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Digital Holiday Trends 2007:
Digital TV - High-Def and the Analog Sunset (12/2007)
by Douglas Dixon
Television articles in the Manifest Tech Blog
This looks to be another tough holiday season for retailers, with sales trending lower through the fall, stressed by rising fuel prices, falling property values, and recalls of tainted toys. Retailers like Wal-Mart held early "secret" sales on specific items, recalling the brutal competition last year, especially with price-cutting of digital televisions. This is good news in the short term for consumers, though, with continued dropping prices and more pre-holiday sales. Plus online shopping continues to give consumers more power to compare prices and find good deals.
Hot gift ideas this year start with portable devices -- media players, mobile phones, and portable navigation systems. But this is also the season of high definition -- digital cameras sport multi-megapixels, flat-panel widescreen televisions are finally dropping to a price point where you're ready to buy, and you can step up to shooting your own home videos in high-definition. But with these new opportunities come a sometimes bewildering variety of choices and associated technologies that require some serious thinking before you can make the best decisions for your needs.
So let's look at the trends in these areas, and some sample products that illustrate them. Just be warned that prices continue to change drastically, especially in the holiday season, so the numbers listed here are a snapshot as of early winter.
For "How-to" guides and tips on connecting digital devices, also see the Digital Tips site from the Consumer Electronics Association, covering digital televisions (HDTV), home audio, MP3 players, plus digital cameras and camcorders and accessories (www.DigitalTips.org).
Digital TV - High-Def and the Analog Sunset
The biggest news in television for 2008 is the impending "analog sunset" -- As part of the transition to digital TV (DTV), traditional over-the-air analog television broadcasts will be turned off on February 17, 2009, and your rabbit ears will only be able to pick up static. This is a government-mandated change, which frees up portions of the spectrum currently used for analog broadcasts to be auctioned off to raise an expected $10 billion.
For more on preparing for digital TV, see the DTV transition campaign site from the National Association of Broadcasters (www.DTVAnswers.com). The CEA AntennaWeb site also can help in selecting an antenna for your Zip code (www.antennaweb.org).
After February 2009, you will need a DTV tuner to receive broadcast digital TV broadcasts (this is just for over-the-air TV, your existing cable or satellite TV connection will continued unchanged). Of course, many stations are already broadcasting in DTV, with some channels in high-def, and some multicasting -- broadcasting multiple digital channels simultaneously.
As of this holiday season, all new TV sets should include a digital tuner. Then early next year you will see a big push from the government and the consumer electronics industry to explain this change and help consumers prepare for it, especially with DTV converter boxes that allow older analog sets to receive the DTV signals. The federal government will issue up to two $40 coupons to each household to help defray the cost of converter boxes.
If you're ready to buy a flat-screen TV for the holidays, just do some investigating before you head out. Not all flat screens are digital, not all digital TVs are widescreen, and not all widescreens are full high definition (HDTV).
Some issues to consider:
- Screen size: Big wide TVs are sexy, but you only need a set large enough to fit the space in your room. You should sit back from the TV some 2 to 3 times the screen size -- any farther and you lose the HD detail that you paid so much for, and any closer and you'll see the individual dots on the screen. (As a rough approximation for a close view, you can divide the screen size in inches by 10 and use the result as the viewing distance in feet -- i.e., a screen size of 52" for a large room needs a viewing distance of at least 5.2 feet.)
- Widescreen: You need a true widescreen (16:9) display to watch HDTV and movies on DVD -- Otherwise they will be squished to standard (4:3) aspect ratio, or displayed with black bars on the top or bottom. The TV should have easily-understood options for fitting different types of sources to the screen -- both adjusting the aspect ratio, and scaling up standard-def signals to the full screen size (also called upconversion). Surprisingly often, retail stores show standard-def TV shows stretched out too wide on widescreen displays.
