Technological progress continues to transform most if not all aspects of modern human life, and home entertainment is no exception. Decades ago, our elders were thrilled with the very first radio receivers designed for home use, and the earliest television sets, which were more cabinetry than picture tube. Nowadays, we take for granted full-stereo CD/cassette/radio receivers and color television sets whose picture quality would astound our ancestors.
Yet the innovators in consumer electronics continue to push the envelope, and we are now seeing such advancements as portable satellite radio and high-definition television (HDTV). That latter category has been available in Asia, but not America, for some time now — enough to prompt Congress to pass the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which will force a switch to digital TV modulation.
Just as those very first radio and television sets seemed to be technical miracles to those consumers seeing them for the first time, HDTV has its own set of technical wrinkles that could easily prove confusing to anyone unfamiliar with television display technology. For instance, how does HDTV differ from HD, SD, or ED? What is meant by 480i, 720i, and 1080i? Is 720p60 different from 720p? What is interlaced versus progressive scan?
The features of these new HDTV products can be quite impressive, but the technical details can be equally overwhelming. To the earnest shopper who would like to purchase their first HDTV, and get the most entertainment bang for the buck, they can talk to friends or salespeople, but only hope that the former are knowledgeable, and the latter are honest, and not just trying to unload soon-to-be obsolete merchandise to make room for the products that the hapless consumer should have waited for.
While there is certainly no harm in soliciting advice from third parties, it behooves the prospective customer to spend some time on the Internet, learning about HDTV in general, the available features, and up-to-date product comparisons.
Seeing the Big Picture
But it would be helpful to first consider what HDTV is all about, and why the entertainment enthusiast should even bother learning more about it and considering making an investment in it.
HDTV comprises a set of standards for digital television, and also refers to any TV set that supports the standards. Note that analog high-definition (HD) TV has been in the works for many years, and has normally been seen in only the largest and most expensive TV sets in the United States. But the new HDTV standards are fully digital, completely eliminating the washed out images and "snow" that have plagued analog sets through the ages.
There are many other advantages to HDTV displays over conventional large-screen TVs. Even before an HDTV is turned on, you will notice that the display has an aspect ratio (horizontal / vertical) typically much greater than the standard 4:3. The current standards call for an HDTV aspect ratio of 16:9. This difference is especially appreciated by movie lovers, who consequently can see much more of the movie, as intended by the director, with little to none of the cropping, pan-and-scan, or letterbox techniques normally used to cram a movie picture into a (more narrow) TV display.
Once the HDTV set is turned on, another immediately apparent difference is that its image resolution is far superior to the typical 525 vertical lines of display (625 in Europe). This naturally makes the images more detailed, and thus more lifelike. In addition, the range of possible colors (the "bandwidth") is greatly expanded, thus improving the richness and realism of the pictures. Just as LCD flat-panel monitors tend to be easier on the eyes than CRT monitors, HDTVs are more pleasing to watch than non-HDTV sets.
But the benefits do not end there. The consumer who switches over to HDTV may also be pleasantly surprised when they receive their electricity bill, which should be lower (everything else being equal), since HDTV products use less electricity than their counterparts of the same screen size. This advantage will grow in importance if and when energy costs continue to escalate.
Helpful Descriptions of TVs
A terrific first stop on the Internet, for everything HDTV, is Engadget HD, which features HDTV industry and product news, feature stories, polls, and perhaps most important to the prospective buyer, product reviews. Furthermore, there are separate sections for hardware (e.g., HD discs, DVRs, receivers, recorders), major manufacturers, channels offering HD programming, details on specific technologies, and much more.
Not to be missed is an illustrated article titled "High Definition: The Big Picture". The lengthy URL is worth pasting into your browser, because the article provides an overview, as well as clear explanations of display sizes, HD DVD vs. Blu-ray disc formats, High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI), High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP), and component video, for TVs without a HDMI port.
HDTV Primer has sections describing the technical and even political background of HDTV. Even better, it has a worthy checklist of decisions that you should make before even venturing into your local electronics store, as well as important questions to ask the salesperson. In their section titled "After-Purchase Hints and Tips", the site visitor will find a list of common questions and answers.
Hardly Dull TVs
If and when you are convinced that you would like to begin enjoying the benefits of HDTVs many advantages, then it is time to do some product research. In addition to Engadget HD's excellent product reviews noted above, be sure to check out those offered by PC Magazine and Consumer Guide.
To find out what TV shows are available to you that will take advantage of your fancy new HDTV set, there are many websites that can help you find out. HDTV Pub is a quick way to see how much support there is for HDTV in your area; just search by ZIP code. The site also has reports on the various types of HDTV content providers --satellite, cable, and over the air — as well as HDTV reception for those last two types, by city.
When you are ready for more active role playing than getting absorbed in a good movie, you can check their list of over two dozen video games that support 720p and/or 1080i HDTV resolutions.
Our great-grandchildren may be watching their TV programming in the form of full-sized and lifelike holograms, and they may scoff at HDTV as "dinosaur technology". But for now, we can enjoy the visual magic.