Sunday, October 16, 2005

Eye on HDTV, October '05

It's been a while since I posted to this blog — since July, in fact. Recently I've been enjoying the baseball playoffs in HDTV and wondering what it might take to get more homes HD-capable, sooner, so fewer of us will miss the fun!

The first big thing is to get prices down, obviously ... and that's been happening. About a year and a half ago I paid $3700 for the 32" Hitachi plasma I'm watching baseball on in my basement rec room. Today you can't buy a plasma that small — the smallest is 37" and most are 42" and 50". The small flat panels are all LCDs now. In this weekend's Circuit City flyer, there's a 32" Panasonic LCD listed for $1900, "before $190 savings."

Almost two years ago I paid $4900 for the 61" Samsung DLP rear-projection TV that I have in my living room. In the same weekend flyer, a Panasonic 61" LCD rear-projection TV lists for $3000, "before $300 savings." Or, go to the Circuit City website to find a Samsung 61" DLP rear projector for $3325 after $175 savings.

So prices have come down up to 50%, if you're willing to switch technologies, or up to 33% if you're not. Y-e-e-ss-sss!

The second needed thing is to do something about all the many sources of confusion which make potential HDTV buyers leery. That hasn't really happened yet. If anything, the marketplace is more confusing now than it was in 2004.

In the Circuit City flyer we find plasma and LCD flat panels; CRT, DLP, and LCD rear projectors; and even a direct-view CRT set with a traditional picture tube ... and those are just the HDTVs. We also find a slew of just regular TVs of the type we've had for years and years ... now on the way out, of course. When you can buy a Sony 26" HD-ready LCD flat panel for $1350 after savings, do you really want to buy a near-obsolete SDTV?

Remember, you'll need something like a 32" SDTV to be able to view a widescreen picture at the same overall size. Circuit City presently sells a Sony 32" SDTV for $550. The Sony 26" HD-ready LCD flat panel is double that in cost, admittedly ... but it is HDTV. And you can watch widescreen fare on it without annoying black bars appearing above and below the image.

Still and all, such considerations are confusing. In a few years, there will only be widescreen TVs, and virtually all of them will be HDTVs.

Not literally all, you may ask? Why won't all TVs in (say) 2009 be HDTVs?

Well, they may be ... but there is something in between SDTV and HDTV today, and it may well persist into tomorrow. It's EDTV, for extended-definition television.

EDTVs have, usually, just 480 lines of resolution: 480 rows of pixels, stacked up and down on the screen, each row containing ... well, uh, containing some even larger number of pixels; it depends. HDTVs have at least 720 lines or rows of pixels, and that number can go as high as 1,080 lines/pixel rows.

Any TV that has fewer than 720 lines is either SDTV or EDTV. As I say, usually the exact number of lines is precisely 480. The TV is SDTV if it shows the odd-numbered lines first, then the even-numbered lines a fraction of a second later. That's called interlaced scan. If all the lines are shown together each time the screen is refreshed, it's progressive scan. Progressive scan gives a more solid image with no visible scan lines. And there is twice as much detail presented over time; thus, the designation "extended definition."

You can buy a Magnavox 42" widescreen plasma EDTV this week at Circuit City for $1700. Compare that to a Philips 42" progressive-scan widescreen plasma HDTV for $2250 after savings, or a Samsung 42" progressive-scan widescreen plasma HDTV for $2700 after savings.

Yes, it's decidedly confusing ... way too confusing.

Another source of confusion is the distinction between "HD-ready" sets and "HD built-in" sets. The former don't have an internal "ATSC tuner," while the latter do.

The ATSC tuner pulls in digital over-the-air (OTA) signals, using an antenna. (Remember those?) All OTA HDTV broadcasts are digital. So are some OTA SDTV broadcasts, on the same channels — that is, some shows on these channels are HD, some SD.

Someday in the next few years, though, all OTA broadcasts will go digital. Right now, most OTA SDTV broadcasts are analog, expecting a different kind of tuner: NTSC.

The question is, do you need a built-in ATSC, or digital, tuner right now? You don't if you get all your digital channels — HD and otherwise — from cable or satellite. You do if you want OTA reception via antenna.

What if you buy an HDTV that lacks an ATSC tuner — an "HD-ready" monitor — and later regret it? You can buy a standalone "set-top box" with an ATSC tuner and hook it to your monitor at that time. Or you can get cable or satellite.

