Technology

HDTV: A Shopper's Survival Guide


Flat or fat? EDTV or HDTV? LCD or plasma? Anyone who's on the hunt for a new TV set these days knows getting a dream screen can be more confusing than the plotline of Days of Our Lives. It's no wonder: The TV market is undergoing its biggest change in 50 years, when the first color set was introduced.

Manufacturers such as Sony (SNE), Panasonic (MC), and Toshiba are leading a charge to develop flat-panel sets, which range from plasma and liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) to rear-projection sets and even to advanced versions of the incumbent cathode ray tube (CRT). At the same time, new digital standards are leading to the rise of high-definition programming, which eventually will replace those fuzzy analog broadcasts that now rule.

By yearend, 13% of U.S. households will have digital TVs, according to the Consumer Electronics Assn. But that number is expected to jump to at least 65% by 2008 as prices fall sharply and government regulations on broadcasting digital programming take effect.

SIZE AND PRICE. Clearly, the buzz is building. You can't watch a new movie nowadays without seeing glitzy flat-panel TVs beaming images ostentatiously in the background. And friends and neighbors increasingly are making it hard to keep up with the Joneses.

But even the experts seem confused about how things will shake out. Research analysts at market researcher iSuppli argue that consumers most likely will go with big brand names on their purchases. However, a December survey of 1,200 potential shoppers conducted by research firm IDC found brand tied for last with a TV's "aspect ratio" -- whether its image is widescreen or letterbox style -- as an important reason in buying.

Not surprisingly, the top factors influencing American shoppers are screen size and price. "The HD market is moving from early adopters who covet having a TV mounted on a wall to the early majority that places a greater priority on the largest picture at the lowest price," says Samsung Vice-President Jim Sanduski.

LOST HAIR. Projection sets are most likely to fit that bill. Many that are 45 inches and above now cost less than $3,000, offering great home theater experiences. Unfortunately for shoppers, the rear-projection category is the most confusing. Potential customers are pulling out their hair trying to determine how technologies such as digital light processing (DLP), liquid crystal on silicon (LCoS), LCD, and CRT differ.

Don't get hung up on the differences. All these technologies look good, particularly in darkened rooms with plenty of space to sit back and relax. One caveat, however, is that manufacturers believe rear-projection CRTs are likely to go away over time as the other technologies improve enough to cut a set's depth and allow it to be mounted on a wall.

TV makers appear most optimistic about LCD technology in all types of sets. Part of that may be economics. Huge new LCD-panel factories will come online next year and drive prices lower as manufacturers compete for sales. LCD sets also cost less to manufacture, since the technology has been around longer as an extension of LCDs for personal computers, offering the potential for higher margins.

EARLY FAVORITES. But lest you think mere greed motivates them, manufacturers also note that LCDs generally have a longer lifespan than rival technologies, are less power-hungry, and have fewer flaws. New sets like Sharp's 45-inch LC-45GX6U and Samsung's 46-inch LT-468W offer the highest resolutions capable for digital TVs -- 1,920 pixels by 1,080 pixels, well above the 852 by 480 of many so-called enhanced definition, or "HD-ready," sets on the market today.

Still, plasmas are the early favorite with shoppers. In many cases, a plasma picture is brighter than an LCD, and fast-moving video displayed on plasma sets doesn't suffer from the jagged images that appear as LCDs try to show fast-moving pictures. Some no-frills sets that offer the lower-resolution enhanced definition now retail for less than $2,000, or about half the cost of a comparable LCD.

But plasma sets give many buyers the jitters because they lose brightness over time. They also don't work in altitudes above 7,000 feet because their internal gases can't tolerate the height, and they're prone to burn-in, where static images can appear as permanent ghosts if they're left on the screen too long. What's more, unlike some LCDs, no plasma currently on the market today is capable of broadcasting all the approved high-definition formats.

CRTs ON A DIET. Now that you've heard the pluses and minuses of each, take them with a grain of salt. The technology on most TV types is changing so fast that what's true today won't necessarily be applicable a year from now. Plasma manufacturers, for instance, are adding software that imperceptibly moves the picture a fraction to help avoid burn-in. They're also working on sets that will broadcast all the high-definition formats.

LCDs are getting bigger and brighter. New LCD sets coming to market in the next year will feature backlit, light-emitting diode (LED) technology that offers the same vivid colors of plasma. Even the maligned CRT TV set is getting a makeover: Samsung and LG Philips Displays late next year are expected to roll out super-slim CRTs just 16 inches thick.

So how do you future-proof your purchase? Making wise buying choices now will let you happily watch Law and Order reruns for years to come. One of the key things to look for is a set's native resolution. The lowest-quality digital set will offer DVD-quality pictures. That's perfectly fine now, since only a fraction of people who are buying sets today actually have signed up to get HD programming.

MAKING CONNECTIONS. But when the time comes to see the HD flavors offered by most broadcast networks, you'll need sets that offer resolutions of at least 1,280 by 720 pixels. That last number typically will let you know if you meet the magic HDTV threshold for viewing one of the two most common high-definition programming standards in the U.S. as it's broadcast instead of being downgraded by the set. Also, look for sets with fast response times (the lower the better to handle fast-moving images) and high contrast ratios (the higher the better for brightness).

Be sure to buy an HD set that offers plenty of choices for connecting audio-visual gear. A general rule is the more, the better. In particular, look for TVs with a digital video interface (DVI) and high-definition media interface (HDMI). These offer the best possible picture. The relatively new HDMI uses a single cable to transmit video and "5.1 surround sound," an audio format that separates soundtracks into theater-like speaker setups. The single cable goes a long way toward reducing the sea of cords common to many home theaters.

Some sets will advertise built-in tuners, too. Look for the digital-standard Advanced TV Systems (ATSC) tuner, which would let you grab local digital broadcasts with a $40 to $50 antenna.

"REALLY RESONATES." By purchasing sets adorned with another logo, "CableCard ready," you can save money and headaches in the long run. These sets, which began hitting store shelves this June, build a digital-cable set-top box right into the TV. There's some debate about how popular this feature will be with providers such as Comcast and Time Warner. But in theory, it lets you do away with digital set-top boxes.

With CableCard-ready sets and upcoming CableCard-ready set-top digital video recorders, you should be able to move to any area served by a cable provider and simply ask it to mail you an access card to insert directly into the unit to get programming. "CableCard is a feature that really resonates with consumers," says Bob O'Donnell, director of IDC's personal technology group.

Even after you buy, be prepared for disappointment. The vast majority of programming is still broadcast in the old analog format known as the National TV System Committee (NTSC) standard, where even the best rabbit ears still have occasional problems with tuning in snowy pictures. On higher-definition big-screen sets those pictures look, in a word, lousy. So, you'll have to learn to deal with occasional buyer's remorse until more HD programming becomes available and the benefits of crystal-clear TV shine through. By Cliff Edwards in Silicon Valley


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