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iPO Reports - The Detailed Guide to HDTV Buying
Friday, November 21st, 2008 at 8:30 AM - by
This article is a companion article to the corresponding Simplified Guide, and fills in some details for those who want to know a little more. Each major section in the Simplified Guide links back here, so if you find anything confusing here, reference the companion article for the overall details.
1. HD Source - It's important to make sure that for everyone in the family, their favorite channels are also included in the HD upgrade package. The easiest way to do that is to have everyone write down their favorites, compile a list, and make sure the HD package you buy has them all. If just one or two is missing, and the next level up in cost is too much, some compromise may be required.
In large cites, high definition TV is broadcast via antennas, and with a good antenna on your roof or in the attic, you might be able to receive unencrypted "over the air" (OTA) HD TV. It depends on your geography, location, distance, and obstructions.
Most, but not all set-top boxes from cable and satellite companies have a coaxial input for your antenna. You might have to connect directly into the TV, and then switch back and forth between sources with the TV's remote.
Note that local OTA broadcasts are just the local stations, network affiliates, PBS, etc. You won't get cable channels like TNT and SCIFI over the air.
2. Flat Screen or Rear Projection? - There are newer rear projection TVs, using Digital Light Projection (DLP), that do not use a lamp and a rotating color wheel. Those older DLP TVs use a small array of micro mirrors that represent "on" or "off" for each pixel on the screen. A rapidly rotating color wheel then provides the red, green, or blue for each pixel, in sequence.
Not only is the rotating color wheel a moving part that can fail, but the white-light lamp will need to be replaced in a few years. Those lamps, about $200, are likely to become hard to find in the future, just when you need one most.
The latest DLP rear projection TVs use LEDs, have no moving parts, and no lamp to replace. The TV should last for longer than you want to keep it. Samsung makes very nice DLP rear projection TVs with LED lighting.
Sony used to make a slightly different kind of rear projection TV, called LCoS (Liquid Crystal on Silicon.) They've discontinued that technology (except for expensive home theater projectors), and focused on standard LCD HDTVs for now. LCoS HDTVs do not have a rotating color wheel, but they do have a white light lamp that will need replacing, for about $200, at some point.
3. LCD or Plasma? - There is a limit to how much light one can shine on a Plasma or LCD TV from a living room window and see a decent picture. Of course, it's always nice to have a darkened room. If your living rooms drapes don't block much light, by their design, you may want to consider new window coverings for TV watching in the daytime.
In the evening, you may want to go into "theater" mode. Turn off room lights that might reflect off that vast surface of glass. Put a small lamp with a 20W or 40W bulb behind the TV to frame it with dim light. That will reduce the strain on your eyes in a darkened room.
Some very expensive LCD TVs use LED backlighting instead of Cold Cathode Fluorescent Lights CCFL). LEDs, in an array, have the advantage of being independently and rapidly turned off and on to create better contrast in parts of the screen. CCFLs backlight the entire screen uniformly, and it's up to the liquid crystals to block the light to get to a black. They can't do that 100 percent, so on some older LCD TVs, blacks can look like a washed out gray. That's bad.
LED backlit LCD HDTVs are very expensive, but if you can afford one, it's a superior TV.
Plasma pixels emit light from a gas discharge, like a neon sign. The UV light excites a phosphor that emits either red, green, or blue. Or is almost all the way off and black. If all are on, the pixel is white. The pixel doesn't go all the way off in order to be ready for the next pulse. But the black level is very good. Plasma TVs have a UV filter on the glass to keep the UV light from the viewer. There is no concern there.
4. Be Wary of Discount HDTVs - Secondary HDTVs, used for a bedroom or kitchen, don't have to be as technologically advanced. For a TV screen size (measured diagonally) of 32 inches or less, a 720p resolution is more than adequate.
Also your source in these locations may be a lower cost device, not a DVR, and may even be just capable of component video out. The TV's own speakers will do nicely in that case. Or you may just have an old DVD player connected. Accordingly, if you're shopping for an add-on HDTV for another room, some real bargains will likely be available this holiday season. Just make sure you know that it is, for example, just a 60 Hz LCD HDTV with only 720p resolution and limited inputs. You might find a 32 inch LCD HDTV like this on Black Friday for just $499.
There are no more HDTV monitors. For some time now, all HDTVs have high-def and standard-def tuners, so you'll be able to use them with an antenna to pick up a digital signal over the air after February 18, 2009. That digital signal may be SD or HD depending on the station. So remember, digital does NOT automatically mean high-def.
