Updated February 5, 2008
Since the first HDTVs appeared in 1998, high-definition television has been on the mind of every TV buyer. The big question is whether now is the time to pay a few hundred to a few thousand dollars more and take the plunge on an HDTV set. We can't answer that question for you, but we can provide some basic information that may help you decide.
Analog: An analog TV cannot display HDTV programming. It can show only standard-definition programs such as those found on regular TV, cable, or satellite channels--including digital cable and DirecTV or Dish Network.
Digital: The words "digital television" are used as a generic term for SDTV, EDTV, or HDTV.
SDTV: A standard-definition television is an analog television equipped with a built-in ATSC tuner (see below), which allows it to receive digital TV broadcasts. It will display a picture from these broadcasts, but HDTV shows won't look nearly as detailed as they would on a true HDTV.
EDTV: This stands for Enhanced-Definition TV, and usually it describes a television that can display HDTV signals but doesn't have enough resolution to really do them justice. Most often it applies to plasma TVs and denotes 852x480 pixels (more info).
HDTV: High-definition televisions, or HDTVs, can display standard TV, progressive-scan DVD, and HDTV signals. They're by far the most common type of digital television. Nearly every plasma, LCD, and rear-projection TV is an HDTV.
EDTV monitor or HDTV monitor: Describes a television that lacks a built-in tuner of any kind. These sets still work perfectly well with external tuners, including HD-compatible satellite and cable boxes.
Over the air: By law, as of March 1, 2007, almost all televisions should include a built-in tuner (called HDTV, digital, or ATSC tuners) that can receive high-definition programs over the air by simply connecting an antenna. If your HDTV doesn't have such a tuner, you'll also need to connect an external tuner (or cable or satellite box) to watch high-definition programming. External over-the-air HDTV tuners currently cost at least $150.
FCC tuner mandate: You may have heard that all TVs will have to be HDTVs by a certain date. That's not technically correct. The FCC has mandated that as of March 1, 2007, all new TV and video products imported into the U.S. or shipped to retailers that include an analog (NTSC) tuner need to have a digital ATSC tuner as well. There's a loophole though: if the product contains no tuner whatsoever--for TVs, this means it's a "monitor"--then the mandate does not apply. As a result of the mandate, nearly all televisions sold after that date should be ready for the analog switch-off.
Analog TV broadcast switch-off: Congress has passed a bill that requires over-the-air television stations to switch completely over to digital broadcasting after February 17, 2009. After that date, TVs and other gear with NTSC tuners will be unable to receive over-the-air broadcasts. Anyone who watches TV via "rabbit ears" or a rooftop antenna (as opposed to cable or satellite), and whose TV does not have a built-in or separate digital tuner, will stop receiving programs on that TV. Because the switch-off of analog TV broadcasts would deprive many viewers of their only source of television, Congress also created a subsidy program. Run by the government's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the program will provide $40 coupons, limit of two per household, each of which can be used to pay for one digital converter box. The boxes, which are supposed to sell for $50-$70 each and be available from electronics retailers, can receive digital broadcasts to provide standard-definition programming to an existing analog-tuner TV. These coupons (which cannot be combined or used for other products) should be available from early 2008 through March 31, 2009 but must be used within 90 days of their issuance and only on certain converter products. As 2008 approaches, you can find more information on this program at www.dtvtransition.org.
Cable and satellite: The FCC's plans for ATSC tuners have nothing to do with HDTV over cable and satellite. Subscribers to pay TV services can simply get a set-top box that tunes HDTV channels, plug it into their HDTV-ready sets, and watch HDTV.
Some new HDTVs are digital cable ready (DCR), meaning they can tune digital cable channels, including HDTV if the cable provider has HDTV channels, without needing an external cable box. To use a DCR television, you'll need to get a special access card from your cable provider, called a CableCard. Unlike actual digital cable boxes, current DCR TVs can't do video-on-demand at all, and you must pick up a phone if you want to order pay-per-view programs. Using the card with some sets also means you can't access the electronic program guide (EPG), although many new DCR HDTVs include a third-party EPG, such as the TV Guide system, as a substitute.
Resolution, or picture detail, is the main reason why HDTV programs look so good. The standard-definition programming most of us watch today has at most 480 visible lines of detail, whereas HDTV has as many as 1,080. HDTV looks sharper and clearer than regular TV by a wide margin, especially on big-screen televisions. It actually comes in two different resolutions, called 1080i and 720p. One is not necessarily better than the other; 1080i has more lines and pixels, but 720p is a progressive-scan format that should deliver a smoother image that stays sharper during motion. Another format is also becoming better known: 1080p, which combines the superior resolution of 1080i with the progressive-scan smoothness of 720p. True 1080p content is scarce outside of Blu-ray, HD DVD and the latest video games, however, and none of the major networks has announced 1080p broadcasts. Check out our comparison chart to see how HDTV stacks up against standard TV and progressive-scan DVD, and go to HDTV resolution explained for more detail.
|Wide-screen 480p (DVD, EDTV)||852x480||N||Y||Y|
|Regular TV||Up to 480 lines||N||N||N|
Regular TV on an HDTV: Many people bringing home an HDTV for the first time are disappointed by the picture they see. That's usually because they're watching a regular, standard-definition channel instead of an HDTV channel. Regular TV on an HDTV can look pretty bad, especially in comparison to high-definition programming. HDTVs are bigger and sharper than older standard-definition TVs, so they show off more of the flaws and relative softness of SD channels and content. Some HDTVs can improve lower-quality sources a bit more than others can, but in general there isn't much any HDTV can do to make standard-def TV programming look better.
DVD on an HDTV: HDTVs can make DVD, a very high-quality source, look spectacular, and most people are quite satisfied by the look of DVD on their HDTVs. Many DVD players, and all Blu-ray and HD DVD players, also have built-in upconversion or upscaling processing, which is supposedly designed to convert DVDs to high-definition resolution. In most cases, however, the benefits of this conversion process, if any, will be subtle.
If you buy an HDTV today, you can be fairly certain it won't become obsolete anytime in the next few years. Yes, new technologies come out every year, but nothing on the scale of the shift from standard-def to high-def TV will occur again for a good, long time. Nearly every current HDTV is equipped with a future-ready HDMI input, which assures compliance with tougher copy-protection standards, and as long as your new HDTV has one, you should be good to go.