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bull Is an HDTV worth buying even without an HD source?


We bought a huge DLP HDTV for our basement, and I just love it!. We're now looking at buying a new TV for our bedroom, but I'm completely lost this time. I don't want to buy a new HD digital cable box, and all we want to watch on it is regular cable programming. So my question is, if I want to buy a plasma or LCD TV that we can hang on our bedroom wall, what should I be looking for? EDTV? Would an HDTV set offer a better picture, even though it's not an HD source? Is there some other stat or rating I should be looking for? Help!

Submitted by: Brian M.



Brian, buying a new TV right now is one of the most complex consumer purchases a person can make. Very few consumers understand the options and offerings, and the sales people sometimes are not much help either. On top of that, there are a bewildering number of offerings: There are at least 6 technologies available for actually displaying the image, there are at least 5 relevant screen resolutions, there are at least 9 different forms of video input connections, and there are 18 different broadcast formats approved by the FCC for HDTV (really “digital TV” or “DTV”) broadcasting. Consequently, choosing an actual product becomes a bewildering task.

You mention that you don’t want to buy a new cable box, from which I gather that your intent is to actually receive and use only NTSC-standard (analog) signals direct from your antenna or cable with no set-top box or satellite receiver. While I understand that objective, you should understand its important limitations: The US has decreed that NTSC signal broadcasting will cease on February 17th, 2009. Consequently, after that date, a set used as you describe would “go dark” and could not be subsequently used without an external set-top box (STB) of some type. Since that date is relatively close (certainly it’s early in the life span of any TV that you would buy today), let’s consider ways to accommodate both immediate use and use after February 17, 2009. And, in the process, we may be able to exceed your objectives.

In terms of signal reception, any “TV set” (as opposed to “monitor”) that you buy today will have an NTSC (analog) TV tuner to receive conventional analog TV programming (technically known as NTSC). Our current NTSC TV system was approved by the FCC in March of 1941, nine months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Color was added in 1954 and stereo sound was added in 1984, but basically NTSC is a system that is now 67 years old, and it’s well past time to move on. However, a set with an NTSC tuner will receive off-the-air analog TV broadcasts, and on most cable systems it will receive unscrambled (non-premium) analog content without any type of set-top box. But only until February 17th, 2009, after which no such signals will continue to be broadcast.

Most but not all “HDTV” TV sets (really better described as “digital TV” or “DTV” sets) will also receive off-the-air HDTV/DTV broadcasts using an antenna. Since this is not universal, however, it’s a specification that you need to verify when you consider a particular TV receiver. This feature would be described as an “ATSC tuner”. But it is of limited or no use to people who get their TV programming via satellite or cable.

If you have cable TV, then what you really want is the ability, first, to receive unscrambled (non-premium) HDTV channels on your cable system without any type of converter of set-top box. And, second, the ability to receive scrambled premium HDTV content on the set, also without a set-top box. Fortunately, in many but not all cases, both of these objectives are possible.

What I am about to say is cable-TV system specific, so if you want to receive digital cable programming without a STB (and keep in mind that this will apply to all programming after 2/17/2009), it is imperative that you check with your cable company to find out what they are broadcasting, how it is transmitted, and what you need to receive it (and you won’t always get straight answers). But, in general:

-If the TV set has a “QAM tuner”, it may be able to receive unscrambled non-premium digital broadcasts as transmitted by many cable systems.

-If, in addition, the TV set has a “cable card slot”, it may also be able to receive premium scrambled channels without an external STB as well.

A “QAM” tuner is a tuner for digital TV channels as transmitted over many cable systems. Sets with such a tuner will sometimes be described as “digital cable ready”.

A “cable card slot” is a slot for a card usually supplied by your cable company (purchased or rented for a monthly fee) that allows the TV to unscramble premium content internally, without an external STB. Physically, a cable card looks a lot like a “PC Card” (“PCMCIA” Card) that goes into a laptop computer.

So, for maximum versatility, what you want to look for is an HDTV (DTV) receiver that has an NTSC analog tuner (off the air and cable analog TV), an ATSC tuner (off-the-air HDTV/DTV), a QAM tuner (digital cable tuner) and a cable card slot (allowing internal decoding of premium content scrambled TV channels). Note again, however, that even having all of these doesn’t absolutely guarantee the ability to receive cable HDTV broadcasts without a STB, as each cable company sets their own broadcasting standards. So check with your cable company. But this is as much as you can currently do to maximize your capabilities both currently and subsequent to February 17, 2009.

Now let’s talk about the display. Given your “on the wall” requirement, you are looking for either a plasma or a direct-view LCD TV set.

You mentioned EDTV and, very frankly, I’d avoid that like the plague. EDTV is an intermediate resolution format (neither NTSC nor HDTV) that was kind of a “stop gap” measure created primarily to enable sales of flat plasma panel TV sets at reasonable prices a couple of years ago when true HDTV plasma panels were cost prohibitive ($4,500 to $10,000). However, the price of true HDTV plasma and LCD displays has dropped so much that it’s hard to justify an EDTV display, and in fact there are not a lot of them still being made. EDTV was an interim standard, far inferior to “real” HDTV, and it’s time has passed. Also note that “EDTV” only relates to the resolution and has no bearing, either way, on your ability (or lack thereof) to receive programming as transmitted by your cable company without a STB.

You didn’t say anything about size, but basically on a wall mounted set of about 42 inches and less, you are probably looking at an LCD set, and over that you are probably looking at a plasma set (there is some overlap in the 40 to 50-inch range). Common LCD sizes include 32, 37 and 42 inches (some other sizes do exist), and LCD sets in both 32” and 37” now start well under $1,000 and typically have a resolution of 1366 x 768. While prices do start well under $1,000, feature-rich premium sets from top name brands may cost nearly twice as much as low-end sets of the same screen size and format.

Plasma sets start at about 42 inches and go up from there, but 50 inches is a common plasma size. It’s now possible to get a 50-inch plasma set (true HDTV, not EDTV) for under $2,000. There is far less standardization of the size and resolution of plasma screens. Again, similar sets (e.g. same size) may have surprisingly different prices depending on the manufacturer and the features, but ideally you will be looking for a resolution of 1280 x 720.

In any HDTV set of any type, look for a good variety of video input signals, including at least composite, S-Video, component video and digital (HDMI and/or DVI) inputs. A VGA (computer) input and multiple inputs of each type are all desirable.

I hope that this is helpful, and best of luck in finding just the right TV set for your application.

Submitted by: Barry W. of North Canton, Ohio





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