Monday, December 10, 2007

Coping With HDTV

Those who have yet to take the plunge into HDTV probably don't understand the title of this entry. Whether you're contemplating going to HDTV, waiting until the dust settles, or have already ventured into this new realm, this article is for you.

When I decided to purchase my first HDTV a few weeks ago, I never suspected that the darn thing would start consuming my life. I did know that there would be issues to solve, but I never knew just how frustrating and costly they would be. I now know more than I ever wanted to know about things like ATSC, 256QAM, 8VSB, color bias, component and HDMI video interfaces, and so on. With as much as I know, there is so much more about this that I don't know. What I'm hoping I can give you all here is both an update on what I've done in this regard, and maybe impart some wisdom that may help those who haven't yet taken this journey (or to commiserate with those who have).

Why Do I Want HDTV?

This is a great question that you should seriously ask yourself before you even consider buying anything. If your thinking was anything like mine, you probably saw some really awesome video on someone else's TV or in the store, and wanted that experience at home every time you watched TV.

In reality, those who are getting HDTV right now are really early adopters of the technology. Much of the television content is still standard definition (SD), even if it is in letterbox format (16:9 wide-screen format). This is going to change, but right now when you watch The Simpsons or South Park, you're only getting it in SD. On the other hand, if you're a sports fanatic there is a lot of content out there. Football games are frequently HD (even on an over-the-air antenna), and even if you're like me and have no interest in professional sports, you'll find yourself watching at least part of a football or baseball game in HD just because it is so awesome.

Another reason people frequently get HD is because they want a widescreen or larger-screen TV and feel that this is a good time to go to HD as well. This is actually a good reason to get a HDTV if you're careful about what you buy. Be aware that when your screen size increases, so do all the imperfections in the video signal. So all the little compression artifacts on SD DirecTV or some of the older SD programs (regardless of station) will look blurry and may not give you the joy you were hoping to find. It gets worse once you see any HD program material and wonder why everything can't be that way.

If you're going to get a new TV anyway, and you don't usually replace your TV for years and years, then this is probably a good time to get a HDTV. If you're just looking to get HDTV because it's the hot new technology, then read the rest of this before you buy.

What To Buy

The first thing that most people consider when they're about to buy a new TV is the size. So first and foremost, do not get the largest TV that you can afford. Unless you want whiplash from swinging your head back and forth, there is no reason to purchase a TV that is larger than a reasonable size for the room where you intend to watch it. There are many people who have set guidelines for sizing TVs, but frankly the best way that I know is to go to the store, sit or stand as far back as your sofa will be from the TV, then see if that size is good for you. For most family room type environments, a 40-50 inch HDTV will be fine. If you have a dedicated media room or sit further back than is typical, then consider a larger set. Even with this recommendation made, the decision is personal. However, don't get suckered into buying a bigger HDTV to keep-up with your friends or because the salesperson made your size decision seem wimpy. Be honest with yourself. Get some people to come shopping with you and listen to their opinions, but make your own decision.

After deciding on size it is then time to start looking at each TV of the same size in the store and watch the demo videos. Look carefully at scenes that move a lot (like panning through a football field, or anything else with a lot of full-screen motion). It is a lot more useful when all the sets are playing the same video and it repeats over and over. Look carefully at the video and make sure that the motion is smooth (not choppy) and doesn't show any tearing or other oddities. Take a cursory look at the pictures on each and see that the colors look reasonable (not bright -- just the right level). Be aware that the stores or manufacturers jack-up the color and brightness to make their TVs stand out among the rest. You should be looking for a TV that reproduces color with fidelity. You know, what it would look like if you were really there. Walk out of the store without buying anything when you're done. Resist the temptation to buy.

Look online and see what people are saying about the brands/models you found interesting. When you feel ready to buy, take into account what you've seen, what other people have said, and what you've discovered after messing with the controls on the TV in the store. Don't be penny-wise and pound-foolish because you do get what you pay for, but also don't buy the most expensive unit thinking you'll get the best there is.

There's also the LCD vs. Plasma vs. DLP vs. rear projection vs. {name that latest new technology}. You should research that as well (use current information as there are always improvements in the different technology as time goes on). There's pros and cons to each, and like everything else it's sometimes down to personal choice and gut-feelings. Understand that some of these have consumables (such as lamps), some require periodic alignment, some have a glossy screen that is hard to watch in the daytime when sunlight comes through the windows, some generate lots of heat, etc. These are all things to consider.

Other Stuff You'll Need

Most entertainment centers are not equipped to accommodate a wide-screen TV, never mind that 50 inch TV you have your eyes on. So be prepared to be purchasing a lot of new furniture unless you somehow planned for this. This kind of furniture isn't cheap, even for the simplest stand for your new TV. I planned for this eventuality (or so I thought) by constructing my entertainment center out of Skandia wood shelving. Unfortunately the two shelving towers were separated by a shelf who's maximum size is 32 inches (they don't make it any bigger) and the TV is 50 inches wide (counting the speakers and decorative border on the TV). So I had to go to plan "B." I like natural wood which is what Skandia is, and I was able to find a really nice TV stand (in the photo) to go in the center of the two shelf towers. This very simple stand was a few hundred dollars. Quality is important because it's not much fun when your new expensive TV comes crashing down when your $50 TV stand topples-over.

You can also mount the TV on the wall, but be aware of the wires coming out the back and the holes you'll need to put in the wall to support the weight. For heaven's sake don't put it above the fireplace. Aside from the obvious potential heat issues, y0u'll quickly tire of having to look up to watch TV.

