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The ABCs of HDTV

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Updated: 6/09/2004 9:54 am
By Frank Devlin
The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of HDTV.

Though about 8 million TV sets capable of displaying the superior images produced by high-definition technology have been sold, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, my HDTV viewing has been limited to prolonged visits to home theater merchandisers.

At Tweeter, I stood transfixed before a Pioneer Elite flat plasma screen showing Game 1 of the Philadelphia Flyers-Tampa Bay Lightning series, and I don't even much care for hockey.

The thing that strikes me about sports in high-definition TV isn't so much the extra clarity the technology provides but the way the motion of the players looks smoother, as if you're watching it from the stadium or arena stands.

Another day at Best Buy, I stood transfixed before a Sony Grand Wega LCD rear-projection model that was showing a series of ever-shrinking letters - sort of a video eye chart - to show just how tiny images can get on a high-definition TV and still be clear.

The thing that strikes me about watching an eye chart in high definition is that I'm standing there watching an eye chart.

If HDTV can make an eye chart exciting - and even hockey - we are dealing with powerful technology indeed.

But for all its superiority over regular TV, HDTV isn't perfect.

It can get prohibitively expensive.

There can be problems when you try to play regular TV programs on high-definition sets.

And the emergence of HDTV is happening at the same time that a complex array of new TV sets are becoming popular, including sleek plasmas that can hang on the wall and so-called "micro projection" TVs that aren't as thin as plasmas but are much thinner than traditional rear-projection TVs.

The point of all this?

Don't buy an HD set until you read these warnings about HDTV.

HDTV Warning No. 1: You can drive yourself nuts trying to decide which type of high-definition TV to buy.

Not too long ago, there were only two types of televisions in wide circulation. There were the "regular" kind - the ones with glass picture tubes - and rear-projection televisions, which could be built much bigger than picture-tube TVs.

Generally, the picture quality on picture-tube televisions was pretty good, and the picture quality on projection TVs was pretty bad.

Well, there are still picture-tube TVs, and they're still pretty good. In fact, videophiles agree they still have the best picture quality. And there are still rear-projection televisions, and they're much better than they used to be.

But now there are so-called "flat panel" TVs known as plasma and LCD TVs. They can hang on the wall, they look cool and they're expensive.

And there is a new breed of projection televisions known as "micro display" TVs that come in cabinets that aren't as bulky as traditional rear-projection cabinets.

All have their strengths and weaknesses.

Picture-tube TVs, also known as "direct view" TVs, are among the least-expensive high-definition sets - at about $800 to $2,500 - but also among the smallest. The largest is a Sony 40-inch model that's not widescreen like most high-definition sets. It costs $2,500. The largest widescreen tube televisions are 34 inches.

The upside to tube, TV experts agree, is that it still produces the best picture of all the technologies. The downside is the biggest tube sets are heavy at 200 pounds or more and bulky at about 2 feet deep.

Rear projection sets are less expensive, inch for inch, than many tube TVs and the screen sizes can be made up to 82 inches, according to the electronics association. But the picture quality suffers in bright rooms. And with sunlight streaming in, forget it.

And then there's the problem of the "sweet spot," the area the viewer must occupy for the television to look its best. With a traditional projection TV, it's not very big. Move to the right or the left of the screen or even lie on the floor and you will perceive a picture that is much worse - fuzzy, less bright - than when you were sitting in a chair directly across from the television.

To maximize the performance of a rear-projection TV, enthusiasts say, watch it in a darkened room, sit in the sweet spot and make sure the tubes inside the set that produce the picture are properly aligned. Some televisions allow owners to align the tubes themselves - automatically with the push of a button - but some require professional service. The industry term for aligning the tubes, also called "guns," is "convergence."

Micro-display projection TVs look better in bright light than traditional projection TVs and they look better when you move from side to side and up and down. They aren't as bulky as traditional projection televisions because their cabinets are about half as deep.

The alphabet soup of micro-display sets includes technologies called LCD - not to be confused with LCD flat panel TVs - as well as DLP and LCOS.

They all cost more money inch for inch than traditional projection televisions. Panasonic sells a 53-inch traditional projection TV, the PT-53WX53, for $1,699.99. A 50-inch LCD-projection TV from Panasonic sells for $2,999.95. And TV experts say that, unlike traditional projection TVs, micro displays can't produce a true black. They look good to me, though.

Flat panel sets are the sexiest of all TVs these days. They use either plasma or LCD technology and are so thin, at about 3 to 6 inches deep, that they can hang on the wall.

As with tube TVs, the pictures look sharp even when viewed at wide angles and only a few feet from the screen. And even though tube TVs are considered best for picture quality, the flat panels don't seem far off.

But at what cost?

