More to buying HDTV than the price
Experts recommend comparing picture quality in both high and regular definition
Alex L. Goldfayn
Published March 20, 2006
Shopping for an HDTV can feel like learning a new language.
A recent review on Cnet.com, for example, featured horrible phrases like black levels, native resolution, color temperatures, full calibration, red push, grayscale variation, overscan, DC restoration and defeatable-edge enhancement.
Nobody should have to learn what these words mean. Is it necessary when shopping for a high-definition television?
Two leading experts say no.
And they offer the following practical and sometimes surprising advice for when you decide it's time to buy a high-definition television.
- Most of today's HDTVs have excellent but similar displays.
David Katzmaier, senior editor at San Francisco-based Cnet.com, explained it this way:
"There are a lot of complex factors. But one thing to keep in mind is a lot of these TVs are very similar. The general difference in picture quality between them all are relatively subt le."
So what affects a television's picture quality most?
"The source," Katzmaier said, meaning whether the television channel is broadcasting in high definition. "The fact that it's a high-definition source is the main thing that will make the picture look good."
- When you're shopping, compare scenes that are heavy on motion.
What's the best way to pick out a high-definition TV?
"Just look at the picture," said Mike Abt said, president of Glenview-based Abt Electronics. "It is going to go in your house, and you're the one who has to enjoy the TV."
But Abt added to make sure that you're comparing moving pictures when you're checking out televisions.
"The news, for example, doesn't have much action, and it's hard to judge a TV that way. So you want to watch baseball players throwing a ball, or racecars going around. You want to see movement."
- Perhaps surprisingly, non-HD content is often disappointing on HDTVs.
If having a high-definition source most determines picture quality, what happens to the picture quality when displaying non-HD programming?
"If you're watching a non-HD source on an HDTV, you'll be disappointed," Katzmaier said. "Mainly because it's a lot bigger than you're used to. If you blow up a lower-quality source to a large size, it'll be disappointing."
Abt agrees wholeheartedly: "I personally have people look at all the different signals before they buy a TV."
He added that some customers have been very disappointed with the regular-definition programming on their new high-definition TV.
"Non-HD programming could easily have looked better on your old TV than on the new HDTV," Abt said. "And you just paid triple the price of your old TV.
"In fact, my favorite HDTV brand has an embarrassing picture on analog."
The lesson: Before you buy an HDTV, make sure the salesperson shows you the high-definition picture and the regular-definition picture.
- The details on size, price and flat panels.
The demarcation point between a flat-panel TV and a larger projection set is right at 50 inches.
"If you're going to get a TV larger than 50 inches, your only option is a projection TV," Katzmaier said. "Smaller than 50 inches, you're going to want a flat TV."
The difference in price between the two is remarkably small today, said Katzmaier.
"It's only a $500 to $1,000 premium to get a 50-inch plasma instead of a projection."
But today's projection sets are not your father's stand-on-the-floor TVs.
The popular digital light processing (or DLP) sets, for example, are much less bulky than earlier types. And they require a stand or a wall-unit entertainment center.
So does a flat-panel television, unless you're going to mount it on the wall. If that's the case, expect to pay an additional $1,000 or so for an electrician's services (the TV needs electricity, and those ugly black wires need to run behind the wall) and the mount itself.
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
Get a clear picture on HDTV terminology By Don LindichQ: I have a Toshiba HDTV with a 1080p display. Does it convert the 480p signal from my progressive-scan DVD player to 1080p? Do I gain anything from an up-converting a DVD player (such as the Oppo 971) if my Toshiba is already outputting a 1080p display? In any event, I'm very happy with the picture.
Bob Kuhn, Minneapolis
A: Any signal going into your TV will be converted to 1080p for display. More on this later, but first, some background for the rest of our readers.
Numbers such as 1080p, 1080i and 480p refer to screen resolution. The number is the lines of resolution; the higher the number, the better the picture quality. Resolutions of 480 are standard definition television, the format we have been watching for many years. Figures of 720 and 1080 are HDTV quality.
The i and p refer to scanning, either interlaced and progressive. Interlaced scan draws the picture in two separate, interlaced fields. This happens very quickly, so to the viewer it looks like a single image. Progressive scan draws the entire picture in a single pass, producing superior picture quality than interlaced, especially with fast-moving subjects such as sports. This is one reason ABC and ESPN (daughter company of ABC) chose 720p for their HDTV broadcast format.
