May 3, 2007

ABCDEFG HDMI which TV for me?

Filed under: Home Theatre — pj @ 12:42 am

Prices on High Definition TVs (HDTVs) finally fell. A month or so ago, the manufacturers decided they had soaked the sports fan market for all it was worth and lowered prices to where the rest of us might consider a new TV. There is still not enough (non-sports) HD content available. There are just a handful of HD DVDs available to rent at my local Blockbuster and though my satellite provider, DirecTV, has a handful of HD channels available now, they are promising a lot more “real soon now”. 

For various reasons, I recently needed a new TV for the basement. As usual, I did my homework and bought a TV.  So, which TV is the right one for you? Getting the ideal TV is kind of complicated and depends a lot on what you want to do with it…

720p vs 1080i vs 1080p

Unless you are bargain bin shopping, you’ll want an HD TV. There are two official HD resolutions:  720 and 1080 (the number is the number of lines that make up the picture).  1080 is a higher resolution and, if all other things  are equal it is better than 720. Honestly, even with a good 1080p HD DVD signal, most people probably won’t see the difference between 720 and 1080. There are p and i variants of each format, but I think it’s even less likely that anybody will be able to tell the difference between p or i because, internally, all modern TVs convert any input p or i signal to the p format they really need. I don’t think it’s important, but if you want to know what the p and i stand for, this is a good page to get started with:

Input Connections and Tuners

If you want to be an educated consumer, you’ll have to decide how many and what kind of inputs you need. HDMI is the modern HD standard. If you only have 1 HDMI input (like on the TV I bought), that might be a deciding factor. However, right now, I can only imagine I’ll ever have two HD sources: DirecTV and HD DVD. In addition to the 1 HDMI input, my TV also can accept HD via 1 component input.  I don’t have any HD equipment yet and even when I do, I probably will only ever use the 1 HDMI input because I plan to buy a home theater receiver that has multiple video and audio inputs.

I like surround sound (though I think 5.1 is fine and 7.1 is more than most rooms can use) and I prefer to run everything through my receiver. A good home theater receiver will switch between the video sources and will convert everything into a single HDMI output. The ability for a receiver to convert old format TV signals (from the VCR and non-HD DVD player, for example) into HDMI is often called “up conversion” or “upconversion”. AFAIK, there is only one brand of receiver that costs less than $500 that does HDMI up conversion. Here are some links: a review, a price comparison, users manual. There are other JVC models I have seen with up conversion. I’m not sure, but I think the RXD401 was the first with HDMI up conversion, then there are some newer models. Everything else I saw with up conversion was more than $500.

Some TVs have built-in tuners (and antenna connections and coax inputs) and some don’t. The TV I bought does not have a tuner. Technically, a TV without a tuner is called a “monitor”. There are two types of tuners – HD and non-HD. An HD TV should have an HD tuner, but I guess it’s something to be check if you want a HD tuner in your TV.

Do you need an HD or non-HD tuner? Well, it depends… if you have non-digital cable (typical) or digital cable without a set top box (a small converter box is provided by the cable company), then you’ll probably need a tuner to watch cable TV. Some local stations broadcast in HD. With an HD tuner and a big enough antennae, you can watch these local channels in HD. So, you might want a an HD tuner in your TV to watch your local channels in HD (but there are other ways to get this – see below).  

Watching satellite TV or cable TV with a set top box generally does not require a tuner – the set top box provides the tuner (and in some cases a Tivo style digital video recorder) and outputs to your TV (or receiver) via HDMI, HD component, s-video or composite. I’m not sure about the set top boxes from other companies, but most of the DirecTV HD set top boxes include an antenna input for tuning in “off air” local stations broadcast in HD.

Most VCRs include a non-HD tuner and can output to your TV via s-video or composite, so, in a pinch, if your TV does not have a tuner but your VCR does, you can use your VCR’s tuner to watch non-HD cable TV. This kind of roundabout setup is sure to draw complaints from “the crowd”, though, so I would only consider this as a temporary solution (to get you by until you get a HD set top box from your satellite or cable company, for example).

None of the receivers I looked at included HD TV tuners, but that is a good idea and there might be a receiver out there that has one.

Display Technology

Picture tube TVs with electron guns have been relegated to the discount stores. Other display technologies have taken its place:

Front projector (like a movie theater): there are some inexpensive non-HD projectors available. 720 HD projectors are expensive and 1080 projectors are crazy expensive. You can project a huge image, but you’ll need a surface to project onto. A real projection screen is the ideal surface, but ugly. Also, you’ll need a dark room for the best results.
Rear projector: These TVs used to be huge, but modern systems are not as deep. In fact, they look a lot like an LCD or Plasma TV from the front. They used to be a lot less expensive than Plasma and LCD, but after the recent price drops, pricing on rear projection TVs is not as compelling as it was 6 months ago. Rear projection TVs use different kinds of elements to create the projected image, but I don’t think it’s important to get hung up over LCD vs DLP – whatever image looks the best is the best. Rear projection TVs are not as bright as plasma or LCDs, so they work best in dimly lit rooms.
Plasma: Some (some = Panasonic – the world’s largest vendor of Plasma displays) say plasma screens have better colors than LCDs. I think you have to compare your potential TVs side-by-side to know for sure. Plasmas are typically not quite as good as LCDs in brightly lit rooms. Plasmas with native resolution of 1080 are very expensive, but you can get 720 plasmas at prices competitive with LCDs.
LCD: LCDs are now very competitive with plasmas for size and picture quality and, unlike current plasmas, you can get a reasonable price on a LCD TV with native 1080 resolution. If you have your heart set on a 1080p TV (which I did), the LCD TV from Sam’s club I bought was by far the best deal in the “around 40 inch” size. It’s not the biggest TV you can get, but anything bigger would have looked really silly in my cabinet, anyway. It also had only 1 HDMI input an no tuner, but I don’t need additional HDMI inputs or a tuner.

Which one?

It’s a tough call. In the end, the best one is the one that looks and functions the best for you, regardless of price, magazine reviews or salesperson recommendations. Be careful when looking at TV pictures in stores, though. The TVs may not be hooked up properly or optimally. In Sam’s club, for example, they were playing standard definition DVDs on all the HD TVs. True, the DVDs were being upconverted to HD component video, but that’s not the same as a true HD video source. Also, several of the TVs were not configured properly.

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