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).
Once you've enjoyed the HD experience, whether at your home-theater-equipped buddy's house or a decent showroom (not the local electronics superstore with rows of sets under fluorescent lights, but a real dealership with a proper sound system and salespeople who weren't flipping burgers last week), you're going to want to make it your own. Which leaves two fundamental questions: what kind of set should you buy, and where will you get your HD programming? (The third question, how will you convince your wife that it makes sense to spend thousands of dollars on another TV when the last set you bought still works just fine, I leave to you and your marriage counselor.)
Your HDTV Options
Several types of display can handle an HDTV signal, including direct view (a souped-up version of the familiar TV tube), flat screens (LCD and plasma), rear projection sets and front projectors. Before we go through the pros and cons of each format, let's consider some aspects that apply to all HD sets.
First, do you want a built-in high-def tuner? An integrated HD set incorporates a built-in ATSC tuner, meaning it can unscramble over-the-air, high-definition broadcast signals. The alternative is an HD-ready set, which is basically just a display and requires an additional box (a cable or satellite receiver, or an external tuner) to feed it a signal. Of course, an integrated set can also be connected to an external tuner, and very often is—even though standard TVs have a tuner, most of us use a cable or satellite box to change channels. On the other hand, over-the-air HDTV does offer some unique advantages (see Sources and Resources on page 124).
Another recent wrinkle is CableCARD compatibilty. A set with a CableCARD slot lets you insert a security card provided by some local cable operators and unscramble cable channels (including high-def) without adding an external set-top box to your system. Neatness is a virtue, and CableCARD does eliminate some wires and an extra piece of gear. Of course, if your cable provider doesn't offer CableCARD, it's one more feature you'll never use. Also, CableCARD is a one-way connection, which means if you want to use Pay-Per-View or video-on-demand services, you're still going to need that external set-top box. And when the industry does get around to offering two-way CableCARD in the future, there will be no way to upgrade the first-generation version that you purchased today.
Speaking of connections, high-definition signals won't travel over the familiar single yellow video wire or round coaxial cable connector used for ordinary TV. You need a higher-bandwidth connection, and different sets offer different permutations and combinations. Here's the lowdown on making the HD video hookup:
Component. A high-quality analog connection. Virtually every piece of HD gear offers component inputs or outputs, though a digital connection (see below) is preferable if available.
RGB Mostly used for connecting a computer to your HD screen, though some receivers and projectors also use RGB.
FireWire A top-quality digital connection used on some HD tuners and HD recorders. Also known as IEEE1394 and iLink.
DVI Used for HD tuners and some upscale DVD players, this uncompressed digital connection offers top image quality.
HDMI The latest digital connector, HDMI combines DVI-quality video and audio over a single wire. It's also compatible (via an adapter) with DVI.
The moral of the connections story: the more options built into the set, the fewer problems you'll have as you connect different kinds of gear to your display, now and in the future.
With these across-the-board considerations under our collective belts, let's consider the pros and cons of the different types of sets out there.
Picture-tube technology may seem fuddy-duddy in the face of flat-panel tech, but don't underestimate the cathode ray tube (CRT); the high-def picture quality of a tube set is still unsurpassed, with exceptional contrast (thanks to solid, ink-dark black reproduction) and outstanding brightness. These are called "direct-view" sets because the picture is coming directly at you (as opposed to rear projection sets, where it's bounced onto the screen through lenses and mirrors). The downside to tube sets? CRT screen size tops out at about 40 inches (measured diagonally), and the bigger the screen, the more space-hogging and heavy the TV console. Sony makes the aforementioned 40-inch set, and it's more than two feet deep and weighs over 300 pounds. On the other hand, if you want a modest-sized TV and don't want to spend a fortune, you can't beat the price or the picture of a high-quality tube set.
Sony KD-34XBR960 has a 34-inch screen that may not overpower, but the picture quality delivered by this wide-screen CRT set is guaranteed to knock your socks off. Worthwhile special features include the ability to hop back and forth between two channels displayed side-by-side and sophisticated, customizable processing of standard-definition broadcasts to take advantage of the screen's high-def capabilities.
