Avi Greengart is an expert on the convergence of technology and entertainment. Avi understands TV, video, audio, computing, and wireless, how all these are coming together, and which technologies are likely to survive long enough to make a difference in your life. In his weekly column, Avi answers your questions, does your product research, and provides free advice.
Big Choices: Big Screen TVs
Question: Avi, I’ve successfully convinced my wife we need a big screen TV. What should I get?
AskAvi responds: (October, 2001)
Choosing a TV today is a lot more complicated than it used to be. I'll take you through the three main things to consider: the size of the TV, the capabilities of the TV, and the shape of the TV.
How big are you looking to go?
Even among rear projection sets, there are three types of TVs – analog, digital (also called HDTV-ready), and really HDTV ready.
An analog set lets you watch regular TV, VHS tapes, and DVDs (though not with all the resolution on discs that are “enhanced for widescreen TVs”). They are the least expensive, starting at $1,100 (for a slightly fuzzy picture) and topping out around $2,500. I can no longer recommend buying an analog set. Even if you’ll never watch HDTV or even a DVD, digital sets typically convert analog TV sources to something that looks like it has higher resolution. Of course, some sets do this better than others. But since a digital rear projection TV costs only a couple hundred dollars more than a really good analog rear projection TV, go with the digital model. Digital TVs will also let you watch HDTV if a) you add a separate decoder box (currently $600, sure to come way down in price) and b) there’s any HDTV to watch (currently not much is out there – more on this in another column).
What’s a really HDTV-ready TV? Well, most digital TVs claim that they’ll show you HDTV. And it’s true. Sort of. The best HDTVs with the best HDTV programming can appear as if you’re looking out a window – it’s absolutely breathtaking. But to do this, the TV must be able to resolve a LOT of detail, and nearly all HDTV-ready TVs fail this test. Don’t misunderstand, they still look I’m-never-going-back-to-regular-TV-fabulous, but not Oh-my!-It's-like-I'm-looking-out-the-window!-fabulous. The exceptions? Some models costing $7,500 to $15,000 using 9” CRTs or fixed pixel display technologies (like LCD, D-ILA, or DLP) – the same technologies available in front projectors.*
Currently there isn’t much HDTV to watch, and the prices on these really HDTV-ready sets are sure to come down to Earth sooner or later. Otherwise, you can buy a rear projector HDTV-ready set today, and be happy with the only-slightly-less-fabulous HDTV picture it can display, should you ever watch any HDTV on it. Note that today's DVDs are not "High Definition." Any digital TV can display all the resolution on a DVD, and some can display the extra image information on discs "enhanced for widescreen TVs," too.
Digital rear projection TVs come in one of two shapes: nearly square (4:3 aspect ratio, or approximately 1.33:1) or rectangular (16:9 aspect ratio, or approximately 1.77:1). Let’s see how this compares to what you’ll be watching:
When watching a DVD on a normal TV, you’ll see black bars on top and bottom of the image – that’s the way you get a rectangle inside a square. This seems to bother some people so much that they immediately think they should get a widescreen (16:9) set. This isn’t crazy, but you should keep in mind that even on a widescreen (16:9) TV, you’ll still get thin black bars on top and bottom when watching a 1.85:1 film, and thicker black bars for a 2.35:1 movie.
There’s one other thing to keep in mind – when watching regular (4:3) TV material on a widescreen TV, you need to make a square into a rectangle. There are a bunch of ways to do this – none of them perfect. You can put gray bars on the sides of the picture, stretch the picture out by the sides, or lop off the top and bottom of the picture. Any of these methods might be satisfactory for watching a sitcom, but none work all that well for sports.
An important note about the shape...
Any tube-based TV (which includes the rear projection sets we’re discussing here) needs to be used primarily in the aspect ratio it was designed for, or you'll suffer burn-in. This is quite serious. Basically, if you buy a 16:9 set, and use it mostly for 4:3 material with gray bars on the sides, you unevenly wear the tubes in the middle of the picture. When you then go to watch 16:9 program material, the side areas of the picture will not have the same color or contrast as the middle of the picture. The same holds true for watching mostly widescreen material on a 4:3 set.
Therefore, you have to choose the shape of your TV based on what you’ll watch most on it:
But if you’re a DVD fan, there is one special feature to look for – raster compression (also known as anamorphic squeeze mode). This “smooshes” the electron gun so that instead of painting electrons evenly across the whole screen, the rectangular area within the square (the part used for the movie, not the black bars) gets extra detail. This works for both HDTV program material and DVDs – and provides the extra resolution on DVDs “enhanced for widescreen TVs.” With raster compression, for all intents and purposes, you have a widescreen TV – in fact, you have to set up your DVD player that way. Available on many Sony and Toshiba models.
My current TV is a 53” rear projection analog TV. It’s fine, if a bit fuzzy - you can clearly see the scan lines that make up the picture. A digital TV would eliminate this, and a set with raster compression can provide all the resolution on "enhanced for widescreen TV" DVDs. When I replace my current TV, I will either get a front projector, or another 53” (the largest size I can fit in my basement) 4:3 Sony** rear projection digital TV with raster compression (HS or XBR series). Best Buy is currently selling the 53" HS model for around $2,500. The 61" model is larger but otherwise identical.
*Another option is to buy a front projector using high resolution fixed pixel technologies; they start in the $5,000 range and will provide pixel for pixel HDTV in the 720p format - the kind ABC uses. It will be good but not perfect for the 1080i format used by CBS, NBC, HBO, and Showtime.
**A similar Toshiba model would perform at least as well as the Sony, but the Sony will work better with my Philips Pronto remote control. Toshiba does not use discrete codes for their remotes, Sony does. This means that I can program a button on my remote to turn the Sony TV on and jump to the DVD input – even if the TV is already on. The same macro on the Toshiba would actually turn the TV off (if it was on).
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