ability to broadcast surround-sound audio, with six separate sound tracks (front right, left and center speakers, rear right and left speakers, and separate bass subwoofer).

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