But, yes, it's another source of confusion. That's why Uncle Sam is mandating that all HDTVs built from now on be built with internal ATSC tuners. We're on the cusp of that mandate taking effect. Meanwhile, Circuit City is still offering several "HD-ready" models that presumably represent bargains — even if they're "last year's models" — since internal ATSC tuners are by no means cheap.

Another mandate of the Feds is putting the ability to receive "digital cable" right in every HDTV built from now on.

"Digital cable" involves a slew of cable channels that are being transmitted over the cable-TV wire in bits and bytes. They're typically the channels numbered 100 and above, and they include all the HD channels. Instead of renting an external cable box to pick up these channels, you can pick them up directly with a TV that (the advertising says) has "CableCARD."

In other words, the TV is "digital cable-ready."

Actually, a TV that is digital cable-ready provides just a slot into which a credit card-sized CableCARD may be inserted. You rent the card from your cable company in lieu of a box. With the card inserted in the slot, the TV suddenly can pick up digital cable channels.

Technically, the CableCARD is not needed if you just want to pick up non-scrambled digital cable channels. For example, your cable company possibly will choose not to scramble your local stations' over-the-air digital signals when transmitting them to you, allowing you to avoid the need for a CableCARD on those channels. Unfortunately, I have yet to encounter any reports of this theoretical possiblity actually working, in real life.

The CableCARD costs fewer dollars per month than a digital cable box. But the box can do more. It provides an interactive program guide to make it easier for you to find and access (or set reminders for) scheduled programs up to several days in advance. It allows you to order video-on-demand and pay-per-view programming with your remote, rather than by telephone.

Also, you can often option up the external box to one containing a digital video recorder — for more bucks per month and a lot more viewing flexibility. I find my DVR-equipped HD boxes (I have two) a godsend.

Many cable companies are gradually, over the next few years, switching to all digital channels. Then all their customers will need either a box or CableCARD. Soon, a new generation of CableCARD will let it do everything a box can do ... but the new card won't work in current slots. If you're set on CableCARD, hate the box, but want all the features, this might be a reason for you to postpone buying an HDTV.

More confusion, no?

Another thing you need to consider is whether the HDTV you're eyeing offers a HDMI (or DVI) high-definition digital interface.

It's a plug-in in the back which allows you to connect a cable box or DVD player that has an equivalent plug-in. The signal travels over the wire digitally as bits and bytes, which means it can be displayed cleaner and crisper than if it traveled as an analog signal.

DVI is good, HDMI is better. The latter incorporates digital audio signals and some other goodies that DVI doesn't support. But DVI is good enough, and if you have a cable box with a DVI output and a TV with an HDMI input, the one can be converted to the other by means of an adapter cable.

If your HDTV has neither DVI nor HDMI — I'm totally ignoring yet another digital option, Firewire — then the only way to route a high-definition signal to it from external gear is via the three-headed monster called "component video" — if it's "wideband," that is, and has enough "bandwidth" to carry a full HD signal in analog form.

True, wideband component video can give you a perfectly respectable HD picture. The all-digital HDMI or DVI picture can beat it only marginally. You don't absolutely need HDMI/DVI.

Now, that is. Rumor has it that the high-def DVD players slated to hit the market next year may not output HD at full resolution over wideband component video. Why not? An analog component-video connection can't be copy-protected. HDMI/DVI is typically copy-protected. Hollywood studios don't want you to make unlimited copies of movies in high-def.

So it is not, in my humble opinion, a good idea to buy an HDTV that lacks HDMI/DVI entirely. (Both of mine have DVI.) In fact, it won't be long before most buyers start insisting on two or more HDMI (or DVI) inputs, one for a cable or satellite box, one for a DVD player, and so forth.

And things just get more confusing, right?

Sorry about that. Because watching TV in high-definition is really great. Baseball is much more interesting, with a clean, wide, sharp, colorful picture, augmented with room-filling digital sound to give you the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd.

And when you can record the game in glorious high-definition and then watch it when you want to, so much the better. With a HD cable box with built-in DVR, you can zap the commercials, hit pause, play with your cats, take a nap ... and miss nothing.

It's definitely habit-forming ... you've been warned!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

has anyone had problems with the alignment on you Philips Rear-projection TV. Picture fine, but titles to movies are double.