Television has never been easier to watch. But a visit to any home electronics store shows that choosing which new television to buy has never been more complicated.
Over half a century, television has evolved as a portal for information and entertainment. Despite the Internet, it remains the primary window to the world for most people. But if you’re in the market for a new television and haven’t shopped for one in a few years, we’re here to help.
You’re going to need to learn a few new terms and some acronyms. You don’t have to be fluent just the basics. You’re going to hear about plasma, the bright screens with gas-containing pixels converted through an electric charge. A salesperson may steer you toward HDTV, or high-definition television, that can use the new transmissions with clear digital signals. You can expect to see the label LCD (liquid crystal display), technology used in screens so slim and light they can hang on a wall.
You may even consider some direct-view models, nothing more than the familiar tube-based set you’ve known for years. But some direct views have been given a space-age look with a so-called flat screen. This is a case of style trumping technology, and you’ll pay more for flat. And it’s easy if you’re not savvy to walk out of the store flat broke. Because the truth is, now is not the best time to buy a television. Television technology is in transition. Change is taking place in three major areas: signal, screen dimensions and viewing technology.
HD vs. Analog
For more than 50 years, we’ve watched television via an analog signal, which has one level of resolution. Now analog is being phased out. Broadcasters are phasing in digital signals that offer higher resolution and more lifelike pictures. This is HDTV. But remember we’re in the midst of a transition. Plenty of programming still isn’t digital, and most people still don’t own digital TVs. All broadcasters are supposed to make the change by 2006, and at least 85 percent of the country is expected to own digital TVs by then. This deadline has been moved back before, however, and it’s likely to be delayed again. So if you do wind up buying a conventional analog television, don’t worry. The addition of a digital decoding box will allow you to use the unit for years to come.
Probably the biggest misconception with HDTV is that you can just buy a set, plug it in and watch high-definition television. Sets that say they’re HD ready also need a digital tuner to decode the high-definition signals. Starting next year, the industry will be required to phase in integrated tuners, which are built into some sets now. External tuners can cost hundreds of dollars. Depending on your cable or satellite provider, you may also need an antenna to receive HD signals.
Square Screen vs. Wide Screen
Since TV was introduced to the American home, we’ve viewed programming on a screen that has roughly square dimensions, said to have an aspect ratio of 4:3, measuring four units wide for every three units high. The square television you have now has a 4:3 aspect ratio. Wide screens, shaped more like what you experience in a movie theater, have a 16:9 aspect ratio. You’ve probably noticed this change starting to take place, if you’ve rented a movie for your square TV, only to see black bars framing the top and bottom of the picture in letterbox style. Some television shows are now formatted for wide screens. It may be tempting to buy a wide-screen television today, but bear in mind that they tend to cost more than their square cousins.
We’ve seen the image projected through a cathode-ray tube, the bulky mass of glass and electronics that forms the guts of most sets. Cathode-ray tubes are the norm in direct-view sets. But as screens 32 inches and larger become the norm, these sets have become very heavy and deep, making them a tough fit in some spaces. That makes LCD sets very appealing. Many LCDs are a few inches thick and weigh less than 10 pounds, so you can hang them on a wall. But LCD prices remain very high, and the picture quality is generally not as sharp as the best direct-view sets, especially when watched from an angle. Plasma technology, too, is very thin and available in sizes that rival screens in a movie theater.
Another downside of technology in transition is the lack of a track record. Name-brand direct-view televisions are very reliable. But we don’t know how the new technology will perform over time. For example, plasma televisions seem to be at risk of phosphor burn, which can cause the constant display of images, say from a computer game, to remain visible on the screen.
The bottom line: Today’s televisions are following the trends of computers and digital cameras. They are introducing us to wonderful advances that will be eclipsed over time by even more amazing capabilities all at lower prices. Speaking of digital cameras and computers, keep an eye on the new television offerings from Gateway, Dell and others, which are gearing up to compete with Sony, Panasonic and other familiar TV makers.
If you are in the market for a television now, take your time. Prices are dropping, and sets are on sale at major retailers every week, so don’t be rushed by a salesperson who’s pushing you to buy something today. Look at lots of sets. If you wear glasses to watch television, bring them. Before you leave home, take a tape measure and note how far you sit from the screen. Reference the distance at the store, because that will help you decide how meaningful subtle differences in picture quality will be in your viewing space at home. The same goes for audio. Many people these days are hooking up home-theater systems to their televisions, or buying monitors that lack any sound without an additional tuner and speakers. Make sure these components will fit in your room.
In the end, be realistic and trust your instincts. Will you really spend most of your viewing time with blockbuster productions like the latest Lord of the Rings movie, or are you mostly tuned to CNN and reruns of Seinfeld? Maybe you don’t need to invest $8,000 in a 42-inch-wide HDTV plasma screen to watch Jerry yuk it up with George. And remember, many of these systems are so large and complicated that unless you own a truck and are quite handy you can pay hundreds more for delivery and installation.
Speaking of size, the mantra for the new generation of television seems to be that bigger is better. The 60-inch-wide screen has become the muscle car of televisions. But rather than revving up on the street, big televisions are meant to impress in the family room, which has been reborn as the home theater. There’s plenty of hype here, with the industry promoting the image of friends and neighbors gathered around a gigantic screen, sharing an experience. Of course, this is just a 21st-century version of the days when most homes had only one big television (though a small screen), and everyone crowded around to be entertained. When the Beatles sang on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, the technology fed a revolution through a 19-inch screen with black-and-white images and tinny sound. How might our world have changed if the experience had exploded through an 80-inch plasma monitor with surround sound? n
Tux Turkel is a freelance writer based in Yarmouth, Maine.