Thursday, February 27, 2020

How To Pick an HDTV

December 9, 2006 by · 32 Comments 


I have recently been through the HDTV selection process, and as simple as some things may seem, it did take a little bit of reading to start figuring out what I needed, and to sort hype from fact. This guide is a summary of what I learned.

First of all, to understand what HDTV is, I want to assume that some readers are approaching this topic for the first time, and then tackle some of the other issues.

HDTV is basically a nice computer monitor made larger and with traditional TV inputs (RCA/S-Video). The higher definitions that these HDTVs are putting out are resolutions that have been available to computer monitors for quite some time. The challenge has been placing them in larger screens, with better black levels, and faster refreshes to pleasantly watch TV programs such as sports that require fast movement.

As a quick guide to the lingo, here are the resolution names and their stated resolutions (from best to worst):

1080p – 1,920×1,080 pixels progressive
1080i – 1,920×1,080 pixels interlaced
720p – 1280×720 pixels progressive
480p – 704×480 pixels progressive
480i – 704×480 pixels interlaced

Progressive vs Interlaced – what you need to know is that progressive is better and that it makes sports, video games, and anything that moves quickly look better. If you are buying an HDTV to watch romantic comedies, then ok, you’ll be just as happy with interlaced.

With recent drops in prices, HDTV has come of age, and now is a good time to start considering replacing your old TV. The choices, however, are overwhelming, and it’s not that easy to sort out the variables that differentiate a great TV in one price point from another.

So, going back to the issue of resolutions, it is only natural that the greater the resolution, the better. However, the better the resolution, the more expensive the TV becomes. So I’ll cut to the chase and state:

Unless you have a specific reason why you need a TV set greater than 720p, and/or if you don’t want to overspend, and/or if the TV you’re considering is smaller than 32 inches in diameter, then get the best TV you can that maxes out at 720p. Many will actually include 1080i, but focus on getting the best bang for your buck by making sure that in the 720p category, your set is the best.

I state this because there aren’t that many sources out there that really play anything greater than 720p, because after a certain distance from the TV your eyes can’t see the additional resolution, and because standard DVDs, which is what you’re going to rent, are at best are 480p (and regular TV is worse). Even the recent game consoles such as the Xbox 360 can, in theory (bugs aside), put out 1080p, but their game libraries all state on the boxes that the games only go to 720p/1080i. So, as you can see, your 1080p set would go underutilized. If you have cash to burn, sure, get the 1080p set, it’ll be more future-proof, but in the end, you’ll pay a minimum of $400 more for that privilege.

Once you pick out a TV that you like, or while you’re at the store, the issue of plugs might come up.

Quick reference before continuing:

S-Video: Single yellow colored plug with funny things in it that look like a keyboard controller.
Composite video: Single yellow colored plug that is just a simple male plug
RF connections: In the USA, the thing that looks like a needle inside a cable, and in the UK, the SCART standard.
Component video: the three pronged connection that has three different colors
HDMI: The thing that looks like a USB connection. It is digital.
DVI: It’s what you use to plug your computer to modern screens. digital.
VGA: It’s what you use to plug your computer to a old-skool monitor.. Analog.

In reality, this is another area where the hype sometimes surpasses the facts. Take the use of the word ‘digital input’ for example. It is always assumed that a straight digital connection is better to an analog one, for as the reasoning goes, there is a straight digital to digital interface, and there are less problems that can occur in translation. The fact of the matter is that you can hardly tell the difference between a component video connection at 720p and a digital connection at 720p. TV sets do a great job of digital-analog conversion, and many times there are digital to digital conversions in between a source and the TV.

S-video, composite video, and RF connections are a different story, though.. avoid those if you have an HDTV. If your TV has digital inputs (HDMI), great, if not, and you don’t own an HD-DVD/Bluray player, don’t worry about it.

If forced to rank them, here they are from best to worst:

2. Component Video / VGA
3. S-Video
4. Composite
5. RF (Coax or SCART)

Instead of getting caught up on the plugs, whether it has 1080p or not, focus on the contrast, brightness, colors, and black-levels which have been shown to affect your perceived experience to be better than just sheer resolution. Go to a store and look at the TVs before buying online. A 720p TV with great color and contrast can LOOK better than a mediocre 1080p set.

So now onto the issue of HD-DVD vs BluRay.

The battle is still not won by any means. On the one hand you have the majority of people that review both stating that their perceived experience is better with HD-DVD than with BluRay, but on the other hand, you’re going to have a large penetration of BluRay players once people start really buying Playstation 3’s. The Xbox 360 has an add-on HD-DVD player that’s nice and cheap, but any which way you look at it, local video rental locations don’t carry either standard, so for all practical purposes, regular DVD is still king. In the end, and for all of us, I hope the promised hybrid players will come out.

Thus, to best utilize your HDTV set with regular DVDs, you should consider an upscaling DVD player. Upscaling is when you take a source, such as a DVD player, and ‘upscale’ the native resolution (480) to something that is perceivably greater (but not true HD since it is essentially faking it). This usually involves the interpolation of pixels based on fancy algorithms (dem’s magic!) to make the whole thing look believable. This whole process is very calculation intensive, and the quality of the output will vary greatly depending on the quality of the components, so you’ll have to carefully evaluate the more expensive players vs. the cheaper alternatives.

So, in conclusion:

Get the best 720p HDTV you can get focusing on color, contrast, and brightness. Get the 1080p set (for future-proofing) if you have cash to burn, but still focus on color, contrast, and brightness.

If you don’t have an output source that is digital, or ran out of digital inputs don’t sweat it, just use a component video connection.

If you’re in the market for a new DVD player, consider an upscaling DVD player to hold you over until the HD format wars (BluRay vs HD-DVD) are over. If you must pick a standard now, my money is on HD-DVD.

Here are some additional resources that you might find interesting:

Cnet’s take on Upscaling DVD players (UK),39030417,39194701,00.htm

Some Upscaling DVD reviews (UK)

The DVD Wars statistics about who is winning BluRay vs HD-DVD

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