Buying a new TV is easier than ever∧ a lot more complicated. Why easier? Because the basic TV you need to watch the ball game or tonight's episode of "CSI" in a reasonably sized room is remarkably inexpensive today -- figure a quality 27-inch set from a major manufacturer might run $300 or less, and you'll find decent 32-inch sets under $600. What's more, unless you really scrape the bottom of the barrel, you're going to get a handsome picture and at least acceptable sound.
Why more complicated? Because when you go beyond the basics and start looking at big-screen sets with fancy features -- in other words, the TV you really want to own -- prices escalate quickly, technobabble proliferates and the choices can become daunting. What's worse, this isn't like picking a new cell phone that might last a year or two. The TV you buy today is likely to be your companion in the vast wasteland of video entertainment for the better part of a decade.
Here, then, are some pointers to even the playing field a bit when you hit the floor of your favorite electronics store and the smarmy salesman tries mightily to steer you toward the set whose manufacturer is offering the most generous marketing incentive program that week (no matter what he says, the set in question is not the same one he bought for his mother just last week). And yes, you will need to invest some time shopping for a TV. Even among technically excellent sets, each has a distinctive image style that may or may not appeal to you -- one isn't necessarily better than the other, it's just different and, from there, it's a matter of personal preference. What's more, you may discover that a set that looks awful in one store looks absolutely spectacular in another, because of the room lighting, the way the controls have been adjusted, or, very often, the quality of the video source being piped in.
HIGH-DEF OR HYPE DEF?
High-definition television (HDTV) is far superior to the standard TV broadcasts we've all received since we were knee-high to a set of rabbit ears. Images are noticeably sharper, with up to six times the level of detail in a traditional TV picture. And, since HDTV is an all-digital signal, it eliminates static, interference and other forms of foufrah that mess with a traditional analog TV picture. Audio is enhanced, too -- traditional TV delivers 2-channel stereo; HDTV pumps 5.1-channel surround sound, just like DVD movies. Down the road, you'll also be able to use the digital HDTV signal to serve up additional information along with your TV programming -- box scores of the other games being played while you're watching baseball, for example.
The buzz over HDTV really took off in April 1997, when the Federal Communications Commission handed over $70 billion worth of additional broadcast spectrum to broadcasters, with the understanding that they would use this new space for digital broadcasting, shift their operations entirely over to digital by 2006, and give the airwaves they've used for traditional analog broadcasting back to the feds. In fact, the movement along this path has been proceeding with exquisite slowness for several reasons.
Broadcasters don't want to spend their own money upgrading transmission and production equipment to the new digital standards. They've been dragging their heels until TV manufacturers themselves have been forced to subsidize these costs out of their own pockets, in an effort to persuade us all to buy HDTV sets. Today, more and more prime-time TV is being broadcast in HDTV thanks to these efforts.
But that's just over-the-air broadcasts, and most of us took down the TV antenna long ago in favor of cable and satellite reception. Cable TV operators have been cool to the idea of transmitting HDTV signals, since it eats into their available network capacity and, while a few (notably Time Warner) have started ramping up, HDTV on cable is still very much the exception rather than the rule. Satellite operators, whose transmission has always been digital, have been a bit more open to change, but here again there are capacity concerns, leading to only a few HDTV channels being offered.
Finally, the movie studios, bless their pencil-pushing hearts, have been loath to release their products to a format that delivers perfect copies into our homes. The long history of foot-dragging in the name of "intellectual property" protection goes back to the fight against player piano rolls in 1908, continues through the battle against home recording via VCRs in 1979, and persists up to the present day, when Hollywood is attempting to dictate to consumer electronics manufacturers the types of copy protection they must build into TV receivers to squash home recording of an HDTV signal altogether. This battle is still raging, producing a floating crap game of connection standards and broadcast formats, lots of legislative lobbying, and, bottom line, delays in delivering the HDTV experience to consumers.
Do you really want to spend money on an HDTV set now, when content is limited and the technology involved in delivering a picture to that set is still in flux? I say yes, for several reasons:
While the transmission part of the equation is still a work in progress, the display standards are now well established. In other words, whatever the assorted geniuses in the broadcasting biz finally agree on, you will be able to watch it on the HDTV-ready sets on the market today. However, you may have to fork over extra for a new or upgraded set-top box -- the part of the system that takes the incoming signal, decodes it and sends it off to the display.
