A Guide to HDTVs

Here's relevant info on HDTVs that you can use to get your home equipped with the latest television technology without breaking your budget.

You're dreaming of a gleaming flat-screen panel mounted to your living-room wall, filling your days and nights with crystal-clear TV shows, movies and sports. You set off to the local electronics store only to be confronted with numbers, acronyms and a range of products that make your head spin. It's really not that complicated to understand.

What Is HDTV?
HDTV, or high-definition television, is a new type of broadcasting that delivers superior images and sound to your home. HDTV is digital, but not all digital TV is HDTV. For a signal to qualify as HDTV, it must have a resolution of at least 720i.

Resolution is a measurement of the number of lines in an image. For the last several decades, we've been watching SDTV, which has a vertical resolution of 480 lines. There are two ways of displaying the image on a television: interlaced, in which every other line is skipped as the picture is scanned from top to bottom (1, 3, 5, etc. on one pass and 2, 4, 6, etc. on the next pass) or progressive, where every line is scanned on each pass. The two standard definition resolutions are 480i (interlaced) and 480p (progressive). Get close enough to an older TV and you can see the space between the scan lines.

HDTV provides a clearer picture by increasing the number of horizontal scan lines. A 720i or 720p HDTV has 720 horizontal lines, while a 1080i or 1080p HDTV has 1,080 scan lines.

Do I Need a 1080p HDTV?
It's easy to spot the difference between SDTV and HDTV, but it's harder for most people to spot the difference between 720p and 1080p. From a technical standpoint, a 1080p HDTV has the best resolution available. However, nobody broadcasts in 1080p (1080i is the highest-resolution broadcast in use), so the only way you'll fully tap that resolution is with a Blu-ray player or a video game system. For television, you're unlikely to notice much difference between a 720p or a 1080i signal unless you have a very keen eye.

Some manufacturers market their 1080p sets as "true" or "full" HDTV. There's nothing real to back up this claim; it's just marketing lingo. Any TV that can display an image at 720i or higher is HDTV.

If you're on a budget or you're looking at an HDTV with a screen that's 40" or less, you can skip 1080p. You won't notice the enhanced picture on a screen smaller than 40". For larger HDTVs, it's a matter of personal preference. If you can spot the difference, then it's worth the extra money for a 1080p HDTV. You can also sit closer to a 1080p set without noticing image problems.

HDTV and Compression
First off, understand that all television signals are compressed to some degree. It would cost too much for broadcasters to send uncompressed signals, and signal space is limited by bandwidth, or the amount of information that a system can handle.

Compression only becomes an issue when there's too much of it, as this degrades the HDTV signal to the point where it's not very HD anymore. In the worst-case scenario, you'll notice the difference, and if you're dealing with a weak HDTV source, you'll want to think twice about investing in a 1080p HDTV.

Here's the compression breakdown, from least-compressed to most:

  1. Off-air broadcast. Very little compression, but you'll only get local channels. Just put an antenna somewhere in your home and enjoy. You don't need a special HDTV antenna, just one that can pick up UHF channels, since all HDTV is broadcast on UHF frequencies.
  2. Fiber optic. Verizon FIOS offers premium channels and less compression than cable and satellite, thanks to the high bandwidth of fiber-optic cable.
  3. Satellite. Compression varies among providers and is problematic in some areas. You'll get the widest selection of HDTV channels available, with DirecTV specializing in sports and Dish Network specializing in international channels. Check customer reviews in your area to see if compression is an issue.
  4. Cable. Coaxial cable has the least bandwidth, so these can be the most-compressed HDTV signals. Again, check customer reviews in your area to find out if compression is a problem. If it is, you're best off with a 720p HDTV unless you're a serious movie buff and plan to use a Blu-ray player extensively.

Choosing an HDTV
The best HDTV for you is the one that looks best to your eyes, so shop around and compare the images on different types of sets. LCD HDTV sets are the most popular; these are lighter in weight and durable, but they have backlit screens and can't generate dark black colors, so sharpness and detail sometimes suffer.

Plasma is the other flat-screen HDTV option, but the popularity of LCD has made plasma HDTVs less common. You won't find plasma sets smaller than 42". For sets 50" and larger, plasma is often less expensive than LCD. Plasma has deeper black colors for added sharpness, but the sets themselves are fragile and susceptible to image burn from static images, such as maps in video games.

Rear-projection HDTV sets are also becoming less common. These can look like a bargain at screen sizes of 60" or more, but some sets use light bulbs that must be replaced every so often at a cost of $100 or more per bulb. LED light engine models may last longer than standard bulbs, but the technology is so new that in-home testing has yet to yield results. You can also choose a front-projection HDTV if you don't want a bulky rear-projection set in your home.

Whichever type of HDTV you choose, look for at least two HDMI ports to connect HD components. You should also be sure that the set has an ATSC tuner to receive digital channels. All televisions built for sale in the United States since March 2007 are required to have these tuners, but older sets and monitors (screens without tuners) may lack them.

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