Tuesday, January 15, 2008

HDTV Shopping- How to get started

HDTV is a better picture.
To HDTV or not to HDTV?
When you're deciding whether to get an HDTV, ask yourself the following questions.

* Am I unhappy with the TV I have now?
* Do I want something bigger, flatter, sharper, or brighter?
* Am I willing to pay hundreds of dollars more to get that something?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then you're probably not ready for an HDTV. Go ahead and get a normal television, save a few bucks, and rest assured that in the next few years, technology prices will continue their inexorable fall, and you can get an HDTV when you're good and ready.

If you answered yes, however, then it's probably time for you to consider buying an HDTV. Here's where your choices begin to multiply, but don't lose heart. We'll take you through all you need to know.

The falling price of HDTV
Did you know that you can actually get a perfectly fine 32-inch flat-panel LCD HDTV for $800 or a 50-inch plasma for $2,000? HDTV prices have fallen so far in the last couple of years that most TV shoppers can afford to go high-def. We're often asked when HDTV prices will "bottom out," but we really can't say. We don't expect a 32-inch LCD to cost $300 by the holiday season of 2007, or a 50-inch plasma to cost $1,000, but you never know. By this stage, however, prices have gotten low enough that we feel safe saying that, if you're buying now, you won't feel too burned by next year's prices.

What kind of HDTV to buy?
HDTVs come in all shapes and sizes, but there's a general hierarchy in size from smallest to largest.

Direct-view CRT (not flat)
27 and 30 inches
$450 to $600
30 inches for $500

This is the kind of tube we've all come to know and love. The majority of these are not HDTVs, but an increasing number are. If you're on a really tight budget, they're a fine choice, but LCD prices are getting so low that tubes are fading fast.

Flat-panel LCD
15 to 57 inches
$250 to $7,000
32 inches for $600

These are the most popular kinds of HDTVs, mainly because they're relatively affordable and flat. If you just want to replace your tube with a similarly sized flat TV, then LCD is the way to go.

Flat-panel plasma
Top plasmas
42 to 58 inches
$1,000 to $5,300
50 inches for $2,000

There are a lot of myths about plasma, and most are untrue. The fact is, they cost less than LCDs at the 50-inch size, so if you want it big and flat, plasma is still king. At 42 inches however, you may need more information.

Rear-projection (not flat)
37 to 73 inches
$1,300 to $5,200
56 inches for $2,000

If you want a picture larger than 50 inches, you're talking rear-projection. This is also where the alphabet soup of technologies gets really thick: DLP, LCoS, SXRD, and so on. They can all produce fine HDTV pictures, so don't be afraid to shop on price.

Now, that's really all you need to know about HDTVs. Here is it, short and sweet.

What else you'll need to watch HDTV
If you bring home your HDTV and plug it into a standard cable box, you'll see a picture, but it won't be high-definition television. To actually watch high-def, you need three other ingredients besides that shiny new HDTV: an HDTV source, an HDTV channel, and the HDTV show itself.

1. HDTV source: If you're a cable or satellite subscriber who's just bought an HDTV and wants to watch high-def, you'll need a special high-def cable or satellite box--the "source"--that can deliver HDTV channels and shows to your HDTV. High-def boxes usually cost more than regular ones, and in the case of cable, they might not be available in all areas or carry all of the HDTV channels you'd expect. In addition to cable and satellite, there's a third source available if you connect an antenna to just about any current high-def set: free over-the-air HDTV broadcasts of the major networks, which are available in most areas of the country. For more on HDTV sources, check out Three ways to get HDTV programming.

2. HDTV channel: High-def channels are just like regular channels, but they have the potential to carry HDTV shows. Every cable and satellite provider that offers high-def channels usually offers the regular channel, too. For example, if you subscribe to DirecTV's HD satellite service, the HD version of ESPN is on one channel while the regular version is on another. There are many more regular, a.k.a. standard-definition, channels than high-definition ones at the moment, but more and more networks are offering high-def versions. Some related channels, such as ESPN and ESPNHD, have the same shows and schedules, while others, such as Discovery and DiscoveryHD, are different.

