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Understanding HDTV

Unless you plan to be at the University of Phoenix Stadium on Feb. 3, the only way to see the Super Bowl is on TV, which is why a lot of people are going to be buying big-screen TVs between now and then.

Even if you’re not a big football fan, this is a good time to consider getting a flat panel high-definition TV. Prices on screens larger than 40 inches fell nearly 40 percent in 2007, according to analysis firm iSupply.

While prices will continue to decline, the rate of decline should subside a bit this year, according to iSuppy analyst Riddhi Patel.

Another reason to consider buying now is that the technology is finally relatively mature. That’s not to say that sets won’t get better over time – that’s always the case with technology – but they’ve stabilized. For example, you can already get a pretty good price on sets that display 1080p resolution, which is the highest we’re likely to see over the next several years.

1080 means the set has 1,080 lines of vertical resolution while the “p” stands for “progressive”, meaning the entire image is displayed at one time, as opposed to 1080i where the display is interlaced. Some high-definition TVs today display 720p, which actually is still very good compared to a standard definition TV.

While no TV network broadcasts in 1080p (most broadcast in 720p or 1080i), even that interlaced 1080i signal looks great on a 1080p TV. The bottom line is that 1080p is as good as it gets and the price difference between 1080p and 720p is dropping as well.

Aside from resolution, the other questions you need to ask yourself are the size of the set, the display technology and what features and inputs you want.

The size of the set should depend on how far you plan to sit from the TV, which, of course, depends partially on the size of the room. The further away you are, the larger the screen should be. One rule of thumb is that the distance between you and the screen should be between 1.5 and 2.5 times the diagonal size of the screen.

So, if you have a 50 inch screen, you should sit between 75 inches (just over 6 feet) and 125 inches (about 10 feet) from the screen. Of course, you should measure the distance and do the math before you buy the TV. Crutchfield Advisor has a convenient chart that gives you a pretty good idea of the relationship between screen size and viewing distance.

Another big question is the technology. The three major technologies today are LCD, plasma and rear projection TV. Until a couple of years ago, LCD was only for screens 32 inches and below, but as it comes down in price, it’s now popular with screens in the 52 inch and below category. Plasmas are popular in the larger screen sizes (50 inches and above) while rear-screen projection systems tend to dominate the very large screen market – 58 inches and above.

Plasma and LCD have their pros and cons. As a general rule, plasma tends to look better from a wider variety of angles so may be more suitable if you’re sitting off to one side, though recent LCD sets do a pretty good job even if you’re not looking directly at the center of the screen. LCDs do better in bright light conditions, which might be important if you’re watching during the day in a room with big windows. LCDs are also more energy efficient than plasma.

Listen to Magid interview HDTV Expert Alfred Poor

Some people swear that plasma has a softer, more realistic look, though others prefer the look of LCD. Historically there was a concern that plasma TVs would have a shorter life span, but that’s not much of an issue today. I personally find both plasma and LCD appealing and opt for LCD mostly for energy savings.

The obvious advantage of rear-screen is that you get a lot more screen real estate for the dollar, but you have to replace the bulbs in these sets every 5,000 to 7,000 hours of viewing time, and bulbs can cost as much as $300. Rear-screen TVs are also a lot thicker, so, in most cases, they can’t be hung on a wall.

It’s important to pay attention to the inputs on your set. The current standard for many high-definition components is called HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface). HDMI carries both the picture and the sound in a single cable so it’s quite convenient. Most new high-definition DVD players, personal video recorders and media players such as Apple TV have an HDMI output, so it’s important to have a TV with HDMI input. It’s actually important to have multiple HDMI inputs so you can accommodate multiple sources.

The set I’m testing right now has four HDMI inputs, which is a good thing because I can use it with a Blu-ray (high definition DVD) player, personal video recorder/tuner and an Apple TV without having to switch cables.

I’m testing a 52-inch Vizio GV52LF LCD TV. With a suggested retail price of $2,499, it’s a lot less expensive than similar size TVs from major companies, but I’m very impressed by the picture and sound quality. The specifications are excellent: 1080p, removable stereo speakers, four HDMI inputs, digital audio output, etc.

It’s not state-of-the art in that (as far as I can tell) it has the old-fashioned frame rate of 60 hertz as opposed to the more desirable120 hertz. 120 hertz allows the set to display twice as many images a second, thereby reducing motion blurs. Having said that, I don’t notice any motion blur even when I watch action movies.

I didn’t test it, but Westinghouse Digital has a 52 inch set that you can purchase online for $2,000. I’ve tried out other sets from Westinghouse Digital that were quite nice. Regardless of the company, smaller sets are less expensive.

Of course, you can spend $2,000 more on a similar-sized set from Sony and other premium brands, but the difference in quality will be relatively small considering the difference in price. If you compare the Vizio or another bargain brand like Magnavox or Westinghouse Digital side by side with a $4,000 TV you might notice a difference, but if you bring it home and compare it with your old standard definition set, you’ll be blown away by the difference.