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Video: Eye Popping Tv But It'll Cost You

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Raise the curtain, and a drum roll, please: High-definition TV is about to come to center stage. Years in the making, souped-up digital HDTVs are finally expected to land in electronics stores by Christmas. Early buyers will be able to bask at home in the kind of wide-screen cinematic splendor they have come to expect at their local multiplex. Besides big-theater sound, HDTV presents vivid, ghost-free pictures that enable viewers to discern freckles, blades of grass, and dress patterns, whether the TV signals originate over air waves, cable, or satellite.

High-definition television is but one of many sexy digital video technologies now reaching consumers. Digital video disks (DVDs) made their debut last year, letting you watch motion pictures with smashing sound and video on disks that look like audio CDs (which DVD machines play as well). Portable DVD players are due out this summer. After that: DVD machines that record, probably hitting stores sometime after 2000.TOP END. If you're thinking about adding HDTV to your media or rec room, you had better have deep pockets. The sets are expected to cost $5,000 to $10,000 and up. At January's Consumers Electronics Show in Las Vegas, more than a dozen TV heavyweights unveiled first-generation digital TV prototypes. Zenith Electronics, for example, introduced a 64-inch rear-projection set. RCA's first model will be a 61-inch rear projection set, with 38-inch and 34-inch direct view receivers also in the works. Panasonic was among the companies to show set-top boxes for converting digital signals into analog for viewing on conventional TVs. For the most part, however, manufacturers remained mum on prices and specific models.

Digital sets deemed worthy of the HDTV banner are the top end of the top end. They will have at least 1 million picture elements, or pixels, and some will display 2 million pixels. By comparison, a decent analog set only allows for 288,000 pixels. HDTV sets also display their pictures in a movie-like wide-screen format. You'll see this described as an "aspect ratio" of 16:9, meaning the screen is nearly twice as wide as it is high. Most analog TVs have a 4:3 aspect ratio.

You should be aware that not every digital TV will display high definition in its full glory. Digital TV also includes so-called standard definition, or SDTVs. These have lower resolution than HDTVs and offer no prespecified aspect ratio. They'll cost a little less than HDTVs but will still offer better quality than analog sets and will be able to display digital broadcasts. In fact, the industry's Advanced Television Systems Committee specifies 18 separate digital TV formats. Almost certainly, any digital receiver will be able to accommodate them all, though not necessarily at the screen resolution you would like. "Manufacturers can't afford to sell something to consumers that might go dark," says Martin Levine, a partner in Digital Technology Consulting, a market research firm in Forest Hills, N.Y.

But will you have anything to watch? Last year the Federal Communications Commission carved up the digital spectrum. Twenty-six TV stations agreed to begin digital broadcasting by November. By May 1, 1999, all network affiliates in the top 10 American TV markets must begin broadcasting digitally. Six months later, all network affiliates in the next 20 largest markets will have to comply. Other commercial stations have until May, 1, 2002, to beam digital programming. Non-commercial stations have until a year later.

Most likely, the first high-definition broadcasts will be pay-per-view specials, live sporting events and blockbuster movies. At the Las Vegas electronics show, DirecTV Inc., a satellite broadcaster, demonstrated the first direct-to-home satellite feed of a high-definition TV signal by showing excerpts from the 1996 Super Bowl. A survey of 400 broadcasting executives conducted for Harris Corp., a leading producer of digital TV transmitters, found that most stations planned to offer HDTV programming during prime time and less-detailed SDTV programs during the day. However, by broadcasting in the SDTV format, a TV station could offer up to five separate programs simultaneously.

Some form of interactive television might also be part of the mix. As WebTV and others have shown, viewers can move seamlessly from TV watching to the Internet and back. OpenTV Inc., a provider of software for digital set-top boxes, has been demonstrating an interactive system that deemphasizes the Web. In one example, OpenTV played a prize fight featuring Oscar de La Hoya. While watching the fight, consumers could use a remote control to consult an unobtrusive drop-down menu and peek at punch-by-punch statistics, see results of previous de La Hoya matches, and score the bout in progress. By punching in a PIN number, viewers could order de La Hoya merchandise. OpenTV, whose shareholders include Sun Microsystems and Thomson, is already providing similar interactive services in France, Denmark, and Sweden.

The good news for TV junkies who don't go digital right away is that a decade will pass before their old-fashioned sets turn obsolete. If you need to replace your TV anytime soon, you can get a decent deal on top-quality large-screen analog sets. But "you're not going to see fire sales, because there's a minuscule market for digital TV in 1998," says Levine. On the other hand, if you've been considering a wall-size television for a home theater, you might be wise to postpone the purchase until digital TVs become more affordable.NEW TWISTS. You might want to add DVD to jazz up your home theater in the meantime. The disks can hold 4.7 gigabytes per side, more than enough to store a full-length movie, plus multiple language and subtitle tracks, alternate camera angles, and the ability to show movies in standard or "letterbox" form. Some 600 DVD films are available, and Disney, once a studio holdout, announced late last year that it plans to supply DVD titles as well. The price of players has fallen to as little as $400, though you can pay a premium for units with more sophisticated circuitry.

There are other new twists. Sony unveiled a five-disk CD/DVD changer, the DVP-C600D, with a price to be determined. This April, road warriors will be able to enjoy DVD movies. Panasonic plans to offer the DVD-L10, a palm-size player that weighs less than two pounds. The $1,300 portable runs on two-hour nickel metal hydride batteries and features a 5.8-inch wide LCD screen. Meanwhile, a group of consumer electronics biggies have embraced a new format for DVD audio, meaning the disks could eventually replace the audio CD.

As with most matters in high tech, the decision on whether or not to buy a DVD player is getting more complicated. That's because of the launch of a "pay per view" DVD variant called Divx (Digital Video Express LP), a partnership led by Circuit City Stores.

The idea is that anyone who purchases Divx-equipped DVD gear will be able to buy specially encrypted five-inch movie disks for $4.50 to $5, compared with $20 to $25 for a conventional DVD flick. Divx owners can watch the film as often as they wish over a two-day period, after which the disk is rendered useless--no need to return it to the store. The clock doesn't start ticking until one begins watching the film. You can order an extra 48 hours of viewing time for an extra few dollars. If you decide to own the movie outright, you can purchase unlimited viewings for $13 extra or so. All the ordering and billing transactions are handled by clicking on menus. A phone inside the hardware dials toll-free.

Divx hardware will command about a $100 premium over conventional DVD players and will handle regular DVD software as well. But anyone who has already sprung for a DVD player cannot play Divx disks. Zenith will be first out with a Divx unit this spring; Thomson, Panasonic, and JVC also plan to produce machines. On the software side, Disney, Paramount, Universal, and DreamWorks SKG will be releasing their own Divx film titles.

Of course, some video addicts are perfectly content watching analog VHS cassettes. For them, Sony is coming out this summer with two VCRs for $449 and $499 that quickly let you know what's recorded on a VHS tape. All you'll have to do is attach a "SmartFile" label to a cartridge and wave it in front of the VCR. A menu of the tape's contents then pops up on the TV screen. It's one of the few analog entertainment innovations in what is rapidly becoming a digital world.Edward C. Baig EDITED BY AMY DUNKINReturn to top

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