With so much information online about HDTVs, why are people still misinformed when they walk into the electronics store?
The truth is, technology often outpaces our ability to keep up with the latest trends. When it comes time for us to catch up, the information can seem overwhelming. HDTV, in particular, is full of acronyms, numbers and descriptions. We could easily misinterpret the details, especially if we're in a hurry to buy.
Before we go HDTV shopping, do we really need to read all the specifications? If so, how can we pick out the most important things to know?
If you're behind the trend and are baffled by terms such as1080i, DTV and HDMI, the easiest way to give you the information you need may be to dispel the myths that are out there. This can also give you added confidence when you shop for a new HDTV and related HD accessories.
In this article, we'll supply facts to replace some of the fiction that's going around.
DTV is HDTV
Where were you during the big digital television (DTV) switch of 2009? If you had a newer television with a digital tuner, or you had digital cable or satellite TV, you probably didn't notice anything different.
However, if you had an older TV and watched over-the-air broadcasts by antenna, you may have been one of millions unprepared for the June 2009 switch. That's when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States required all over-the-air television broadcasters to switch to digital television (DTV) broadcasting.
Despite early misconceptions, this didn't necessarily mean you needed a new TV set to continue watching television. And you certainly didn't have to have an HDTV set. In fact, unless your television has a built-in digital tuner, receiving DTV requires only a digital-to-analog converter to turn the digital signal into an analog signal that your current TV set can show. While this does reduce the quality of the original digital signal, you can still watch all available over-the-air broadcast TV in your area without a new TV purchase.
But DTV isn't the same thing as HDTV. While digital television supports HDTV, not all channels are broadcast in high definition and not all shows are produced in HD. As each channel and program transitions to HD format, though, digital broadcasting ensures that we can receive digital HDTV over-the-air broadcasts when they're ready.
All flat-panel TVs are HDTVs
HDTV is not just another pretty flat-panel. As described in the TV Buying Guide, flat-panel TVs have slim-profile screens, and most are either plasma TVs or LCD TVs. While each of these flat-panel technologies can provide higher-resolution images than CRTs, that does not mean all flat panels are HDTVs.
The first requirement for an HDTV is a set that has the appropriate screen dimensions -- high-definition sets in the United States use a 16:9 ratio.
The second requirement for an HDTV is the ability to accept high-definition input, and to be able to display that input at one of the native HDTV resolutions, as described in How HDTV Works. This may mean an HDTV-ready display that requires connection to a digital receiver or antenna, or a set with an integrated HDTV tuner with a built-in digital antenna for over-the-air DTV (which may or may not include some HDTV broadcasts).
Read the information on any flat-panel TV you're considering to see whether it's HDTV-ready or if it has an integrated HDTV tuner built in.
You Automatically Get HD Television Just by Buying an HDTV
Just because you've purchased that nice new HDTV for your living room doesn't mean you automatically have HDTV quality in all your television viewing. The HDTV label on the new display tells you that the set is capable of receiving high-definition digital television signals and presenting them to you in their fullest quality. However, not every signal the set receives will necessarily be HD.
So how can you tell if you're watching HDTV? There are two things you'll need to check: the kind of signal you're receiving, and how you're getting that signal to your TV.
First, check to be sure the original video is in high definition. In broadcast TV, if the picture has filled the entire screen of your HDTV set, and it doesn't look stretched to fit, then you're probably watching HDTV. Some channels dedicate themselves to being "HD," but be wary of this label. Many "HD" channels have HDTV broadcasts when available, but also show standard definition (SDTV) shows, filling the extra screen space with vertical bars. Other HD channels are committed to only providing programs originally recorded for HDTV. Besides broadcast TV, digital media such as Blu-ray players can also provide high-definition video.
Second, check that you're receiving the video as a digital signal. This is automatic for digital devices such as Blu-ray players. For broadcast television, though, this means using a digital antenna, digital cable TV or digital satellite TV. Digital cable typically requires an upgraded service and a special receiver from your cable provider. A digital antenna receives over-the-air digital broadcasts (DTV), but your HDTV may or many not have a built-in digital antenna and tuner.