3. HDTV show: If you're watching an HDTV that's plugged into your new HDTV cable box and tuned to an HDTV channel, then you're watching high-def, right? Not necessarily. Some HDTV channels, such as DiscoveryHD and HDNet, broadcast everything in high-def, including commercials. DiscoveryHD and the normal Discovery channel, for example, actually have different programming lineups. But most networks simulcast, meaning they show the same shows on both the high-def and standard-def channels. Unfortunately, not every show on a network's HD channel actually appears in high-def. Many games on ESPNHD, for example, still appear in standard definition, and a number of TV programs on the major networks--especially reality shows and local news--aren't in HD yet either. Non-HD shows on HD channels won't look nearly as sharp as the high-def shows do and usually don't fill the wide screen properly. ESPNHD, for example, usually shows bars to either side of non-HD games and events. Fortunately, almost all major sporting events, prime-time shows, and specials are in high-def.

Other HDTV notes
There are a few other things to consider with HDTV. In no particular order, here they are:

All HDTV looks good. If you're in the store and you're looking at all of the HDTVs, it may strike you that they all look pretty dang good. That's because they're showing high-def television, which any store worth its salt will use to demo HD sets. Sure, you'll still notice flaws occasionally, but in general, even an inexpensive HDTV showing high-def looks much better than a standard TV showing the highest-quality material it can. Whether it's 1080i or 720p, over-the-air or cable, DLP or plasma, HDTV shown on a high-def television blows standard TV out of the water. For more on why HDTV looks so good, and an overview of these numbers, check out HDTV resolution explained.

Regular TV looks underwhelming. Many people who first watch non-HDTV on their new high-def televisions are disappointed by how it looks. But it's not the television's fault. The single most important ingredient in picture quality is the source, and lower-quality standard-def TV, especially compared to HDTV, looks bad. The difference is often compounded by the fact that HDTVs are bigger and sharper than regular TVs and thus highlight the flaws of low-quality sources even more. No matter how nice of an HDTV you get, standard-def TV, at least compared to DVD and high-def, will look a lot worse.

DVDs look great. DVD discs, despite technically being standard-definition, look very good to most people who see them on an HDTV. Hook up even a really cheap DVD player to your HDTV, pop in a Hollywood classic, and you'll see. It also helps that...

...Almost all HDTVs are wide-screen. You may have noticed that most DVD movies, an increasing number of TV shows, and even some commercials, have black bars above and below the screen. If you were watching them on an HDTV, often you wouldn't see any bars at all--the picture will usually fill the screen (the exception is for ultra-wide-screen movies, which still have thin bars). Conversely, if you watch a regular TV show on an HDTV, it won't fit on the screen properly. There may be bars to either side, or the picture may be stretched or zoomed. Trust us: wide-screen is better, and HDTVs and/or HD sources can usually resize the image the way you want.

Make the right connection. HDTVs have a lot of different connections, and not all of them will carry HDTV signals. First off, we recommend buying an HDTV that has at least one HDMI input. HDMI is the most future-ready input type, and due to copy-protection concerns, it's necessary to get the most out of some HDTV sources. If your source has an HDMI output, we recommend using it. If not, connect via component video, which is the second-highest-quality input type. There are a couple other HD-level connections: HDTV antennas connect via standard antenna wire, and some HD sources use FireWire or computer connections, but they're rare. Aside from computer jacks themselves, the rest of the connections on the back of the TV, namely composite and S-Video, are not high-def.

Adjusting your HDTV is important. Even the best HDTVs can look pretty bad if they're not adjusted properly. If you want to get the most out of your HDTV, adjusting it beyond the factory default settings is a good idea. Take advantage of picture presets, such as Movie or Games, and play with the standard picture controls to get the image that looks best to you. You may also want to read our article on HDTV tune-up tips.

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