HDTV: Is it worth it?
If you had asked me if HDTV was worth it a few months ago, my answer would have been most certainly “no.” HDTV quality is outstanding, but the costs associated with viewing HD content can be prohibitive. HDTV-ready monitors are generally quite expensive and it can be very confusing to try to navigate all the HDTV choices that are out there. However, the prices of HD monitors have come down in recent months and it is becoming more affordable to upgrade your home theater to HDTV, especially if you have the environment conducive to a projection system.
I have recently upgraded to HDTV, using a front projection system to view the content. I will describe my system in more detail, but I have to say that the picture is amazing. I am able to watch programming such as 24 and Alias (along with the occasional basketball or football game) in better-than-DVD quality, which is far superior to standard TV.
What is HDTV?
HDTV stands for High Definition Television. In layman’s terms, it is a format of television that offers more clarity than standard television (STV). There are two different formats of HDTV as well as another format that is neither STV nor HDTV, called Enhanced Definition Television (EDTV).
STV: 480i – In standard TV, there are 480 horizontal lines in the picture. The picture is interlaced, which means that the monitor shows every odd horizontal line (1, 3, 5 and so on) the first 1/60 of a second then shows every even line the second 1/60 of a second. As a result, the viewer receives a full 480 line picture every 1/30 of a second. STV is broadcast in a 4:3 aspect ratio.
EDTV: 480p – The “p” stands for “progressive” which means that every horizontal line (1, 2, 3, etc) is shown every 1/60 of a second. You may have seen some DVD players marketed as “progressive-scan”. If your monitor is able to handle a progressive video input, you will experience a better picture. Some TV manufacturers started marketing these types of monitors as EDTV as sort of a midpoint between STV and true HDTV.
HDTV: This is generally available in two formats, both in 16:9 aspect ratio:
1080i – 1,080 horizontal lines in interlaced format. Your eye is seeing more than twice the information as standard TV, 1,080 lines every 1/30 of a second.
720p – 720 horizontal lines in progressive format. This is also an improvement over 480i and 480p. The 720p has found its niche in high motion video such as sports programming, though I have a tough time telling the difference between 720p and 1080i. They both look much better than STV.
For even more detail about HDTV, read the article from Projector Central, HDTV in Plain English.
Where is HDTV available?
Most network affiliates around the country broadcast HDTV over the air, which you can view for free if you have an over-the-air antenna and a HDTV compatible monitor. Antenna Web is a great place to get started.
There, you can enter your address and it will give you a list of stations broadcasting in HDTV in your area. It will also tell you what type of antenna to buy and even what direction it needs to be pointed. If you go this route, you will need an HDTV tuner if your monitor doesn’t already have one built in.
For those who live in rural areas or in apartment buildings, an over-the-air antenna may not be an option. Most cable companies and satellite services now offer some HDTV content. Where I live, Adelphia offers the five network channels (ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, PBS) as well as ESPN (for an extra $1.50) and HBO (which comes free if you are an HBO subscriber). Adelphia also offers a DVR (Digital Video Recorder) that acts as both an HDTV tuner and a TiVo-type recording device. Keep in mind that recording HDTV takes up quite a bit more space than standard TV, so the unit I have can record 50 hours of STV but only 8-15 hours of HDTV.
DirecTV and Dish Network offer HDTV programming as well. They will require you to get your local stations through an over-the-air antenna that can be attached to your dish. There was an all-HDTV satellite service called Voom, but according to their website, they have ceased operating.
The HDTV Pub is a good place to see consumer reviews of the HDTV options in your area. Just enter your zip code in the top right corner.
How Do I Watch HDTV?
Here is where HDTV can get quite confusing. You go to your electronics store and look at plasma, LCD (Liquid Crystal Display), DLP (Digital Light Processing) or LCOS (Liquid Crystal on Silicon) monitors and projection displays (which also come as LCD, DLP and LCOS) and it’s tough to know what is right for you.
Most people I talk to covet the on-wall display that a large screen plasma or LCD gives you. Cost is the prohibitive issue here. Plasmas offer screen sizes of 40” on up to about 70” but consumers must be prepared to pay the cost. LCDs are generally 42” or smaller, but there are a few 50” models that are available to consumers. Both offer a fine picture.
Another option for the more frugal consumer is a rear-projection DLP, LCD or LCOS TV. Don’t be fooled by the name – these aren’t your father’s rear projection displays. They are lighter and not nearly as deep as their more cumbersome ancestors. If you decide to go this route, be sure to buy a display without a reflective coating on the screen. It can be very distracting to see a nearby lamp reflected in your picture. Any reflected light should be dull and diffused.
Best Buy’s website offers a nice description of each type of technology:
For those on a budget, an increasingly good option is a front projection system. This means that on one wall you have a huge (60” to 120”+) screen and somewhere else in the room sits a projector. I decided to go this route after being truly stunned by the picture of a projection system at Best Buy several months ago. I did a lot of research at Projector Central, which is a terrific website that offers loads of information about all kinds of projectors.
I read their reviews of Highly Recommended Home Theater Projectors and ended up choosing the Panasonic AE700U and I am extremely happy with it. I bought the unit for $2200 and it sits on a bookshelf next to my couch. On the other wall, I have a 92” screen (yes, you read that right). Be sure to plan your screen size carefully, as the rule of thumb is that you don’t want to be sitting closer than 1.5 times the screen width. So if your seating area is 12’ away from the screen, your screen shouldn’t be any wider than 96” (110” diagonal, assuming you’ll want a 16:9 screen). To plan your room, be sure to use the Projection Calculator Pro to determine your screens dimensions based on the projector you are looking at buying.
You can spend as much as you want on a screen, but since I was on a budget, I decided to go the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) route. The projector actually looked quite good on my light blue wall, but I ended up painting the wall with specially designed reflective paint called Screen Goo. They sell a few different types (shades) of paint, but they have a Product Calculator at their site that will tell you which type is right for your projector. Applying the goo is a little trickier than your typical paint, so I recommend watching the video a few times before starting.
No screen is complete without a nice black border, so I mounted a frame made of 1” x 4” wrapped in black felt. I bought the wood at Home Depot and the felt at JoAnn Fabric. In total, I spent about $200 on the screen materials. In the end, my setup looks a lot like this one.
There are many different options for DIY screen construction for those that don’t want to paint their wall. The AVS Forum provides a plethora of information from those who have already built their screens. The site also offers forums for projectors and televisions so it is a great place to get reviews from actual consumers. For those not interested in DIY screens, Projector Central offers some nice reviews of conventional screens here.
Keep in mind that most projectors require a light-controlled room. A majority will do fine with a little ambient light, but any direct light reflecting on the screen is going to diminish the picture brightness. You must also consider wiring. I had to run 50’ of component cable (bought at Blue Jeans Cable) through my ceiling to connect it from my receiver to my projector. Even considering these issues, projectors offer a nice alternative to conventional monitors and provide a great value for those looking for a big screen at minimal cost.
So is HDTV worth the cost? It depends on your situation. Obviously, if you have a lot of money to spend and don’t mind dropping $4,000 or more on a TV, then you will find HDTV to be a significant upgrade over standard television. If you are on a tighter budget, a rear projection unit is definitely an option. But be sure to consider a front projection system if you have a light-controlled room – they offer an outstanding amount of screen for the money.
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