The most common figures you will see given for TV and DVD players are 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i and, lately, 1080p. The 720p, 1080i and 1080p were specified when the new HDTV format was developed.
The 1080p specification of your Toshiba is tops. It combines the highest lines of resolution with progressive scanning. Standard-definition TV only has a 480i specification; the 480p came later with the advent of HDTV. When HDTVs were introduced, they supported higher scan rates that allowed them to reproduce a 480p image.
Realizing the potential for better image quality, electronics manufacturers developed progressive-scan DVD players. These players take the picture information from the DVD and digitally convert it into a progressive-scan image before sending it to the TV, yielding a better picture.
Whatever signal is fed to your TV will have to be converted to 1080p for display, its native display rate. If you feed it an analog 480p signal from a DVD player, it will be upconverted by the TV to 1080p. It will still look great, but some picture quality may be lost. It is usually better to do up-conversion in the player instead of the TV.
An upconverting DVD player takes the progressive-scan DVD player a step further. Instead of simply assembling the 480-line picture progressively, it converts it to an HDTV resolution such as 720p or 1080i before sending it to the TV. It does not create an HDTV image, but if the upconversion is done well, you will get a better picture than you would with a 480p DVD player. If this upconversion is not done well, it will have picture defects and may look much worse than a standard 480p image. Not all players do upconversion well, and some have been noticeably bad, one of several reasons I recommend the Oppo so strongly. It's only $200, has proven to be a top-grade performer, and is very well supported by the manufacturer. Though it outputs 1080i and not 1080p, I do think it will yield a better image than your 480p progressive scan player and is worth the investment. You can see it at www.oppodigital.com.
Now for your 1080p Toshiba. As I noted before, the 1080p specification is the best available. However, no 1080p video sources exist to feed it a 1080p signal, so everything coming in will be converted to 1080p. As you have noted, it looks great and you are happy. Fact is, most people are happy with their HDTV picture, be it 720p, 1080i, or 1080p. Well-done HDTV in any form looks magnificent, and more variations in picture quality will be seen between different models of TVs than the display resolution.
I think we get obsessed with number crunching sometimes. When shopping, don't choose a HDTV based on numbers, but by looking at the picture it produces.
Don Lindich is the creator of the "Digital Made Easy" series of books. Submit your audio, video and digital photography questions to
1 year report card on HDTV
It's been a year since I became the proud owner of my first HDTV so I figure it's time for a report card, for the benefit of all those folks out there who haven't taken the high-definition plunge just yet.
Lots of them are probably wondering: "Is it worth it?" " Does HDTV really look that much better?" And perhaps, most important: "Why should I spend so much for one of these things when there still isn't much HD programming?"
The answers: Yes. Yes. There's enough HD programming now to make it worthwhile.
Sure, a good HDTV is probably going to set you back at least $2000. Maybe a lot more, especially if you just have to have plasma or can't live without a giant 60-inch screen.
But if you really enjoy TV, or just watching DVDs, an HDTV is worthwhile.
That's because HDTVs represent a quantum leap in picture quality over the best analog TVs (those are the regular old TVs most of us have been using for years). The level of detail in HD is simply remarkable. On the very best HD programs, it's utterly lifelike. Sharper than the sharpest movie you have ever seen in a theater. It's pretty amazing. I'm still impressed by some shows, even after a year of living with HDTV.
And if you are a sports nut, you should run, not walk, to buy an HDTV. It brings sports to an entirely new level -- not only because of the sharper picture but because of the widescreen format. Football and basketball, in particular, look totally different on an HDTV because you can see so much more of what is going on. You might not think the wider screen would make that much of a difference but it does.
Yeah, there could be more HD programming. And some HD shows are better than others. But nearly all of the major networks broadcast HD in prime time, when most people watch. And most major sports events are in HD.
What's perhaps most surprising -- to me anyway -- is that I am this enthusiastic about HDTV. I have to admit I was a bit skeptical before I finally took the plunge, wondering if I would regret it later. I have not.
So if you have the money and have any interest in upgrading your TV, I'd say go for it. Just make sure you do your research first so you understand the different HD display technologies and what's required to get HD signals where you live -- either over the air, via cable or satellite.
Posted by Tony Briggs on March 20, 2006 01:00 PM | Permalink
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