Even with top-quality connections and perfect calibration, an HDTV can't turn a bad signal into a good picture. If you try to watch old, videotaped episodes of TV shows on huge, high-definition set, the display will magnify static, snow and distortion. Even standard-definition cable, satellite or over-the-air signals might not look very good on a high-definition set.
However, watching standard-definition broadcasts on a high-definition TV is pretty common. About half of the people who currently own high-definition TVs aren't watching high-definition programming on them. About 17 percent of HDTV owners don't know that they're not watching high-definition broadcasts [ref]. In some cases, people don't have access to high-definition signals. But in others, people don't know how to make their TVs pick up HD broadcasts or haven't taken the steps necessary to do it.
Sometimes, you can watch high-definition broadcasts over the air for free. To do this, your TV has to have an HDTV tuner. Your TV may already have a tuner built in. But if you bought an HDTV-ready set rather than an HDTV, you'll need to buy a separate tuner to pick up HD broadcasts. You'll also need an indoor or outdoor antenna to receive the signals.
Currently, the United States is transitioning from analog to digital over-the-air broadcasts. For this reason, many stations broadcast on two channels - one is analog, and the other is digital. Check with your local stations to find out which channels carry digital signals and whether they broadcast in high definition. Make sure to tune into the digital stations rather than the analog ones you're used to. Unless trees, the landscape or long distances keep the signals from reaching you, you should see a clear picture that doesn't have interference or ghost images.
You can also watch high-definition broadcasts via cable or satellite. To do so, you'll need to contact your local provider and ask about digital and high-definition service plans. To receive high-definition broadcasts over cable or satellite, you'll need:
- Equipment that supports high-definition signals - you may have to upgrade your satellite dish, receiver or set-top box
- A service plan that includes high-definition broadcasts
- Stations on that plan that broadcast in high definition
Once you're ready to watch digital broadcasts, the last thing you may need to adjust is your set's aspect ratio. HDTVs use a 16:9 aspect ratio. This means that you'll be able to watch most recent movies in their original aspect ratio without black letterbox bars taking up part of your screen. If you were previously buying full-screen DVDs, you'll want to switch to widescreen to make the most of the widescreen display.
However, when you watch television shows that were filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio, you'll see black bars on the sides of your screen. These bars make the part of the screen you're looking at the same size as an old-fashioned TV, but some people find them irritating. Through your TV's menu, you can stretch or crop the image to make it fit the screen. This can distort the image, but if you don't like the bars, it can be an acceptable trade-off.
Check out the links below for more information on TVs, high-definition broadcasts and other topics.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Lamb, Gregory M. "Why HDTV Is Getting a Fuzzy Reception." Christian Science Monitor. 2/9/2006.
- Kindig, Steve. "Help Your TV Make the Most of Every Signal." Crutchfield Advisor. http://www.crutchfieldadvisor.com/S-cahQwJ4qALq/learningcenter/home/tv_signalquality.html?page=1
- Samsung Interactive Guide to DTV and HDTV http://product.samsung.com/cgi-bin/nabc/campaign/dtvguide/index.jsp
- Cnet: Picture Perfect: HDTV Tune-up Tips http://bestbuy-cnet.com.com/4352-12658_7-6544389.html