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Why are you waiting for HDTV?

2004.03.20 — Culture | Movies | Television | by Andrew Cole

Hitachi HDTV

Not reproduced with the express written consent of Major League Baseball. [Hitachi TV]

Studies have shown that Americans have had a rather tepid reaction to high-definition TV. The programming has been slow to develop, so consumers have been slow to make the switch. But I didn't buy my HDTV to watch Becker. I bought it for movies; so why hasn't that aspect caught on more?

I bought a high-definition television a couple of years ago. Following my personal philosophy of "spend the most on what you'll enjoy the most," I bought a honkin' big 65" Hitachi. Since I wanted to make the most of it, I also bought an HDTV tuner.

But my area didn't have very extensive HDTV programming. It's getting better, but many programs are still up-converted and look only marginally better than standard television. Worse, some channels insist on stretching standard-ratio programs to widescreen size, ruining their look. This is the same demented reasoning that perpetuated the pan-and-scan movie presentations for so long.

But there is a haven of great video. It's DVD.

But there is a haven of great video. It's DVD.

DVDs have enjoyed amazing popularity, mostly owing to their superior picture. But I don't think most people realize that DVDs, in a progressive-scan player, look almost like high-def television on an HDTV. Their native 480-line resolution is the same as standard TV, but progressive-scan techniques pull more information out of the DVD encoding than you can see on a regular TV (it has to do with the fact that film and video have different frame rates) and the HDTV smoothes the image to remove the obvious scan lines. This isn't such a big deal on TVs smaller than about 31 inches, but it's huge difference on big TVs.

An obvious additional advantage to DVD-on-HDTV is that the widescreen aspect ratio is always correct (assuming you knew what you were doing when you set up your home theater system).

I suspect that a lot of people just don't love to watch movies and good television as much as I do or can afford a big enough screen for it to make a great difference. But I also think that a lot of people just don't realize how good DVDs look on HDTVs or how much pleasure they'll get from watching all television on a bigger set. Some people may even be confused by the difference between rear projection and plasma TVs.

If you're looking for advice, it's simple: plasma TVs have a lower resolution and a much higher price. Don't be fooled by the gee-whiz factor; sure they're thin, but they still have to be attached to DVD players, audio receivers, and other gear that isn't thin. Except for specialized applications, give them a pass and spend the extra cash on a rear projection system with a bigger screen.


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