IntroductionYou've been watching television all of your life, and all of a sudden, along comes HDTV. This new technology might seem incredibly costly, confusing, and unnecessary, but for the space of this article, we'll ask you to take a deep breath and try to forget all of that. HDTV doesn't need to be an incomprehensible morass of technical terms, jargon, and marketing hype, because at heart, it's pretty darn simple: HDTV is a better picture. It does have some unique requirements, however, so we'll guide you through what to expect.
To HDTV or not to HDTV?That's not the question. As of today, most new televisions sold in the U.S. are HDTVs. In fact, it's probably just a matter of time before we all decide to do away with the cumbersome "HD" and go back to referring to all HDTVs as simply TVs.
That process will still take awhile though. First, Americans will have to replace their old televisions with new high-definition models, TV stations and providers need to phase out standard-definition broadcasts in favor of high-definition ones, and TV producers will need to make all of their shows in high-definition. We're still in the midst of going high-def as a nation, and will be for years to come. But the change to HD is inevitable, which is why at this point we recommend that everyone shopping for a new TV should buy an HDTV. If you can't afford one now, you should make due with your current set and save up until you can.
The falling price of HDTVThat saving process might be shorter than you think. These days you can get a perfectly fine 32-inch flat-panel LCD HDTV for as little as $500 and a 50-inch plasma for $1,500. HDTV prices have fallen so far in the last couple of years that most TV shoppers can afford to go high-definition. We're often asked when HDTV prices will "bottom out," but we really can't say. We don't expect a 32-inch LCD to cost $300 by the holiday season of 2009, or a 50-inch plasma to cost $800, but you never know. By this stage, however, prices have gotten low enough that we feel safe saying that, if you're buying now, you won't feel too burned by next year's prices.
What kind of HDTV to buy?
HDTVs come in all shapes and sizes, but there's a general hierarchy in size from smallest to largest.
|Typical size range||Typical price range||Best buys (February 2009)||Notes|
Best LCD TVs
|13 to 65 inches||$200 to $8,000||32 inches for $500||These are the most popular kinds of HDTVs, mainly because they're flat and available in a tremendous range of sizes and prices. If you just want to replace your tube with a similarly sized flat TV, then LCD is the way to go.|
Best plasma TVs
|42 to 65 inches||$800 to $7,000||50 inches for $1,500||Available in a limited range of sizes (mostly big), plasmas consistently outperform LCDs in our tests of overall picture quality. For more differences between the two, check out our chart.|
Best rear-projection TVs
|50 to 73 inches||$1,000 to $3,500||61 inches for $1,500||Rear-projection HDTVs are getting rarer, mainly because flat-panels are cheaper than ever at large screen sizes. If you want big, though, RPTV is a great value while it lasts.|
In-depth information on the different TV types can be found in our guide, Four styles of HDTV.
Now, that's really all you need to know about HDTVs. Armed with this information, you can check out our Best Products lists, including Best cheap LCDs and Best cheap Plasmas, to find the sets we liked most among the ones we reviewed. You can also sort reviewed and non-reviewed HDTVs by price to find the best values. But there is a bit more about HDTV that you'll probably want to know. Here is it, short and sweet.
What else you'll need to watch HDTV
If you bring home your HDTV and plug it into a standard cable box, you'll see a picture, but it won't be high-definition television. To actually watch high-def, you need three other ingredients besides that shiny new HDTV: an HDTV source, an HDTV channel, and the HDTV show itself.
- HDTV source: If you're a cable or satellite subscriber who's just bought an HDTV and wants to watch high-def, you'll need a special high-def cable or satellite box--the "source"--that can deliver HDTV channels and shows to your HDTV. High-def boxes usually cost more than regular ones, and in the case of cable, they might not be available in all areas or carry all of the HDTV channels you'd expect. In addition to cable and satellite, there's a third source available if you connect an antenna to just about any current high-def set: free over-the-air HDTV broadcasts of the major networks, which are available in most areas of the country. For more on HDTV sources, check out Three ways to get HDTV programming.
- HDTV channel: High-def channels are just like regular channels, but they have the potential to carry HDTV shows. Every cable and satellite provider that offers high-def channels usually offers the regular channel, too. For example, if you subscribe to DirecTV's HD satellite service, the HD version of ESPN is on one channel while the regular version is on another. There are many more regular, a.k.a. standard-definition, channels than high-definition ones at the moment, but more and more networks are offering high-def versions. Most related channels, such as ESPN and ESPNHD, have the same shows and schedules.