Though these two checks are sufficient to determine if you're truly watching HDTV, you can go one step further just to be sure. This extra step is to use a digital connection (cable) such as DVI or HDMI between the video source and your TV. If you use analog connections, such as component video, you may or may not notice the improvement in quality.
HDMI Cables are Required for HDTV
When a salesperson is listing enough acronyms to make your head spin, you may not realize that the expensive HDMI cable he's putting in your shopping cart is only one of several ways to receive HDTV broadcasts on your new HDTV. Though they both have "HD" in their name, don't buy that HDMI cable until you know for sure that you need it for your HDTV.
High-definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) is a standard for sending digital audio/video signals between devices. Authors of the HDMI standard include several big names in home theater equipment, such as Panasonic, Sony and Toshiba. In 2008, more than 800 manufacturers had adopted the standard, and 229 million HDMI-enabled devices were shipped to market [source: HDMI.org]. This list includes HDTVs, Blu-ray players, personal computers, game consoles and digital video cameras.
As described in How HDMI Works, HDMI is just one of several methods you can use to connect your home-theater components. Some connections, like component video convert digital signals to analog to carry it across the cable to your TV. If you're happy with the quality from these cables, or if you have older devices that can only use these types of cables, you can still use them to view HDTV video on your HDTV set.
Unlike component video, though, HDMI and DVI can carry digital signals. DVI, or digital video interface, is an older all-digital standard most often used in computer monitors. By avoiding the analog conversion, HDMI and DVI can provide HDTV video in its highest quality. DVI and HDMI share the same protocol for transmitting those digital signals across the cable. While DVI only carries video, though, HDMI can carry both video and audio.
So, in short, choosing an HDMI cable for your HDTV is not a requirement, but it does give you a higher quality than some other connection technologies when you're viewing high-definition video.
Bigger Screens and Higher Resolutions are Always Better for HDTV
When it comes to your HDTV purchase, bigger numbers don't always make a better TV viewing experience. Before you determine if you're getting a good deal based on the screen size and resolution, compare those numbers to some of the facts here.
As described in How HDTV Works, HDTV has two native resolutions: 1920 by 1080 pixels and 1280 by 720 pixels. The larger the TV, then, the larger the physical size of every single pixel in the native resolution. To better see the larger picture as a smooth, sharp image, you need to be farther away from the screen. If you sit the same distance from the HDTV screens with the same resolution, but in two different sizes, the larger picture may not seem as sharp as the smaller one.
Also, your HDTV will scale an incoming TV signal to match its native resolution. For digital sources like DVDs or HDTV broadcasts over digital cable, this digital signal is readily scalable, along with more available data to keep the picture sharp. However, if you're receiving an analog signal, or you're viewing a channel or show that was not originally in digital quality, you can't make up for the lower-quality picture with a higher resolution TV screen. In fact, when your HDTV scales the picture to a larger screen or higher resolution, you have an even worse viewing experience for that same broadcast than you would on a smaller, lower-resolution screen.
For more information on HDTV and related topics, discover the links on the next page.
What’s the difference between 780i and 1080i HDTV? Visit HowStuffWorks.com to learn the difference between 780i and 1080i HDTV.
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More Great Links
- CNET.com. "Connect high-def to your HDTV." CNET. (Aug. 30, 2009) http://www.cnet.com/1991-7386_1-6214443-6.html
- ConsumersUnion.org. "74% of Consumers Who Know About Digital TV Transition have Major Misconceptions, Consumer Reports Survey Finds." Jan. 30, 2008. (Aug. 30, 2009) http://www.consumersunion.org/pub/core_telecom_and_utilities/005383.html
- Gardner, W. David. "DTV Switch Is On: Millions To Lose Analog Signals." InformationWeek. June 12, 2009. (Aug. 30, 2009) http://www.informationweek.com/news/government/policy/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=217800942
- Haff, Gordon. "The economics of cables." CNET. July 31, 2008. (Aug. 30, 2009) http://news.cnet.com/8301-13556_3-10003626-61.html
- HDMI.org. "About Us." HDMI Licensing, LLC. (Aug. 28, 2009) http://hdmi.org/about/index.aspx
- HDMI.org. "What is HDMI?" HDMI Licensing, LLC. (Aug. 28, 2009)http://hdmi.org/consumer/hd_experience.aspx