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.
Surround Sound: Home theater owners know the pleasures of six-channel surround sound: a soundtrack with separate tracks for three front speakers (left, center, right) plus two rear speakers and a subwoofer for bass. Until now, the only source for this audio immersion has been DVD disks and the occasional pay-per-view movie. Now HDTV can include full, crystal-clear surround sound as a regular broadcast feature.
Datacasting: We've been talking about sending a TV signal composed of bits and bytes. Computers read bits and bytes. Why not piggyback information on that digital TV signal? For example, you could be watching a baseball game and receive complete team stats at the same time, or get background information about the stories running on the nightly news. This is still in its infancy. The HDTV standard can also send information for display in an on-screen programming guide.
So you're sold on the picture, but how will it get to you? Today you can receive a TV signal via antenna, cable or satellite dish. The same three approaches will work with HDTV, with some key differences.
Interestingly, an ordinary antenna is pretty good at receiving over-the-air digital broadcasts. All that atmospheric interference that ruins the quality of a broadcast signal for analog TV is gone--if your antenna can get the 1s and 0s the broadcaster pumps out, you receive a perfect picture. If not, you get no picture at all. If you're in a strong signal area, you'll get all the advantages of HDTV with a $20 rabbit-ear antenna.
Of course, most of us want more than broadcast TV programming. Satellite broadcasters are already in the digital TV business. Today you can get all-day, high-definition, digital broadcast of a single HBO channel plus some special-event programming via satellite dish, though you need a new HDTV-compatible dish and receiver to get it. The majority of cable TV systems are still analog. Digital systems are being set up in test markets, though, and with cable operators' interest in pushing more channels, more data and even phone calls through their wires, digital conversion is clearly going to progress. While CBS's prime-time programming, the "Tonight Show" and "Monday Night Football" are available in HDTV, the offerings are in a state of flux. Furthermore, the affiliate that provides your signal may choose not to provide it digitally even though the network does. The best way to determine what is available to you is to ask a local retailer.
Nearly all of the major consumer electronics manufacturers are offering a variety of digital sets. There are HDTV versions of all the popular TV set formats, including direct-view CRT models (jargon for your basic picture tube-equipped TV set), front and rear big-screen projection models, and flat-screen plasma and LCD sets. None of them is cheap--an HDTV setup will run at least $4,000. Of course, the first systems to hit the market, not even two years ago, cost $10,000, so by some bizarre standard you could consider today's models bargains.
Two components make up an HDTV system: a receiver to decode the signal and a display device. They can be incorporated in a single chassis, as are analog televisions with their built-in receivers. RCA is a leader in this category both in price and performance, with two direct-view models in the under-$4,000 range. If you prefer an integrated projection-screen model, the Samsung HCH551W is a 55-inch set that's ready to receive all 18 digital TV formats right out of the box.
Alternatively, you can buy an "HDTV-ready" set with a separate decoder box. This strategy has several advantages. First and foremost, we're in a period of uncertainty. Separating the decoder box from the display makes it easier to update the internal software if necessary in the future, or even replace the decoder entirely if a radical standards shift occurs, while using the same display.
Equally important if you're shopping for a TV today, you can buy an HDTV-ready model and wait until there's enough programming available to justify buying an HDTV decoder box. This way you're future-proofing the purchase of an expensive video component and, at the same time, enjoying the best TV picture available today. HDTV sets include circuitry to convert standard analog signals to higher-resolution digital pictures.
Most HDTV-ready sets today are rear-projection models, offering the screen size needed to fully appreciate the stunning high-resolution picture. The new Hitachi 61SWX01W is a top contender, with a a 61-inch screen and plenty of inputs for all your video gear. Mitsubishi offers several handsome 16:9 format sets in their Diamond and Platinum series, capped by the 73-inch-diagonal behemoth WS-73905.
Direct-view sets are smaller, but deliver superb contrast and won't get washed out in a brightly lit room. The CT-34WX50 from Panasonic and the 34-inch Philips 34PW9815 each deliver a brilliant picture on a perfectly flat picture tubes. And if those TV commercials for hang-on-the-wall flat-screen sets have turned your head, consider Sharp's LC-PD50U 50-inch plasma display--definitely a high-priced strategy at $21,000. Sharp also plans to introduce an HDTV-ready LCD set this fall, the 28-inch LC-28HD1.
Keep in mind that the phrase "HDTV-ready" has generated some controversy recently, largely over the question of wide-screen format. The official standard calls for a wide-screen display (as you'll find on all sets mentionedd above). However, manufacturers have also introduced sets with a traditional 4:3 shape that can display the full vertical high-definition resolution and labeled them "HDTV-ready." Owners have the choice of displaying a high-definition 16:9 format picture on these sets using the letterbox format, watching just the central part of the image and lopping off the edges, or turning on circuitry that distorts the outer edges of the image to artificially produce a wider image. The argument in favor of these sets: very little programming is available in wide-screen HDTV format, and 4:3 format sets are significantly cheaper.