There's a fair amount of HDTV content out there now and, even if your favorite cable or satellite company isn't feeding it to you, an old-fashioned antenna may well be able to pluck it out of the air and feed it to your set. Antennas were never a great way to receive regular TV reception, with the ghosting and static that impaired the signal. However, we're talking digital here -- either you get the signal or you don't, with no middle ground for mediocre reception. To find out whether over-the-air reception will work in your area, check with a local consumer electronics retailer or call your local broadcaster (you'll find a list of stations transmitting an HDTV signal, plus a guide to available HDTV programming, at www.hdtvgalaxy.com).
Even standard TV signals look much better on an HDTV set, since manufacturers have incorporated sophisticated circuitry that uses line-doubling, filtering and assorted high-tech voodoo to noticeably improve picture quality.
DVD is a digital format that looks spectacular on an HDTV set. The resolution doesn't equal what you'll get in the highest-quality HDTV signal, but it still beats ordinary broadcast TV by a mile; you'll need a digital set to make the most of that digital signal.
So, no matter how long it takes for the various players in the HDTV fight to get their act together, there are clear benefits to buying an HDTV-ready set now. Some of these sets have tuners built right in, the way standard TVs always have. Others are simply display devices, relying on an outside set-top box to decode the signal and feed it to the display (like tuning to a channel using a cable box). Until recently, I'd have told you that the tuners built into HDTV sets are just about worthless. That may change thanks to an FCC ruling this August that all sets must have a digital tuner built in by 2007 -- if everybody's got one, it increases the likelihood that broadcasters and content creators will find a way to use them. My gut tells me that, even if you do buy a set with a built-in HDTV tuner, you're still going to need an external set-top box down the road, but at least you'll be set for over-the-air broadcasts today.
SHAPE AND SIZE
One key element in the new HDTV format is a switch from the current near-square picture to a wide-screen display. We've grown up on TVs in a 4:3 ratio -- that is, a little wider than they are tall, a leftover from 1889, when film measuring 1 inch wide and 3/4 inch high became the standard in Thomas Edison's laboratory.
Filmmakers switched over to a wider format in the 1950s, but TV didn't follow suit. Until now, that is. You're undoubtedly familiar with wide-screen DVD pictures, which are shown in the 16:9 ratio used in most movie theaters today. On a standard 4:3 TV set, these pictures are displayed with black bars along the top and bottom.. On a wide-screen set, though, they take up the full display, a much more satisfying experience. And HDTV has adopted that same 16:9 picture standard.
That doesn't necessarily mean that all HDTV-ready sets are built with wide screens, though. Wide-screen sets are significantly more expensive than standard-format models and take up more room. And with most TV programming still appearing in a 4:3 format, wide-screen owners have to choose between leaving the left and right sides of their screen blank much of the time, or using built-in zoom features that distort the image to fill in the blanks.
As for size, bigger is, of course, better, except when it isn't. The larger the screen, the more prominent any imperfection in the original source material. If you're going to be watching from a distance in a large room, these oddities probably won't bother you. On the other hand, sit too close to a really large set, and any lack of smoothness in a flat colored area, thin outline around text or blur in a fast-moving image will quickly drive the discriminating viewer batty. For expert recommendations on the right screen size for your room, check out the online calculator at www.myhometheater.homestead.com.
OK, assume you're going with an HDTV-ready, wide-screen set -- you still have to decide which type of set fits your needs. Essentially, you have four flavors at your disposal: direct view, rear projection, LCD and plasma. We'll skip over front projectors -- they can produce an excellent picture at tremendous sizes, but only when installed in a nice, dark home theater setup, not your average well-lit living room.
These are the picture-tube-equipped TVs you've known and loved all your life, but current sets have improved dramatically over previous generations. Flat screens have taken the market by storm, virtually eliminating the distortion that occurs (particularly in the corners) with an old-fashioned rounded picture tube. A flat screen also minimizes glare on the front of the set, when angled away from light sources in the room. And while we associate visible squiggles and blips with our direct-view TV experience, those imperfections are a thing of the past when you feed a digital signal into the box.
A good direct-view set provides a very bright, high-contrast picture, easy to watch from virtually any viewing angle. On the downside, sizes are limited -- most wide-screen direct-view sets are in the 30- to 34-inch range (remember, that's a diagonal measurement of a wide rectangle, so the height is smaller than a 4:3 set with the same measurement). The biggest direct-view TVs out there are 4:3-format, 40-inch models -- more than big enough for most rooms, but dwarfed by available projection and plasma models. What's more, big direct-view sets are bulky behemoths -- the beautiful 40-inch Sony Trinitron direct-view set weighs more than 300 pounds and measures more than two feet from front to back.