Well, how about $11,000 for a 50-inch Pioneer Elite series model?

But you can get plasma for much less. A 32-inch Sony sells for about $4,000.

LCD flat panels don't get as big as plasma sets - the biggest is 40 inches, according to the electronics association - but are still expensive. A 30-inch Mitsubishi goes for $5,000.

HDTV Warning No. 2: Be aware that not all plasma TVs are high definition.

Non-HD plasma sets are commonly called "EDTV" for "enhanced definition" and are a few thousand dollars less than comparably sized high-definition models.

With a clarity level somewhere between DVD and true high definition, they're not anything to scoff at. But if you have your heart set on high definition, they may disappoint.

HDTV Warning No. 3: If you buy a super-expensive plasma HDTV now, you may rue the decision at Christmastime.

Several TV experts predict prices will drop, perhaps in the thousands of dollars on the more expensive sets, by next holiday season.

HDTV Warning No. 4: HDTV signals may not be available from a cable system in your area.

HDTV is available through cable systems and satellite television services, including DirecTV and Dish Network. You can also get HDTV signals over the air with an old-fashioned antenna - rabbit ears or rooftop.

If you go the antenna route, you can only get broadcast channels such as 3, 6 and 10, not cable channels like ESPN and HBO. And if you go the antenna route, try to buy a set that says "HDTV" on it, not one that says "HD Ready." A set that says "HDTV" has a tuner built in that decodes HD signals. "HD Ready" means you have to buy a separate tuner, which will cost about $500.

Cable and satellite systems provide tuners with their service so an HD Ready set will work fine.

HDTV Warning No. 5: If you get HDTV from a cable or satellite provider, it will cost you.

Not only do you pay a premium for a high-definition set, you also pay extra for the high-definition programming.

It costs up to $10 extra a month to get high definition from your cable company if you don't already have digital service and about $5 extra per month if you do already have digital.

High-definition service generally includes the high-definition versions of broadcast channels, which show most prime-time shows in high definition, plus the high-definition channel for HBO and other pay channels if you're a subscriber to the pay channels.

A deluxe high-definition package generally costs another $10 and includes the ESPN high-definition channel, Discovery's high-definition channel and other networks.

DirecTV and Dish Network both offer high-definition channels, including ESPN, Discovery and others to subscribers for about $10 extra a month.

High Definition Warning No. 6: Not every program on some high-definition channels is telecast in high definition. Which leads us to ...

High Definition Warning No. 7: When you watch a non-HD show on an HDTV, the picture quality could look worse than it would on a regular television.

I was enjoying yet another hockey game in high definition recently at Tweeter on a 60-inch Sony Grand Wega LCD projection TV ($5,500). I wanted to know what DVD, which is not a high-definition technology, would look like on the set. The salesman popped in "Finding Nemo."

The meant-to-be vibrant colors looked pale and the edges of the images looked fuzzy instead of sharp. A cable news channel looked worse. The "Finding Nemo" DVD and cable TV looks much better on my old-fashioned TV at home.

After that, I asked salespeople at other stores to switch from high definition to DVD and cable feeds and the results were similar.

Videophiles recommend progressive scan DVD players, which read the video information differently than standard DVD players and cost a bit more, for high definition sets, but this won't always solve the problem.

Al Griffin, senior editor at Sound and Vision, says his magazine gets a lot of letters that go like this: "Why do most programs look bad on my high-definition set?"

Gary Merson, editor of the HDTV Insider newsletter, says the problem is worse with micro projection and flat panel sets than with direct view tube televisions and traditional projection TVs.

The problem, he says, has to do with the reason high-definition TV looks sharper than regular TV.

Merson says high-definition broadcasts include much more video information - up to 1,080 lines of vertical resolution - than regular TV, which has 480.

Stacked on top of one another, Griffin says, these lines make the picture on the television. High definition also has more information from side to side than regular television, using up to 1,980 pixels from left to right vs. 640 for regular TV.

Merson says the plasma and micro display HDTVs are built to accept the better quality signals and when they don't get them the result can sometimes be mediocre picture quality.

Some manufacturers, though, install devices to better "upconvert" less than high-definition signals, he says.

This will be less of a problem for all televisions as years go by, Griffin says, because more and more programming will be produced in high definition, and video enthusiast magazines say high-definition DVDs are only about a year from reality.

HDTV Warning No. 8: The widescreen shape of most high-definition TVs has only partially solved the problem of those annoying dark bars that are on the top and bottom of your TV screen for some programs.

With widescreen TVs, those bars on the top and bottom of the screen are smaller or gone altogether because movies - and TV shows shot in widescreen - fit much better on a widescreen TV than on a traditional television, which is more squarish.