You'll also need a source of HD content. The cheapest source is over-the-air. Because TV stations will be required to broadcast in digital format by the beginning of 2009 many metro areas (Austin being one of them) have most, if not all, of their TV stations broadcasting digitally. What's important about this is that if your HDTV has an ATSC tuner (the standard for digital TV that the US adopted) then you put a small antenna in your attic or on the roof and you have instant nice TV. Gone are the days of analog TV where a less-than-perfect signal would leave you with a snowy, ghosty mess. With digital TV you either get it or you don't, for the most part. If you have an even reasonably good signal (even a little ghosty) then you'll get a stunningly great digital picture. Then there's Cable TV, Satellite TV (DirecTV and Dish Network), and a few other newcomers (like the phone company). All of them have varying amounts of HD programming. Be aware that while the broadcasters may have the capability of broadcasting HD content, that doesn't guarantee that your favorite programs will be "filmed" in HD. So in short, set your HD content expectations appropriately. It will only get better from here.

Note that your DVD player doesn't produce high definition video. The picture is clear and most newer DVDs are in widescreen format, which the DVD player can send to your TV. However, the picture is still 480 lines because that's how the DVD was recorded. It will look good, but not as good as Blu-Ray or HD-DVD media (which requires a new player, and the standard is still being debated). An "upconverting" DVD player (that plays standard 480-line media) does not make your DVDs high definition. This just causes the DVD player to process the video signal and produce a signal your HDTV can process in high definition mode. This may work better than letting the TV convert the signal, since some HDTV sets have poorly designed up-converter circuits. Bottom line: If you have a good DVD player with a component video (the one with the red, green, and blue color video plugs) output then keep your DVD player until the Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD debate has been resolved.

Finally, if you do not already have a modern audio system (with surround-sound capability) then this is something you will most likely want to get. HD media typically has superior audio with more than two channels. While a good-quality stereo system will provide a satisfying experience while viewing a HD program, a surround-sound system will produce a more theater-like experience. I haven't purchased a new audio system yet, so I have yet to encounter the successes and failures in this area.

Adjusting Your New HDTV

Contrary to common sense, your new HDTV is not ready out-of-the-box for the best picture it can produce. In fact, my experience was initially heart-wrenching. I connected my old DirecTV receiver and noticed that people's faces and some gray-colored things actually had a green tint to them. Movement on the screen would cause fine lines to form on the edges of the moving objects. The colors were overly-bright and not realistic. My first thought was, "I bought this new, expensive HDTV and now everything I watch is going to look like crap." Unfortunately this is not an uncommon experience.

As mentioned above, TVs are not adjusted initially to produce the best picture but rather to stand-out among a sea of other TV sets on the showroom floor. People typically don't look for a realistic picture, but rather one that is very colorful and bright. Once the novelty of that big, bright, colorful picture passes you'll be looking for a realistic, detailed, and accurate representation of the picture being broadcast or played. To do this, you will need to calibrate the settings on your set.

Calibration on most HDTVs will need to be done for each individual input. Specific suggestions are way beyond the scope of this article. A good general rule is to purchase a calibration DVD and use that to make the adjustments to your HDTV. "Digital Video Essentials" (somewhat dated) is a good calibration DVD and has a lot of excellent information (explained in lay-person's terms) about the how and why certain settings should be made the way they are. The DVD will explain the adjustment procedure then places a test pattern on your screen that you use to adjust your HDTV properly. Another good rule-of-thumb is to try to leave most of the "video enhancements" turned off. For example, using a "black level enhancement" may sound like a good idea but in many cases it distorts the picture (it does help restore some sanity to a HDTV with the brightness adjusted too high). Some motion enhancers are helpful but should be tried on a "low" setting first to make sure that it is helping the picture and not distorting it. Video that is too crisp is not realistic.

If you're not going to buy that calibration DVD, then the next best thing to do is learn about all of the color settings for your specific HDTV (not a bad idea in either case) and adjust flesh-tones and objects you know the color to be correct. Add just enough color (using the color level control) to get a realistic coloring of the video. Too little color will make the picture look "weak," and too high of a color will make the colors far too vivid ("saturated") and not realistic. If your HDTV doesn't have a reset function, make a note of all settings before changing them in case your changes actually make matters worse.

If you don't calibrate your HDTV, you will likely become frustrated and disappointed with your purchase. Larger (and crisper) displays make video errors larger and crisper. Expect to spend about a week or so tweeking the adjustments.

Enjoying Your HDTV

By now it should be obvious that buying a HDTV is more than just bringing home a new TV, plugging it in, and forgetting about it like you did with previous TV sets. I knew there were going to be some challenges but I never suspected it would be this complicated. The important thing to remember is to take your time with all the changes. It may feel as though you've taken a step backward and there will be a strong temptation to go out and buy everything at once. This will only make you more frustrated and disillusioned with this technology. Consider this as though you were remodeling a major room in your home. Take a moment to consider what you want and need, and the order you plan on buying or doing each thing. Be prepared to revise the plan when you get to the next step and realize that your original plan either won't work or isn't what you really wanted. Don't buy anything until you've thought carefully about your purchase. Don't buy everything at the same time (unless you're really sure what you want, and if you are, you probably aren't reading this). Don't get suckered into stuff you don't need or want just because your friends have it or the salesperson says it's what you need. Do take a moment to view the roses - even the standard definition ones - on your new HDTV and enjoy what will hopefully be a source of enjoyment for a long time to come.

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