34-inch screen, $2,200, integrated HD tuner, CableCARD; 39.1" x 25.6" x 23.8", weight 194.5 lbs.; www.sonystyle.com, 877-865-7669
For big-screen goodness at an affordable price, rear-projection sets are the way to go. As the name implies, they work by creating a small version of the TV image and projecting and magnifying it onto a screen from behind. The key difference between a large projection set and a smaller one is the size of the screen and cabinet and the power of the light source, so you'll find fairly small price differences between huge sets and more modestly proportioned models.
The most important difference among projection sets is the technology used to create the image that's being blown up onto the screen. Those enormous sets you see advertised in the Sunday circulars at too-good-to-be-true prices use CRTs to create the picture—three separate tubes (red, green and blue), each of which is projected onto the screen in precise alignment to create a large image. That alignment is one downside of CRT projection sets; to get a near-perfect picture requires professional service to aim the guns just so, and the process needs to be repeated periodically (though automatic alignment circuitry has improved). CRT sets are also bulky, taking up a big hunk of floor space. For budget-conscious buyers looking to maximize their screen real estate, however, rear-projection CRTs can be the right choice.
Cutting-edge projection sets, on the other hand, use microdisplay technologies. These come in several varieties—LCD, DLP, LCoS, plus a few additional subcategories of those three—but they share a basic design strategy, creating the TV image on a tiny high-resolution display. Microdisplay sets are more streamlined than CRT projection sets. In fact, using advanced light engine techniques, RCA has created a microdisplay set less than seven inches deep, and light enough to hang on a wall. Microdisplays also deliver higher picture quality than CRTs. Of course, they are more expensive.
While rear-projection sets have steadily improved in the past few years, some caveats to the technology still remain. Since the blacks aren't pitch-black, contrast suffers. So does brightness, when compared with a traditional direct-view set—projection sets usually look best in a low-light room. Viewing angle is another consideration. The picture looks just right at a "sweet spot" right in front of a projection set, but when viewed from an angle (above or to one side), the colors may shift and the image darken. Just walk into an electronics superstore and check out the rows of rear projection sets. On most display floors, the pictures look terrible when you're standing up, but brighten considerably if you squat down to their level. Manufacturers have made significant advances in grappling with this problem, but it's still an issue if you have a wide room with seating along the sides of the set.
Hitachi UltraVision CineForm Director's Series sets, available in 50-, 60- and 70-inch models, deliver striking edge-to-edge and corner-to-corner sharpness, thanks in large part to the company's extensive lens-making expertise. These rear-projection LCD-based sets feature an antireflective coating that helps maintain deep black levels even in brightly lit rooms, along with two HDMI and two FireWire inputs.
Hitachi 70VX915, 70-inch screen, $8,200, integrated HD tuner, CableCARD; 73.6" x 40.6" x 2.6", weight 187 lbs.; www.hitachi.us/tv, 800-448-2244
Samsung HLP5685W carries the tradition of putting beautiful objects on a pedestal into the video age with this unique set. Based on DLP technology, the HLP5685W delivers a very bright, strikingly sharp picture in a high-style design package that contrasts dramatically with the traditional boxy look of rear-projection sets.
56-inch screen, $4,999, requires external HD tuner; 58.7" x 58.3" x 21.9", weight 134.5 lbs.; www.samsungusa.com, 800-726-7864
The Holy Grail of HDTV, flat-panel sets are slim and light enough to hang like a video picture frame, bright enough for excellent visibility even in a well-lit room, and just dripping with twenty-first-century sex appeal.
Flat panels come in two flavors: LCD and plasma. At this point, plasma still holds a commanding lead when it comes to screen size—plasmas start at 32 inches and grow to a wall-filling 71 inches (an 80-inch plasma was shown at last year's Consumer Electronics Show, but isn't a shipping product yet). LCDs start small—laptop-computer-screen small, at 14 inches—and max out around 46 inches (again, a 61-inch version has been shown but not shipped). If you're looking for a flat screen at either end of the size spectrum, your choice is predetermined by availability (though for smaller sets, direct-view offers much better prices for the same screen sizes). In the midrange, though, you have to choose between these rival technologies.