On the other hand, one source of wide-screen format programming is widely available right now: DVD movies. DVDs don't provide full high-definition resolution, but they are fully digital, include surround sound and, when displayed in wide-screen format on a high-definition set, look sensational. This benefit alone should push you toward spending the extra money on a wide-screen HD set. When you factor in the promise of much more wide-screen programming in the future and the fortune you're sinking into an HD set no matter which way you go, choosing a 4:3 format seems penny wise and pound foolish. But the question remains: when will the video world go fully digital? At this year's National Association of Broadcasters convention, a frustrated FCC chairman William E. Kennard addressed the assembled industry executives: "This digital transition for broadcasting is inevitable. It will happen as sure as day follows night. Why? Because the broadcast industry has absolutely no choice in the matter.... Americans have awakened to the power and functionality of digital; they want more and they are never going back to the analog-only world. Analog is over. Delay is simply not an option. Resistance is futile." And, if that impassioned tirade were not proof enough, the conversion to digital television is mandated by federal law. In 1997, the FCC decreed that all TV stations must convert to digital transmission, and cease their analog broadcasts, by 2006.
Broadcasters at 42 stations in the top 10 TV markets began voluntary digital transmissions in November 1998. By April 2003, all commercial TV stations must broadcast at least half of their programming digitally, though they can continue to send out an analog signal. By April 2005, all programming must be available digitally, and by December 2006 analog signals must be turned off. Still, there are obstacles along the road to digital TV acceptance. And as "Star Trek" fans will remember, proclaiming that "Resistance is futile" with Borg-like bravado doesn't necessarily make it so.
Start with the broadcasters. Buying new equipment for digital transmission is expensive. And the challenge goes beyond simply upgrading equipment--the entire production process has to improve. They can get away with tacky sets held together with duct tape when shooting a show for regular TV, but high-definition's unblinking eye makes any corner cutting look hopelessly cheesy. Even performers' makeup has to be applied differently. The cost of new toupees for network news anchormen alone will be a big budget hit.
The economics are so daunting that digital TV set manufacturers have been underwriting some transition expenses to get the technology off the ground. Mitsubishi is financing digital broadcast of the CBS prime-time lineup and Sony pays for HDTV production of "The Tonight Show" broadcast on NBC.
Furthermore, digital transmission doesn't necessarily equate to high-definition TV. Broadcasters can use the 1s and 0s of digital to provide programming in the old 480-line format used today. There's nothing in the regulations that says broadcasters can't use the bandwidth to send several standard-definition channels instead of one at high-definition. These won't look much better than today's TV, but transmitting a larger number of channels means broadcasters stand to sell more advertising. So, instead of better TV, we may just get more TV--not an entirely scintillating prospect.
On the cable side, current systems require expensive upgrades to provide digital service. Even after the conversion, the pipeline into your home will still be limited. High-definition signals take up more of that pipeline's capacity than standard-definition channels, so cable operators are understandably concerned. They're especially leery of the "must-carry" rules that require them to transmit all local television signals within their coverage area. If broadcasters decide to transmit in high-definition, does that mean cable operators have to retransmit that same, capacity-hogging signal? It's fight time!
Satellite services have the same capacity issues as cable operators. And, rounding out the groups bemoaning the digital TV conversion, the movie studios and other content owners are also disgruntled. Just as they've fought every other home recording innovation, they're trying to block availability of digital recorders.
All parties involved in the resistance like to justify their reluctance by saying that there's no demonstrated public demand for digital TV. It's true--not a lot of people are crying out for what they can't afford and probably haven't even seen. Ultimately, though, it's reasonable to assume that prices will drop and demand will grow, the two trends feeding each other until the new, higher-quality medium wins out. Color televisions displaced black and white. CDs pushed records off the shelf. We're in another technological transition period, but it seems inevitable that digital will win out in this overwhelmingly digital age.
When the first HDTV sets were announced in 1997, a great gnashing of teeth could be heard throughout the land, and the voices of people gazing upon 13-inch black-and-white sets joined with those peering at 60-inch screens to ask a single question: "Does this mean I'm going to have to buy a new TV?" The answer is a firm "Yes" and "No."
The FCC cut-off date would seem to make all analog TV sets eventually obsolete. But legality and technology combine to make that untrue. There's a caveat in the timetable that says analog signals will be shut down if 85 percent of American households own digital televisions. Between that loophole and the demonstrated reluctance of broadcasters to make the switch, we can expect analog transmission to go on as long as just about anybody wants it to. And even on that fabled day when the analog signal shuts down entirely, set-top boxes will be available to convert an incoming digital signal into analog output to feed traditional TVs.
So there's no stick forcing you to buy a digital set in the foreseeable future. But how big a carrot is there to get you to upgrade now? If you're happy with your current TV system, a wait-and-see attitude makes sense. Prices for HD equipment have dropped sharply already. Even if money is no object, the technology has also improved quickly; wait for another generation or two and you'll find even better value and performance.
On the other hand, what if you're itching to buy a top-notch set today? Most of us keep our TVs for about 10 years, meaning your new purchase will last well into the digital era. Spending $1,000 to $2,000 for an HDTV decoder today is clearly a tough call--you will be able to enjoy the limited HD programming available today, but there just isn't much out there. Even if that extra grand seems excessive now, there's a strong argument for investing in an HDTV-ready receiver. Yes, you will pay a premium price versus a similar set without HD capability.
At the same time, you get substantial benefits from your high-end purchase right now, with full-screen DVD viewing plus digitally enhanced playback of standard analog content that looks almost as good as true HD. And as the television industry limps into the digital future, you're ready to enjoy the benefits of cutting-edge broadcasting. After you swallow the "whoa" of HDTV investment and your friends show up to watch the Super Bowl at your place, they will collectively utter: "Wow."
Steve Morgenstern writes frequently on technology.