- True HD: Some "standard definition" (SDTV) digital sets only have 480 lines of resolution (called 480i), which is equivalent to the old PC VGA display format that we now regard as ridiculously low resolution. Then there's "enhanced definition" (EDTV) sets, which are part-way to full HD, for example 850 x 480 resolution. But to watch real HD video, you really should get a "true" or "full" HDTV set (720p or 1080i).
The difference here is that some HD sources use 720p format (1280 pixels by 720 lines, progressive -- each frame with full detail for a more movie-like look), and some use 1080i (1920 pixels x 1080 lines, interlaced -- more vertical detail, but alternating from frame to frame which can cause flicker). For the best viewing, get a set that supports both formats. But -- while smaller and less expensive LCD sets may be able to display these formats, the actual display may not actually have the full resolution, and may be only something like 1366 x 768 native resolution. A "full HD" set should have the full 1920 x 1080 dots on the display.
- Display technology: There are four major types of display technology for large-screen TV, depending on your budget and space: plasma (for largest flat screens), LCD (less expensive for smaller sizes, and lighter), rear projection (big screen but bulky), and front projection (the big-screen movie experience). LCD sets are typically brighter and have less glare in bright rooms, while plasma can have a sharper picture with deeper blacks.
- Connections: It's a truism in the CE industry that many HD TV sets are proudly brought home, and then hooked up to plain old standard-def analog connections. Make sure you understand the right connectors to use to get the best digital signal (video and audio), and from all your sources -- You'll want multiple inputs for broadcast TV, cable or satellite, digital video recorder, and/or DVD. Also get a good surround-sound audio system to really enjoy the full sound experience. In particular, the new HDMI connections pack all the video and audio signals into one convenient cable, and also support the copy-protection technology required for the new high-def DVD formats -- Blu-ray and HD DVD (still caught up in a format war death match that could leave one or both formats orphaned).
Digital TVs are also still improving rapidly -- Hot trends for this season as flat-panel TV technology continues to improve are better pictures with deeper blacks, video processing for smoother motion (especially for sports events), and full-up 1080p resolution:
- Refresh Rate: TV is broadcast at 60 Hz (fields per second), while movies are shown at 24 Hz -- rates that don't compute well together. TVs now can display at a native rate of 74 Hz, offering more natural viewing for movies. Some new sets offer 120 Hz (called double rate). These provide smoother motion, especially for sports fans, by actually generating in-between frames from the incoming material.
- LED backlight: Another improvement for LCD displays is using LEDs to provide the lighting for the display -- punching up the colors, and even turning off behind sections of the picture to provide deeper blacks.
- Full HD: The ultimate in resolution, however, is 1080p -- full 1080 lines, progressive, without any interlacing artifacts. This can provide great pictures with the right video sources (including gaming systems), but is less needed with smaller displays.
As you go shopping, you'll recognize a lot of familiar brand names in the digital TV business, with companies including Panasonic, Pioneer, and Sony staking out the higher end, and LG, Samsung, and Sharp innovating to expand their market share. In a more recent development, new brands like Vizio and Westinghouse Digital are taking advantage of outsourced manufacturing to open up the market with new definitions of affordable pricing.
For example, the Westinghouse Digital TX Series of full 1080p LCD HDTVs range from a 42 inch model at an estimated retail price of $1399 to a 52 inch model for $2,499 (www.westinghousedigital.com). These feature a broad array of connectors, including four HDMI, two Component, plus Composite, S-Video, and VGA. The 42 inch set is 42.2 x 27.0 inches square, only 5.5 inches thick, and weighs 61.1 pounds (without the base). Westinghouse Digital also offers TV/DVD combo models with an integrated HDTV tuner and front slot-load DVD/CD player.
But no matter what your preference for a digital TV set, be sure to check the set up and picture quality with your specific types of video inputs, especially to view how the sets scale up lower-resolution video (like from DVD) to the full screen.
Also see Wikipedia for a nice summary of High-Definition Television formats and issues (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-definition_television).