Plasma screens boast very high brightness and contrast—they look fine in a brightly lit room—and their viewing angle is unsurpassed. On the minus side, they suck electricity and generate heat. And then there's the burn-in problem. If a static image remains in one spot on a plasma screen for hour after hour, it will actually burn into the screen, leaving a permanent ghost image. Frankly, this isn't likely to happen to many buyers, unless you stay tuned to a single channel with an unblinking station-identifying bug in the corner ad nauseum, or play games with an unchanging on-screen display for days on end.
LCD sets are up-and-comers, more power-efficient than plasma, free from the burn-in factor and getting larger all the time as new factories come on line. One rap against LCD has been streaking during fast-motion scenes. It's still a factor on some low-end sets, and certainly something to watch out for when evaluating your choices in the showroom, but not really a problem in top models. Limited viewing angle is another consideration: again, a distinguishing factor between top choices and also-rans.
LG MW-71PY10 has the biggest plasma display you can buy at an eye-popping 71 inches and pushes screen resolution to the limit with support for 1080p, the highest resolution in the HDTV broadcast standard. And with this much visual real estate, why stop at one picture—you can view up to nine video signals on-screen simultaneously.
71-inch screen, price to be announced, requires external HD tuner; 68.9" x 38.6" x 3.8", weight 252 lbs.; lgusa.com, 800-243-0000
Pioneer PRO-1120HD uses a technology that has made me a fan of Pioneer plasma sets for years now—it sinks each individual colored pixel into a deeper little cell than other manufacturers, preventing light from leaking between dots and producing an extremely sharp picture. With this latest generation of plasmas, the company has upped the ante with a new filtering technology that further enhances black levels and image sharpness.
50-inch screen, $15,500, integrated HD tuner; 50" x 29" x 3.9", weight 99.9 lbs.; www.pioneerelectronics.com, 800-746-6337
Sharp LC-45GX6U outdoes even Sharp's own industry-leading efforts in turning the LCD technology developed for calculator screens and computers into high-performance TV displays. It's the largest full-featured LCD set on the market and the best-looking, with excellent color reproduction, very wide viewing angles and rock-solid video performance. Another plus: all your messy input wiring feeds into a single system box, which then connects to the TV with a single neat cable.
45-inch screen, $8,499, Integrated HD tuner, CableCARD; 42.7" x 25.4" x 3.7", weight 48.5 lbs; www.sharpusa.com, 800-237-4277
HP LC3040N is a prime example that consumer electronics firms aren't the only source for high-quality TVs anymore—computer
makers Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Gateway are getting into the act, producing impressive digital displays at very competitive prices. The HP 30-inch, HD-ready LCD incorporates industry-leading image processing technologies to provide smooth, artifact-free images, even during demanding high-speed movie and video sequences.
30-inch screen, $2,499, requires external HD tuner; 29.7" x 19.4" x 3.8", weight 38.5 lbs.; www.hp.com, 888-999-4747
For the biggest possible screen size, front projectors are the way to go, but they're not a mainstream HD solution—unless you're setting up a home theater and can kill the lights as effectively as your local ultramultiplex. Like rear projectors, front projectors employ CRT, LCD, DLP and LCoS systems to create an image. And, of course, you'll also need to invest in a screen (a white wall will do in a pinch, but if you're setting up a home theater, you'll want to pony up for the higher brightness a screen provides).
Sony Qualia 004 is the video projector for Sony's ne plus ultra Qualia line. It employs a new LCD technology called SXRD: by cramming more points of light together with less space between them, the SXRD panel produces an exceptionally smooth high-resolution image. The Qualia 004 reproduces detailed HDTV pictures with stunning clarity, from dimly lit indoor scenes to the sweeping vistas of Lawrence of Arabia. And when there's nothing good on TV, it's fun to just look at the projector itself—this is one seriously handsome piece of hardware.
$30,000 (including lens), requires external HD tuner; 29.8" x 23.6" x 8.1", weight 88 lbs.; www.qualia.sony.us, 877-782-5423
Steve Morgenstern is a freelance writer living in New York.