5 things not to look for in HDTV – Plus or Minus 4

December 5, 2005

Over at The F-Stop Blues, Tim Coyle has listed his “Top 5 Things NOT to Look For in a New HTDV“, and it’s a well-thought-out list.

Or it would be a couple of years from now.

Unless your real-world situation is a lot different than mine, you might want to think a little more about a couple of these.

“Forget about all other connections besides HDMI” — To be sure, I wouldn’t buy a set today that didn’t have an HDCP compliant HDMI port (preferably two, but that’s just getting greedy); odds are very good that in a couple of years, you’ll need them to be able to watch overly-DRM’d content.

On the other hand, I want the widest variety of possible connections — give me HDMI, but give me component inputs too. VGA could also be handy, and I wouldn’t even mind a DVI port (even though you can switch back and forth between HDMI and DVI with a cable, at least for video).

The reason? Because there’s a lot of shlocky hardware out there you may want to connect. I’ve got Dish’s HD PVR (the DishPlayer 942), which up until the most recent firmware changes, had some serious problems with HDMI output. Up to that point, if you didn’t have the capability to do Component video, you’d have been another one of the very unhappy customers crying in your beer on the various Dish forums.

Outside of OTA broadcasts (and even then, only if you buy a set with an ATSC tuner), you’re probably going to interact with some sort of set top box for your HD content today, and depending on your content provider, a lot of these boxes are very wet behind the ears — if you have the broadest range of possible inputs, then you have better chances of getting usable HD while your provider is learning how to provide reasonable hardware.

“You don’t need a comb filter” / “It doesn’t matter if has progressive scan or not” — well, maybe.

If everything you watch is in pristine HD format, then these mean nothing to you. On the other hand, you also probably go to bed real early and watch little more than the big four networks if that’s all you watch.

If you’re like the rest of us and like to watch stuff outside today’s real limited array of HD channels (and it’s real limited even if you have the maximum available), then you may find yourself in the position of wanting to clean up SD content as much as possible.

The fact is that most SD content actually looks worse on most HD sets than it does on your old, tired SD set. Some of this is dependent on how / whether your set top box upconverts these programs to a digital signal of course, but the more places you have to improve the picture, the better.

There are those who swear that with certain HD set and content provider combinations, you may well get a better SD picture by switching to the S-Video input and letting your HDTV do it’s best to smooth and clean up the picture. This may not be true in your neck of the woods, or you may not want to bother, but it’s nice to have the choice.

“Only look at the native resolution” — Again, maybe — but maybe not.

This too depends on how much of your viewing is really going to be HD, and how well the set deals with SD content.

There’s a large and noisy contingent you’ll find on the various HDTV-geek forums that swear up and down that for the content you watch today, you may well be better off buying an EDTV (480P — not quite HDTV) plasma such as the popular Panasonic 42″ model. The reason? Because it will downconvert a reasonable (although not pristine) 720p or 1080i HD signal that still looks very nice, but for DVD content and SD content, it puts out a stunning picture, in comparison to a lot of HDTVs.

Depending on where you shop, you can see this pretty easily. Before my last HDTV purchase, I made a couple of visits to my local Costco to spend some quality time rubbernecking at the HD sets. All of these sets (RP, Plasma, LCD) were always fed the same signal — sometimes, it was a DVD fed from a progressive scan DVD player, and other times it was an HD sample loop from Dish.

When the DVD was running, the Panasonic EDTV absolutely rocked — it was easily the best looking 42″ display, and maybe the best looking overall. On the other hand, when the HD loop was running, the clarity and detail of the other HD sets was apparent, if you looked carefully.

It’s a crap shoot. It’s a question of how long it’s going to be before the majority of your content is HD, what you consider to be the prime life of your investment, and where costs are going.

The fact is, depending on what you watch — you might be able to buy a 42″ EDTV Plasma today, and replace it with a 42″ (or larger) 1080i (or even 1080p) plasma two or three years from now as the costs come down — and spend less in total than you would for a full-on HD set today. In the meantime, for those two or three years, you’ve probably been watching a better picture for your non-SD content.

“Don’t buy a HDTV based upon just one thing” — Here’s where we agree. There are way, way way too many variables in the HDTV equation. What absolutely matters most is how a set looks in YOUR room, in YOUR lighting, watching YOUR content the way YOU want to watch it.

Your best bet? Find a vendor that has a 30 day (or longer) return policy you can trust, and take advantage of it. Make your best choice, bring it home, and hook it up where you want it. If you plan to buy cabinetry or a wall mount, hold off a little and jury-rig an approximation.

Do at least a little bit of picture tweaking — if you don’t want to buy a specialty picture tuning DVD (like Avia), then buy or rent a THX movie and use their picture adjustment feature to set the brightness, contrast, color levels, etc. to your room lighting conditions.

Watch your favorite programs for a week, and see if you’re satisfied. Does it look okay with your content, as your content provider’s set top box renders it? Do the hookups work properly with the set top box? Are the black levels good in your room lighting?

Is it everything you thought it would be?

If it is, great — keep it, mount it permanently and enjoy your purchase. If not, take it back and try again. Sure, it’s a bit more hassle, but it’s the only way to know what set is going to work best for you.

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