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High-Definition Television

To Buy or Not To Buy HD TV High-Definition Television Will Dazzle Your Eyes, But Is It Worth the Price?
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Gene Hackman, Sep/Oct 00

The first time you see digital high-definition television, the only appropriate response is "Wow!" The picture is incredibly sharp and clear, with deep, true colors and amazing detail. You can see individual strands of hair as James Bond tousles a beautiful woman's tresses. Beads of sweat are clearly visible above an ice skater's frozen grin as she lands her triple axel. When experienced with a surround-sound audio system, the sense of total immersion is even more dramatic. It isn't like watching television at all--it's like looking at the action through a window. You want it, and you want it now.  

Start talking to a salesman, though, and you move quickly from "Wow!" to "Whoa!" The prices are steep, the choices are bewildering and the jargon is enough to make even a devoted technophile's mind boggle.  

Consumers aren't the only ones confused over digital TV--the industry itself is in turmoil. This spring, Sony decided that it would not ship any new digital television models in 2000, just months after announcing it was coming out with an ambitious lineup. The next day, RCA announced four new digital TV models, including two that offer the technology at about half the price of 1999 models. Cable companies are bickering over must-carry rules, movie studios grouse about copy-protection strategies and the networks do the two-steps-forward-one-step-back samba toward conversion to digital broadcasting.  

And yet, there's that gorgeous picture, and your credit card's within easy reach.... We can't answer the buy now/buy later question for you--that's something for your wife, your conscience and your accountant to decide--but we can help you understand the advantages and range of choices in the new format and the pros and cons of buying today.  

The most basic benefit in switching to digital TV from the analog standard is that... well, it's digital. Think about the difference between playing a record (analog) and a CD (digital). Even with a superbly mastered and reproduced album, that analog recording takes a beating over time, due to scratches, nicks and wear. A CD recording generally doesn't. The music isn't stored as fragile vinyl wiggles--it's all 1s and 0s, and those don't change. A similar effect applies to the shift from analog to digital TV broadcasting. An analog TV signal, whether it reaches you via antenna or cable hookup, picks up static and distortion in the transmission process--a digital signal doesn't. The digital TV sources that have become popular--DVD movies, satellite TV, even digital cable service--all deliver information via those incorruptible 1s and 0s.  

Getting rid of noise and interference is a great start, but digital TV's real promise lies in delivering either some or all of the following features:  

High Resolution: Resolution is the number of colored dots used to make up a picture. Standard analog sets today have pictures composed of about 480 vertical lines--with high-definition television (HDTV), you can get 1,080 lines. More lines translate into a sharper picture.  

Resolution is only part of the story, though. There are two ways to draw a picture on a TV screen--interlaced or progressive. Today's analog sets use an interlaced format--they draw half the lines in the picture on one pass, then start at the top and draw the other half. Since it takes just 1/60 second to make each pass, the picture looks pretty good. HDTV can draw the lines in one pass (progressive), delivering a sharper, flicker-free picture.  

The HDTV standard provides for both interlaced and progressive formats--you can get more lines with an interlaced format (1,080), though many experts prefer the rock-solid 720 lines in the top progressive-scan format. It's the broadcasters' decision. Both look better than analog pictures, and virtually every HDTV can handle either format.  

Wide-Screen Format: Movie lovers bridle at the words "The following film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit your television screen." They mean editors have either cropped off the sides to fit on a TV screen, or panned-and-scanned back and forth to follow the action. On standard TV the alternative is letterboxing, which runs the movie's entire width, but adds black bars at the top and bottom. HDTV sets offer a new screen size in the same proportion as most movie screens--16 x 9 instead of the 4 x 3 of a traditional TV screen. Now you can watch a full-screen movie as it is meant to be seen. And once you've seen a football game broadcast in wide-screen format, going back to a traditional set feels like putting on blinders.  


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