But on a widescreen, bars appear on the right and left side of the screen for all the shows past and present produced to fit regular TV screens.

HDTVs have buttons to get rid of those bars but each solution has its own drawback.

Some buttons stretch a regular TV image - which has 4:3 ratio, width to height - to fill the whole widescreen TV, which has a 16:9 ratio. But that makes the image look distorted. "People look shorter and wider than what they normally would," said Jim Ferlino of Vistacom, an Allentown, Pa., company that installs audio and video equipment.

Other functions blow up the 4:3 image so it fills the whole screen and then chop off the parts of the picture that overlap the top and bottom. Ferlino says he just watches with the dark bars on each side.

The 4:3 to 16:9 shift is one area where most DVDs will do just fine, though, since many are produced with an option to switch the image from 4:3 to 16:9.

In fact, we've been dealing with chopped pictures for years, because the edges of movies have been hacked away to make them fit into television-shaped frames.

HDTV Warning No. 9: If one image is left on your screen, or part of your screen, for too long, it could "burn in" and leave a mark.

This was a problem before HDTV, too, but now that televisions can cost $15,000, it's best to repeat the warning. If you're one of those people who has CNBC on all day for background noise, with its ever present stock ticker, watch that channel on one of your old, cheap TVs, Griffin says.

All TV technologies are subject to the burn-in problem, says Consumer Electronics Association spokeswoman Jenny Miller, but it's a bigger problem with plasmas, tubes and traditional projection televisions than with LCD flat panels and micro-projection TVs.

Still, Miller says, if you get a new TV, "you would have to leave it on for 36 hours on a static screen to burn in." And electronics manufacturers these days are making sure things like menus on DVD players and other products act as "screen savers" and bounce a bit so no burn-in occurs. "It's getting to be less of a problem," she says. But if your TV, DVD players and other components aren't new, don't bank on the 36-hour rule. Video games are notorious screen killers.

As long as we're talking about plasma and warnings, here's something of a retraction.

Warnings have been circulating that plasma TVs will conk out after three years or so. Not true, says Griffin and Merson.

"Personally I've had one at home for two years, I haven't seen any degradation" in quality, Griffin said.

Merson says plasmas actually should last longer than traditional projection TVs before the picture fades - from 30,000 to 60,000 hours of use vs. 15,000 from projection TVs. By the way, 30,000 hours is equal to 1,250 days. That's 3 years or so, but it's 3 years or so of 24-hour days. "The technology will be obsolete before the set is too dark to watch," Merson said.

HDTV Warning No. 10: Plasmas are expensive to mount on a wall, which is their raison d'etre.

Figure on about $1,000 in addition to the cost of the TV, if done professionally.


Sets that can display HDTV:

_Tube TV

Description: The oldest TV technology.

Pros: Still the best-looking picture, dependable, relatively inexpensive. Top of the line Sony 34-inch goes for $2,500 but you can get 30-inch wide screens for about $1,000.

Cons: Largest screen size is only 40 inches; bigger sets are heavy, deep and difficult to move or place in cabinets.

Technology: Electron beams create a picture when they hit phosphors coating the front of the cathode ray tube.

_Cathode Ray Tube or "Traditional" Rear Projection TV

Description: Tried and true technology that doesn't whip up the excitement flat TVs do. Bulkier - many are about two feet deep - than newer, thinner projection TVs that don't use tubes.

Pros: Relatively inexpensive. Widescreen sets over 50 inches are available for less than $2,000 from several manufacturers.

Cons: Picture fades in a bright room and when the viewer watches on an angle or even when sitting on the floor.

Technology: Image originates in a cathode ray and is projected onto a larger screen.

_Slimmer Rear Projection TV

Description: Starting at about 15 inches deep, not as bulky as traditional, tube-based projection TVs.

Pros: Picture looks crisp in brighter light and at wider angles than with traditional projection TVs.

Cons: More expensive than traditional projection TVs. A 42-inch Sony is $2,800.

Technology: Instead of a tube, these TVs take images created with liquid crystal display and other technologies and project them onto the big screen.

_Flat Panel TVs

Description: As thin as 4 inches, they can hang on the wall.

Pros: Sleek; picture looks bright from various angles and heights.

Cons: Very expensive. A 42-inch Sony plasma and a 37-inch Sharp LCD go for about $6,000 each. Larger, high end plasma sets can sell for well over $10,000; LCD sets don't get much bigger than the 37-inch Sharp. Some manufacturers sell "Enchanced Definition" for thousands of dollars less but they do not offer a high-definition quality picture.

Technology: There are two kinds. Plasma sets use neon and xenon gas and an grid of electrodes to produce a picture, LCD uses liquid crystals.


© 2004, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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