News > Technology

And the Best Picture is... HDTV
Lower prices and more programs mean it's time to check out these supersharp sets.
June 10, 2003: 11:32 AM EDT
By Brian L. Clark, Money Magazine Staff Writer

This article is from the March 2003 issue of Money Magazine. Some price information has been updated.

NEW YORK (Money Magazine) -- HDTV is finally ready for its closeup. In the past three years, prices of high-definition sets have tumbled 50 percent, and the quality has improved vastly. And just as important, the amount of high-definition programming available has been growing steadily.

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CNNfn's Fred Katayama takes a look at what you should consider before buying a high definition television set.

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This year the NBA and NHL playoffs and a host of other sporting events will be broadcast in HD. Three of the major TV networks, as well as HBO and PBS, air a good deal of their prime-time schedules in high definition.

HDTV is, quite simply, the most stunning TV picture you've ever seen. It has five times the resolution of standard screens. The picture is so clear it's like looking out a highly polished window -- you may actually smell the honeysuckle in the field. (Okay, that's a slight exaggeration, but you get my point.)

Like any new technology, HDTV is experiencing growing pains. Different companies pump different formats. Salesmen spout jargon customers don't understand.

So cutting through the acronyms, terminology and sales hype can be like hacking at undergrowth in the Amazon -- every time you think you're clear, there's more.

Still, prices have come down so far and quality is so high, the effort it takes to navigate the HDTV jungle is worth it. And it helps if you're prepared. So here are some of the key questions to answer before you head to the showroom.

Can you get HDTV? The National Cable & Telecommunications Association claims HDTV broadcasts are now available to one-third of U.S. households. Last year's agreement between TV makers and cable companies should boost that number to 85 percent by 2006.

To find out if you're among the fortunate ones, call your cable or satellite company and ask if it delivers HDTV programming. (Companies that do will be happy to rent you a set-top box to decode the signal.)

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It is possible to receive HDTV signals over the airwaves, but you'll get only network broadcasts -- no cable networks or premium channels. Of course, even if you can't get HDTV signals, watching DVDs is still a treat. You'll notice details you would never see on your regular analog set.

What's in your wallet? You can jump on the HD bandwagon with a 15-inch screen for as little as $700. But you really need at least 30 inches to get the full HDTV experience, so figure on paying at least $1,000. Flat-panel TVs run much higher -- from $5,000 to $18,000 and above.

Whatcha watchin'? With HDTVs you have the choice of standard screen or wide screen. People who prefer sitcoms or dramas and only occasionally watch movies and sports may be happy with a normal screen. On the other hand, it's nice to be able to watch movies on wide screen, particularly on DVD.

How much room do you have? You don't want a screen so big that you have to sit in the next room to enjoy it. Your viewing distance should be 3.3 feet for every foot of screen height. So if your screen measures 2.5 feet from top to bottom (typical for a 60-inch wide screen), your optimal viewing distance is about eight feet.

What flavor of HDTV do you want? HDTV sets come in a confusing array of formats, each with strengths and weaknesses. For starters, there are direct-view traditional CRT (cathode ray tube) HDTV sets that look just like the ones you have now. There are also familiar-looking CRT projection models. CRT sets have the sharpest pictures and the lowest prices -- generally under $3,000. So why look at anything else? Well, these sets are heavy and bulky. A 57-inch CRT projection set, for example, can be more than two feet deep and weigh more than 250 pounds.

Sets using newer projection technologies like DLP (digital light processing) and LCD (liquid crystal display) are slimmer, lighter and cooler-looking than CRTs -- and pricier; they run from $3,000 to $9,000. The pictures are generally excellent, but blacks can be a little muddy. And they use a lightbulb that burns out after 6,000 to 8,000 hours; a new one costs about $300.

Then there are the plasma and LCD flat-panel displays. They definitely win the design competition. But they have drawbacks as well. The screens have a limited life span -- manufacturers claim that the newest models will last 30,000 hours -- and the picture degrades slightly over time. Also, with plasma sets, if you leave that stock ticker on whenever the market is open, the bars of color could burn into your screen. Expect to pay $5,000 to $18,000.

What are you plugging in? This is a small detail but an important one. Some models, especially flat-panel sets, skimp on inputs. Ideally, you want two sets of component video inputs. If you plan to hook up a VCR, make sure the set has an S-Video jack. And if you want to connect a digital video camera, choose a set with a FireWire (or 1394) port.

Now you're ready to start shopping. It's helpful to bring along a favorite DVD to help you compare sets -- ideally, a film with great sound, night scenes and a lot of action.

Some sets may seem harsh or bright (it's common in a showroom), so feel free to adjust the brightness and contrast levels. Next, move closer and check dark areas to see that grays blend smoothly into blacks.

Look at the edges of buildings; they should be smooth and clearly defined, not jagged. In action scenes, make sure that fast-moving images hang together and don't momentarily break up around the edges.

And don't forget to play with the remote control to make sure it's easy to use.  Top of page

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