Editor’s note: Ed Crockett’s column on technology trends appears twice monthly on Mondays in Local Tech Wire.Call me an HDTV skeptic. I don’t mind.

Apparently I am not alone. Price and programming have kept me and a lot of other people from embracing what is supposed to be the next “big thing” — high definition digital television.

HDTV sets are not selling well. Prices are too high and HDTV programming is scarce. But, like the first color sets and the first CD and DVD players, the cost of ownership is headed down, and we’ll likely be part of a rush to buy, at some point.

In this article, we will explore the ins and outs of HDTV purchasing for the consumer, and I hope to sharpen your skills as an HDTV shopper. The ability to make a choice based on knowledge instead of sales hype is good equipment for a tough job.

A little (local) history

High-definition television broadcast has been with us little more than six years, but HDTV has been on the drawing board more than six decades. The road to television progress is a long one, and continues to be riddled with potholes in the form of controversy, conflict, and contradiction. Check out the Chronology link under References to see just how eventful this road has been.

Raleigh’s WRAL-TV broadcast the nation’s first high-definition television signal on July 23, 1996, after years of planning and millions of dollars invested. Those few equipped to witness the resulting television picture were apparently impressed. More importantly, the event marked the beginning of change for an industry that had gone without serious change since the inception of color, in December 1953.

Thanks to the foresight and perseverance of Capital Broadcasting Company CEO, Jim Goodmon, this important work moved to completion, in spite of huge obstacles and minimal initial rewards.

Hype vs. reality

Admittedly, my expectations have been sharpened by the sales hype surrounding HDTV introductions. The claims of pictures more brilliant than 35mm photographs and six-channel Dolby surround sound had me expecting more than, in reality, even $5,000 will buy.

You see, this HDTV thing is a matter of scale. There’s a low end, where things are not as good as they could be, but the price at least approaches right, and there’s a high end, where things are mostly as the hype would have it, but the price goes well beyond $5,000. In fact, if you really want that photo-realistic presentation, in a flat screen plasma display, prepare to invest a cool $13,000 just for the monitor (see Hitachi in the References section).

There’s an assortment of strings potentially attached to your HDTV purchase. These are listed in no particular order, as follows:

  • Picture clarity that varies with price
  • Technical challenge of learning the options
  • Potential necessity of a set-top-box that adds substantially to cost
  • Monitors whose price tags can exceed the cost of a new car
  • Potential need to convert to satellite service for HDTV reception
  • Potential to lose your local station
  • Limited availability of HDTV programming to help justify purchase

Things to know

A little knowledge of key specs goes a long way toward ensuring that your big HDTV purchase doesn’t turn out to be a big mistake. Some things to look for are listed, as follows:

  • Aspect Ratio: The relationship of width-to-height, which on non-HDTV sets is 4 by 3 (four units wide by three units high), changes under the HDTV rules to 16 by 9. Watching a movie on an HDTV, you will be able to see peripheral information, which can be a critical part of the scene. Until the 16 by 9 aspect ratio is available on all broadcasts, we will have to put up with dark areas around the periphery of the screen.
  • Scan Lines: The number of scan lines determines picture sharpness. Pre-HDTV models offer 330 lines of resolution. While HDTV models offer twice the scan lines of analog TV, there is more to resolution than scan lines; there is also format.
  • HDTV Format: Two formats to be aware of are 720p and 1080i. Most projection HDTVs use 1080i interlace scanning, which makes scan lines less visible but not invisible. The 720p format uses progressive scanning just like computer monitors. This format yields crystal clear video without apparent scan lines.
  • Sound Capabilities: Some HDTVs offer circuitry to decode true Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, which may or may not be broadcast with a given video program. If you are already equipped for surround sound, then this choice is a no-brainer. Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound has six separate, high fidelity sound channels (left and right rear, left and right front, center, and woofer. Here again, the hardware that knows what to do with all these channels is not inexpensive. If your post-HDTV sound will not venture beyond stereo, then you need not place priority on this issue; otherwise, by all means insist on it.
  • Reception: There seems to be bad blood between cable television providers and broadcast television providers. They have not been able to come to terms over the transport of HDTV signals using the cable system’s coaxial cable. Fiber-optic cable is an unavailable solution too. This means, at least for now, that open-air reception is the only practical way to receive the HDTV signal, and that means restoring the old yagi antenna to its former pinnacle, on top of your house or going satellite.
  • Tuners: HDTV salespeople tend to shy away from the older term ‘television set’ for good reason. Unless you specifically purchase the all-in-one variety of HDTV, components are separate and have functional names like monitor, tuner, and receiver, or set-top-box. All are sold separately. Be sure you know whether the TV you’re eying includes the tuner and sound capabilities you expect to use.

My advice is simple: Buy now if you have to have it, but know that substantial change is sure to follow in the next year or two.