DEFINING TERMS ON HIGH DEFINITION
High-definition televisions are in the stores, with pictures--and prices--that will take your breath away. The sets start at about $5,500, which is enough to discourage most shoppers. And they're not fully standardized--another good reason to wait. If you really want to buy now, here are the basics:
Do I really need a digital TV?
No--or not yet. Until at least 2006, broadcasters will continue to ''simulcast'' any new digital or HDTV programs in analog form, viewable on any TV. After that, so-called converter boxes costing less than $500 will convert the digital signals for older TVs.
What do words such as ''480i,'' ''720p,'' and ''1080i'' mean?
These are three of the 18 display formats that the Federal Communications Commission has approved for digital-TV broadcasts. The numbers refer to scanning lines that make up a TV picture. ''I'' stands for ''interlace,'' a way of splitting and scanning images that is used in today's analog sets. The alternative is progressive (''p''), where all the lines of the picture are scanned in each frame. Computer monitors use this approach. Roughly speaking, 480i means picture quality equal to today's best analog sets. True high definition begins at 720p. The best you will see on today's HDTVs is 1080i.
Will TV pictures ever exceed 1080i?
Yes. In a few years, even better 1080p displays will be available. What's more, none of today's HDTV sets can display the full number of picture elements that some broadcasters are sending--1,920 pixels on each horizontal line. Professional monitors that can show that kind of resolution cost about $25,000.
Does a digital TV need a separate set-top box to display images?
Some manufacturers, such as Sony, have built tuner/decoders into the TVs. Others sell the monitors and set-tops separately. There are good reasons for that. The technology is still evolving, and the ''interfaces''--meaning jacks and sockets for connecting different components--are not yet standardized. Compatibility with cable is also up in the air. That means changes might be needed in the set-top box's electronics.
Do you mean the new sets can't connect to cable?
It depends on what you mean by ''connect.'' You can plug them in and watch ordinary cable programs. But your cable box, right now, can't decode the new digital broadcast signals. To watch the broadcasts in digital form, you'll probably have to put an antenna on the roof, and maybe use a separate converter box.
Then what's the big advantage of digital television?
There are many. First, the digital broadcasts will look great--if you can receive them. In addition, most of the digital sets will clean up analog signals, using tricks such as ''line-doubling'' to make certain TV shows look crisper. Some of the wide-screen models will subtly ''stretch'' ordinary TV shows to fill up the screen, giving a more cinematic look. A new generation of digital video disk players, arriving this fall, will allow ''digital to digital'' output, meaning the images will be displayed exactly as they were recorded.
Are there other cool applications?
Most of the sets will double as giant computer monitors. And low-cost digital ''appliances'' are on the way, which will facilitate Web-browsing, videoconferencing, 3-D chat, and video games. All of these activities are a lot more compelling on giant, high-resolution screens than on cramped PC monitors.
Is HDTV better than a digital satellite-TV system?
Your satellite picture right now, on an analog TV, is as good as most low-end digital TVs will deliver. But there's no question that the picture on an HDTV set showing high-definition programming is far better than anything you get on today's satellite systems. Soon, Hitachi and RCA/Thomson will sell digital TVs with built-in HDTV and satellite receiver circuitry. These sets will display all digital-TV formats plus ordinary satellite programs and new HDTV satellite signals.
By Neil Gross in New York
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