This is the (relatively) economical way to go big. While you're still dealing with a large cabinet, manufacturers have slimmed down the depth measurements significantly in the last year or two.
Picture quality varies widely in this category, for several reasons. Four different systems are used to create the image that gets projected onto the screen -- picture tubes, LCDs, and the cutting-edge LCOS (liquid crystal on silicon) and DLP (digital light processing) chips. Picture tubes are the oldest of the four technologies and, while they can work beautifully, they can also deliver a washed-out image. LCDs are more consistently first-rate, and don't degrade over the life of the set. The most impressive projection sets I've seen employ the LCOS and DLP systems -- the 50-inch Samsung HLM507W with DLP, featured in our December issue, offers a dazzling picture.
The big question mark when considering a rear projection set is viewing angle. When I walked into my local store recently to check out the TV section, a wide array of rear projection models were on display, and they looked universally awful, including sets I've admired in the past. The problem: they were all displayed inches from the ground, and I was standing at my imposing 5 foot 9. Projection sets have limited viewing angles; when I squatted down for a face-to-face view of the models in question, they brightened up dramatically. The viewing angle limitation has improved over time, and some sets are notably more forgiving than others. Consider the shape of your room and take a stroll around the edges of any projection set you're evaluating -- it may or may not be a deal-breaker.
If you do buy a projection set, spring for a professional adjustment after the set is delivered. The picture in a projection set is made up of three separate colored beams that require precise alignment -- if the convergence is even slightly off, your picture will suffer noticeably. Some sets offer automatic convergence tweaking that works reasonably well -- high-end Toshiba and Hitachi sets are noteworthy.
Today's most eye-catching sets are the flat panels that stand on their own or hang on the wall and come in two varieties: LCD and plasma.
For now, LCD sets aren't available in the gargantuan sizes found in the plasma category. At a recent trade show in Japan, I saw 37- and 40-inch LCD models that are slated to hit the United States in coming months, but even these were dwarfed by plasmas in the 50- to 63-inch range. LCD sets weigh less than plasmas, making them easier to mount on a wall. They also run cooler and use far less electricity. Many can be used to display both computer images and TV signals, which can be an advantage in some locations. And, design-wise, there are certainly some dramatic-looking LCD sets on the market today.
While the brightness and contrast of LCD screens have always been just fine, the major rap against them has been response time. Look at your typical sitcom scene on an LCD TV and you're likely to be impressed with the picture quality. Tune to an action movie, though, and you'll notice blurring -- the screen just can't keep up with the rapid movement. The best LCD TVs available today have noticeably lessened this problem. Sharp in particular has done a good job both improving refresh rates and widening the viewing angle (another flaw in early sets). Another downside to LCD TVs is that they don't come cheap. While larger sets are on the horizon, the sweet spot for this technology today is in the 13- to 20-inch range, where they make a great second set for use in a den or even a kitchen (and you know the neighbors will emit a satisfying "oooh" if they see an LCD TV casually hanging on your wall). Still, $1,200 seems like a lot to pay for a 13-inch TV set, and larger models can push prices over two grand.
These are the flat screens that stop folks in their tracks when prowling the local electronics store. Flat plasma screens deliver a brilliant, sharp picture that rivals the direct-view experience, only without the horizontal scan lines you see on a traditional picture tube, and at awe-inspiring sizes. What's more, plasma sets have 160-degree viewing angles -- they look great no matter where you're standing or sitting.
Until recently, plasma screens only shipped in wall-filling sizes, at wallet-emptying prices. Recently, though, we've started to see models in traditional direct-view screen sizes, like the 34-inch Hitachi. While you'll still pay plenty for the privilege of plasma, prices have already dropped dramatically, with more erosion expected as manufacturing becomes more efficient and demand increases. I've been testing a new 42-inch plasma set marketed by PC maker Gateway for the last few weeks that's selling for just $3,000 -- in plasma land, that's a bargain.
Still, the biggest stumbling block in shopping for a plasma set is going to be price, not quality. Expect to pay $10,000 or more for a 50-inch high-end panel and twice that for a 60-plus-inch stunner. A nice chunk of change, but if you amortize the cost over the lifetime of the set, and consider that you'll make the most of the increasing profusion of high-definition TV content over the next decade, and factor in the joys of watching your neighbors' jaws drop, maybe spending as much for your next TV as you would for a new car isn't such a bad idea. Granted, my wife isn't buying this argument, but maybe yours will. v
Steve Morgenstern, a freelance writer living in New York, writes often on technology issues for Cigar Aficionado.