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The HDTV Confusion Factor

November 8, 2005

Everybody is publishing articles attempting to (hopefully) stem some of the confusion in the holiday HDTV buying season. .

A friend of mine who has been asking for advice recently just mailed me a link to this BusinessWeek article, and asked for my thoughts on the article and comments, and I figured I might as well share my reply here.

“Most of the people in the comments were either confused, confusing, or both…

Not surprising, because it’s a confusing topic.

There are two topics that always seem to get conflated, the native resolution of the display, and the resolution of signal accepted by the display, which is then up-sampled or down-sampled as necessary to achieve the native resolution.

400i – 480i — SD Television
480i – 480p — DVD resolution
480p – EDTV (Enhanced Definition television)
780p – HDTV
1080i – HDTV
1080p – HDTV

The majority of television broadcasts right now are SDTV. This is true even on digital stations, which really only air a couple of programs a night, on average, in HD. The rest of them are upsampled and may be much cleaner on a digital station, but they’re still not HD.

About half of the actual HD programs currently broadcast are in 780p, the rest in 1080i. Nobody is broadcasting 1080p at this point, and very few 1080p displays are on the market thus far.

In general, the closer the native resolution of the display to the resolution of the signal, the better the program is going to look.

This means that if we were all buying for today’s use, it probably makes more sense to buy an EDTV display than anything — a good EDTV (such as the Panasonic 42” EDTV Plasma) is liable to put up a better picture for SD signals and DVDs than anything else, and will still downsample HDTV signals and display them with a picture that’d be hard for most people to distinguish from full HD more than a few feet away.

As an aside, I spent a lot of time last week looking at the various HDTVs at my local Costco. They were all running (in a loop, over and over) the most recent Starwars DVD, fed off of a progressive scan DVD player. Not surprisingly, by virtually any measure, the absolute best looking display of the bunch was the Panasonic 42″ EDTV Plasma mentioned above, which has a native resolution matching the output of the progressive scan DVD player (480p).

Had we been able to see a good 720p or 1080i HD signal on all of them, or an SDTV signal on all of them, the results might have been considerably different.

The problem is that we all expect and hope that one day soon, hopefully within the useful service life of the set, that there will be a lot more actual HD broadcast, as well as ready availability of some HD-DVD format or another, and we can quit worrying about how SD looks.

This may or may not be the case; it may well be 2008 or beyond before it happens to any great extent, and the price of displays is liable to keep going down and the quality going up in the meantime.

That’s the majority of the purchase crapshoot right now, although there are a few other items:

1) Whether you care about an NTSC (SDTV) or ATSC (HDTV) or “HD+ HD Cable Ready” (ATSC, plus QAM+CableCARD) tuner in the set, or whether you’ll be using an external tuner, cable or satellite box, or DVR.

2) What sort of inputs are available. Having component input may be important for existing tuners/cable-satellite boxes/dvrs, but having HDCP compliant HDMI is liable to be very important over the next 3 – 4 years. The latter is a digital-to-digital format that allows copy-protected content to be displayed.

3) Features of the set — some manufacturers offer various features ranging from onboard guides (particularly important for CableCARD tuners, which often can’t tune the cable company’s “Guide” channel), to image enhancement (varies from useless to good) to variable backlighting (gimmick or useful, who knows).

4) Size of the set — In general, CRTs offer the best image, but are bulky and expensive above 32″ and many HDTV CRTs have geometry issues. LCDs offer the next best images, but are only cost effective to 32″ – 37″; Plasmas are much more cost effective above 40″ or so. RPTV is more cost effective above 56″ or so, but offers the most limited image quality.

5) Room Lighting — CRTs and Plasmas are easier to see in brightly lit rooms and offer wider viewing angles. They also tend to offer better black levels. LCD and RPTV can wash out in bright rooms, and (particularly in the case of RPTV) can offer narrower viewing angles.

Other issues worth considering — Price, of course; reliability ratings and experiences of other users (you’ll probably want to Google for some of this as you narrow down model numbers); and return policies — because what looks good in the store may not work out in your home.”

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