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HDTV Breakthroughs

Gaze in wonder at the new TV technology that's just reaching store shelves, and peer into the future for a peek at the next big thing
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Richard Branson, Sept/Oct 2007

With most technology purchases, you're entering into a relatively short-term relationship. Flirt with a new cell phone, go out on the town with it for a while and, if you really can't stand the thing, you can dump it and pick out another. It may cost you a few hundred dollars to get out of your commitment, but as relationships go, that's not too bad. • Think your digital camera just doesn't have the awesome firepower you need to fully realize your artistic vision (or just ticked off that your buddy bought a more impressive model)? Again, it will cost you to upgrade, but you can always find somebody who'll be more than happy to take the old one off your hands, whether it's your kid, some other relative or a friendly eBay stranger bearing cash. • But when it comes to big-screen, high-definition television, you're in for the long haul. The HDTV you buy today should still look good a decade or more from now—long past the point where you'd rather trade up to a newer, fancier set. When we were talking 32-inch tube sets, that wasn't much of a problem. You could move it to the den, or the kid's room, or the curb—the investment wasn't that enormous. But when you start gazing with digital lust at a replacement for a big-screen HDTV you already own, getting rid of the old one is a much tougher issue. Are you really going to move a 50-inch plasma into little Becky's room? Toss it out in the trash with the banana skins and coffee grounds? Not likely.

That's why future-proofing your big-screen TV purchase by investing in a cutting-edge set can make a lot of sense. That's especially true now, when HDTVs incorporating several significant new technologies have started arriving in dealer showrooms.

The "Why" of HDMI
When HDTV first arrived, it took a fat fistful of cables to make the required audio and video connections—at a minimum, three video connections plus between one and eight audio cables, depending on your surround-sound setup. In 2003, though, it all got a lot simpler with the introduction of HDMI, a single cable that can carry both high-definition video and full surround sound simultaneously. HDMI is used to connect HDTV sets to AV receivers and to audio-video sources—cable and satellite boxes, DVD, Blu-ray and HD DVD players and even an increasing number of computers. At this point, every HD set on the market has an HDMI plug, and usually several.

What they don't all have is the latest version of HDMI, dubbed HDMI 1.3. While cables and plugs supporting the new version of HDMI look identical to those that came before, there are big differences inside. Basically, we're talking about a cable that can carry more than twice as much data as its predecessor (which was called, naturally enough, HDMI 1.2). And why do you care? Because the ability to pass more data back and forth paves the way for three genuinely exciting new features that will noticeably improve your TV-watching experience.

Deep Color. A set featuring Deep Color has more individual shades of color available on-screen. Say you're looking at an image of a gorgeous sunrise, consisting of seamlessly gradated colors from light to dark, or at a closeup of a face with delicate flesh tones. Look closely at that image today and you'll sometimes see that the transitions aren't smooth. Instead of graceful transitions from color to color there are jumps, creating lines of color, or banding. With Deep Color sets, there are far more colors available to make smoothly gradated transitions.

xvYCC. Deep Color expands the number of shades available on the color chart between Point A and Point B, but there's more to the challenge of displaying a red ripe juicy strawberry so luscious-looking you just want to get up and bite the screen. Surprisingly, the current color TV standard, even for HDTV sets, only reproduces about 50 percent of the colors the human eye can see. To move beyond those limitations, leading TV manufacturers, including Sony and Toshiba, developed a new industry standard called xvYCC, which encompasses over 90 percent of visible colors. The difference can be striking, especially when it comes to reproducing vibrant reds and purples.

Enhanced Audio. DVD audio sounds pretty terrific, but there's always something even better in the drive to feed the needs of the golden-eared segment of the population. In this case it's two new audio standards, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master, which deliver the full studio-master quality of a movie soundtrack. To fit high-fidelity surround sound onto an optical disc (DVD, Blu-ray or HD DVD), the huge audio file has to be compressed to save space. Usually some audio fidelity is lost in the process. With Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master, though, less compression is used, and no audio information at all is lost. Less compression, though, results in too much information to send from the disc to the surround-sound receiver using previous versions of HDMI. That's where the increased capacity provided by HDMI 1.3 comes in—it can handle full-fidelity audio soundtracks without losing any of those delicious bits and bytes.

These three technologies all provide a significantly enhanced TV experience—but none of them is particularly useful right now, because no available video content can take advantage of them. To get a better picture via Deep Color and xvYCC, you need video programs encoded with that extra color information, and that hasn't arrived yet. And I use the word "programs" advisedly, because the first system to make use of these new standards will undoubtedly be games playable on the PlayStation 3, which was the first consumer device to ship with HDMI 1.3 built in. There's room on Blu-ray and HD DVD discs for enhanced picture and audio information, but there are no announced plans to ship the first disc to take advantage of them.

That said, all these technologies are based on industry standards, so the programming is coming. And if you buy a set without HDMI 1.3, you won't be able to take advantage of it.

By sometime next year, virtually all the HD sets sold should come equipped with HDMI 1.3. Right now, though, it's a mixed bag. Some manufacturers are fully on board—Mitsubishi, for instance, provides HDMI 1.3 in its entire HD lineup. Others, including Sony and Samsung, offer sets both with and without the 1.3 connection. And to further muddy the waters, it's really not a label that says "HDMI 1.3" that you're looking for—it's the specific features outlined above. It's not enough to put the right jack on the set. You need the circuitry inside to make use of the increased bandwidth. If you want to future-proof your system, what you're looking for are HDTVs that boast Deep Color and xvYCC capability, and AV receivers capable of handling TrueHD and DTS-HD audio signals.

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