- HDTV show: If you're watching an HDTV that's plugged into your new HDTV cable box and tuned to an HDTV channel, then you're watching high-def, right? Not necessarily. Some HDTV channels, such as Discovery HD Theater and HDNet, broadcast everything in high-def, including commercials. But most networks simulcast, meaning they show the same shows on both the high-def and standard-def channels. Unfortunately, not every show on a network's HD channel actually appears in high-def. Many games on ESPNHD, for example, still appear in standard definition, and a number of TV programs on the major networks--especially reality shows and local news--aren't in HD yet either. Non-HD shows on HD channels won't look nearly as sharp as the high-def shows do and usually don't fill the wide screen properly. ESPNHD, for example, usually shows bars to either side of non-HD games and events. Fortunately, almost all major sporting events, prime-time shows, and specials are in high-def.
Other HDTV notesThere are a few other things to consider with HDTV. In no particular order, here they are:
DTV is not HDTV. You've probably heard that all TV broadcasts are going to become digital in 2009. Maybe you even heard the (mistaken) bit of info that all broadcasts will become HDTV. The former is true, for the most part, but not the latter. Between February 17, 2009, and June 12, 2009, over-the-air HDTV broadcasters will switch off their analog signals and move to digital. So do you need to get a new HDTV by then? Absolutely not. But you should know what's going on, so check out our Guide to the DTV Transition for more information.
All HDTV looks good. If you're in the store and you're looking at all of the HDTVs, it may strike you that they all look pretty dang good. That's because they're showing high-def television, which any store worth its salt will use to demo HD sets. Sure, you'll still notice flaws occasionally, but in general, even an inexpensive HDTV showing high-def looks much better than a standard TV showing the highest-quality material it can. Whether it's 1080i or 720p, over-the-air or cable, DLP or plasma, HDTV shown on a high-def television blows standard TV out of the water. For more on why HDTV looks so good, and an overview of these numbers, check out HDTV resolution explained.
Regular TV looks underwhelming. Many people who first watch non-HDTV on their new high-def televisions are disappointed by how it looks. But it's not the television's fault. The single most important ingredient in picture quality is the source, and lower-quality standard-def TV, especially compared to HDTV, looks bad. The difference is often compounded by the fact that HDTVs are bigger and sharper than regular TVs and thus highlight the flaws of low-quality sources even more. No matter how nice of an HDTV you get, standard-def TV, at least compared to DVD and high-def, will look a lot worse.
DVDs look great. DVD discs, despite technically being standard-definition, look very good to most people who see them on an HDTV. Hook up even a really cheap DVD player to your HDTV, pop in a Hollywood classic, and you'll see. It also helps that...
Almost all HDTVs are wide-screen. You may have noticed that most DVD movies, an increasing number of TV shows, and even some commercials, have black bars above and below the screen. If you were watching them on an HDTV, often you wouldn't see any bars at all--the picture will usually fill the screen (the exception is for ultra-wide-screen movies, which still have thin bars). Conversely, if you watch a regular TV show on an HDTV, it won't fit on the screen properly. There may be bars to either side, or the picture may be stretched or zoomed. Trust us: wide-screen is better, and HDTVs and/or HD sources can usually resize the image the way you want. For more, check out our Quick Guide to aspect ratio.
Make the right connection. HDTVs have a lot of different connections, and not all of them will carry HDTV signals. First off, we recommend buying an HDTV that has at least one HDMI input. HDMI is the most future-ready input type, and due to copy-protection concerns, it's necessary to get the most out of some HDTV sources. If your source has an HDMI output, we recommend using it. If not, connect via component video, which is the second-highest-quality input type. There are a couple other HD-level connections: HDTV antennas connect via standard antenna wire, and some HD sources use FireWire or computer connections, but they're quite rare. Aside from computer jacks themselves, the rest of the connections on the back of the TV, namely RF, composite and S-Video, are not high-def. If you make the connection between the source and the TV using one of those older connections, you're not going to see any high-definition. For a full rundown of different video connections, click here, and for advice on cable and accessory buying, check out our TV buying guide and Quick Guide to HDMI.
Adjusting your HDTV is important. Even the best HDTVs can look pretty bad if they're not adjusted properly. If you want to get the most out of your HDTV, adjusting it beyond the factory default settings is a good idea. Take advantage of picture presets, such as Movie or Games, and play with the standard picture controls to get the image that looks best to you. You may also want to read our article on HDTV tune-up tips or check out our Picture settings and calibration FAQ, which details our own database of recommended picture settings.
That's about it for the basics. More advanced information can be found in the articles we referenced above as well as in our comprehensive HDTV buying guide. Enjoy!