5. Where to Put the HDTV - A 50-inch Plasma will weigh more than 80 lbs. A similar LCD TV will weight more than 50 lbs. Hanging it on the wall without the proper equipment could mean a structural failure and a heavy, dangerous, glass filled object falling that could seriously injure or kill a person or a pet. Let a professional do it. For those towns that don't have a dedicated home theater store, Best Buy has contracted with Magnolia Home Video to do that kind of thing. Other stores may have similar services. This is important.
In addition, if you don't want unsightly wires hanging down the wall, you have to go internal to the drywall. Getting power and video in can be a nightmare if done the very first time. Moreover, all those cables need to get routed properly from the receiver, Blu-ray player, DVR, etc. You might as well buy a special high definition TV stereo stand that can support the weight of everything and nicely hide the wires.
6. Ethernet Availability - A wire is always preferable. In my set up, I bought a small, four port, fast Ethernet (100 Mbps) switch that has uplink capability. When connected to my main Ethernet Switch in another room, via that Cat 5 Ethernet cable, it can serve to connect all my TV components on the Internet.
If it's impractical to run a wire between rooms, there are products that can give you a wireless Ethernet connection behind the TV. You should consult with a professional installer and have him or her help you select an uplink switch and cables.
7. What About Sound? - The move to high-definition is not just video. Amazing audio is also available. It's really good on satellite and cable, called Dolby Digital 5.1, but it can be even better on Blu-ray discs with formats like Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio. "5.1" means left, center, right, rear-left, rear-right speaker channels (the "5") + the subwoofer ( the ".1"). I know, it's an odd notation. What it amounts to is six separate channels of surround sound.
As a result, you'll want to give some thought into a good speaker system and an audio/video receiver that serve as the nerve center, send the video to your TV and the sound to your speakers.
Don't worry about the sound carried along on the HDMI that goes into your HDTV. Just turn down the sound on the TV speakers via the remote -- unless you're watching over the air via coax and an antenna.
You don't need to spend an enormous sum, either, on a receiver. The Sony STR-DG720 can drive seven speakers and has three switchable HDMI inputs. I've seen it for $219. Decent consumer grade speakers for the front (left, center,right) can start at $100 each go up from there. Don't skip the center speaker because it carries the dialog channel. For rear speakers, you can get away with little guys, maybe $50 each.
The advantage of a receiver is that you can switch between inputs, simplify the wiring to the TV, and get fabulous surround sound. The first speakers you should buy are the left, center, and right. Next, as funds allow, the two in the rear. Finally, add the low frequency effects (LFE) subwoofer in the front. That's optional -- for people who want those thundering, low frequency rumbles. Also, a good receiver will try to roll the LFEs into the rest of the speakers if you don't connect a subwoofer, driving them as low as they'll go. But it won't be like having a discrete subwoofer.
8. Upgradability - Modern HDTV components are always changing with new technology. Some older Blu-ray players require firmware upgrades to play the latest movies. Some receivers can add features, or satellite radio, for a small fee if upgraded. The very latest HDTVs can connect directly to the Internet and receive (RSS) news and weather. That Ethernet connection to a small Ethernet, 5 port switch will save your life.
The switch, not an older hub, with uplink capability, will allow every one of your components to do Internet upgrades and receive content over the Internet.
9. Testing in the Store - Expect to spend an entire Saturday getting a TV stand put together, all the wiring done, and configuring your system. Remember, last of all, that HDTVs out if the box are set for a very bright setting, for the show room. At the vert least, look for that setting with your TV's remote an set it to "normal" or "cinema" for regular viewing.
10. Those Darn Salesmen - Remember that some of these HDTV items can be very heavy. A stereo receiver, it its box, can run 30 lbs. A 50-inch plasma in its shipping box can weigh 120 lbs and be very awkward to handle. You might get help from the salesman getting it out the door, into the parking lot and then home in the SUV with the seats down, but getting it into the house can be a big problem, requiring a few big, strong guys ... or a professional installer or two. The same goes for a stereo TV stand with lots of metal and glass. Mine weighed 150 lbs in the box. I had to take it apart in the garage and carry individual piece of metal and glass into the house.
Make a tentative budget. Say $1,200 for the TV, $250 for the receiver, $500 for speakers. Don't forget about the extra HDMI cables you'll need for each device, and they're seldom included in the box these days. A decent Blu-ray player will cost $300. Any cheaper and you could be missing the most advanced technologies. (If that seems like a lot, remember that all comes to about what you'd pay for a MacBook Pro.)
There you have it. All the nitty-gritty technical details you need before you go shopping this holiday season for a new HDTV system. Remember, the Simplified Guide has the 30,000 ft view.
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