Hdtv: How The Picture Looks Now

Standards are supposed to clear up confusion. But with high-definition television-- the technology to produce cinematic images on wide-screen TVs--the opposite is true. Last December, after 10 years of technical debates, the Federal Communications Commission endorsed standards for digital television, which includes HDTV. Ever since, for most consumers, the fog around this technology has been getting thicker.

In a nod to free markets, the FCC left HDTV standards deliberately vague. TV stations will have a lot of leeway deciding how much HDTV programming to air. Not all digital TVs will display high definition in its full glory. In some scenarios, large-screen personal computers, or PC/TVs, may provide a better picture.

To make things more confusing, the timetable for a transition to HDTV is fuzzy. In April, the FCC lent every TV station a second channel for digital programming. It asked them to commence broadcasts in late 1998 and planned to phase out current-style analog broadcasts by 2006. But no digital TVs are on sale today, and no rules are written in stone. "The standard is new and malleable," says Gregory DePriest, vice-president for advanced television at Toshiba America. "The deadlines are flexible."

In short, consumers will vote with their wallets about what form digital television takes. But for the moment, most consumers are scratching their heads. Will ordinary TVs become obsolete? When is the right time to purchase a new one? How quickly will prices come down? What will become of cable-TV and digital-satellite systems?

CONSENSUS. There are no sure answers to any of these questions. But there's consensus on a few points. Ordinary TVs will be useful for at least another 10 years. And when HDTV broadcasts get in gear, promises Jack Fuhrer, Hitachi America's top TV technologist, you will be able to purchase a sleek "down-converter" box that will accept any signal a TV station broadcasts and display it on your current television. Hitachi already has demonstrated such a box, which will probably sell for $300--less than the price of a good digital TV.

Make no mistake: The down-converter can't deliver the full benefits of HDTV on an ordinary analog television. Today's picture tubes were never designed to display such rich images. But you will get the same crisp picture that owners of digital-satellite systems enjoy today. "You will never again see snow, ghosts, weird color effects, or other distortions," Fuhrer says.

So, if you need a new TV today, there's no reason not to buy. Television prices have never been better. You can buy a 27-inch color set from RCA, JVC, and other vendors for less than $400. Paired with a down-converter in 1998, any will make a fine digital TV stand-in.

Home theaters costing $5,000 or more are another story. At that price, you're better off waiting for real high-definition television. Most analysts figure you'll pay a relatively modest $1,000 to $1,500 premium over the price of an analog set with the same size screen. And you'll get a wide-screen image with twice the resolution of today's best TVs.

Does anyone really need such a sharp picture? If you own a TV set that is 27-in. or smaller, you probably don't. Most people watch these televisions from across a room, at a distance of about six "screen heights"--or six times the distance from the top to the bottom of the TV. Viewed from that distance, medium-size HDTVs and conventional-style TVs look almost the same.

But for rear-projection TVs in the 50-in.-to-60-in. range, the visual dynamics change. Watching one of these giants from across the same living room, you are only two or three screen heights away. At that distance, the warts and blemishes of conventional TV--the color distortions and grainy dots called pixels--are painfully apparent. Not so with high-definition TV. With HD sets, the picture looks fine, even close up.

There's at least one more good reason to wait for 1998. A half-dozen Japanese companies--including Fujitsu, Matsushita, and Mitsubishi Electric--are readying large, flat-panel displays that will hang on a living-room wall. The panels, which use a gas-like plasma technology, resemble liquid-crystal displays in color notebook computers. But they deliver better pictures than most notebooks and can be produced in larger sizes than LCDs.

PANELS. The first generation of wall-hanging plasma displays comes from QFTV in Foster City, Calif., which uses a 42-in. glass panel from Fujitsu. With all the wiring and circuitry built in, the TV is barely four in. deep. And it weighs just 65 pounds--a third the weight of a rear-projection model of similar size. Picture quality today matches that of digital satellite systems, and Fujitsu is working on an HD version.

To see why "flat" is so important, check out any of the home theaters in your neighborhood electronics shop. The huge picture tube in a 60-in. rear-projection TV causes it to jut out about three feet from the wall. Plasma solves that issue--though at a hefty price. QFTV's 42-in. model sells for $20,000, or 10 times the cost of a comparable rear-projection set. But prices will soon start falling. By 1998, says Joe Virginia, flat-panel director at Fujitsu Microelectronics, a 42-in. plasma HDTV will go for about $4,000.

There are some other wild cards in the HDTV game. Cable-TV giants, such as Time Warner and Tele-Communications, and service providers in the satellite camp could wield immense influence over the future of digital television. Right now though, neither group seems likely to jump on the high-definition bandwagon.

Take the cable suppliers. Most are hastily installing digital infrastructure. And like the broadcasters, they can use it to pump more programs down the coaxial pipeline or send higher-resolution images. But, at present, cable companies aren't interested in better pictures. They're focusing on stealing back subscribers who defected to digital-satellite systems--in most cases because it offered more channels.

PC companies are also ignoring high definition for now. At an industry trade show in April, PC powerhouses Intel, Microsoft, and Compaq launched a new joint initiative urging TV stations to tailor their digital programming to display formats you can watch on a PC. In return, the computer companies offered to build digital-TV receivers into millions of new Windows PCs. It was a gutsy attempt to carve out a slice of the digital-TV pie, but few broadcasters took the bait.

Nobody expects PC makers to give up. Compaq Computer and Gateway 2000 are both pushing large-screen PC/TV products for the living room. At $4,000 and up, these gizmos aren't exactly a bargain. But they're great for family Web-browsing or group game-playing. And you can upgrade them with add-in cards as the digital-TV market evolves. In contrast, "televisions were never designed to be opened up or have cards inserted," says Laurie Frick, Compaq's vice-president for consumer emerging markets.

Broadcasters, although they rejected the latest PC initiative, also understand the appeal of PC/TV products. In 1998, many TV stations will start broadcasting data as well as conventional programs. PC/TV users with large screens may be the most enthusiastic audience for such services. One can imagine them splitting the screens on their giant PC/TVs, watching Tiger Woods putt on one half and exploring a digital version of the golf course on the other.

The lesson in all this? If you're shopping for a system that costs $700 or less, don't hesitate. For anything more expensive, you should probably wait--but be warned: Your choices won't get any easier. Product cycles in the digital-TV era will follow the breakneck pace of silicon innovation. Expect continual change, abrupt technical advances, and gut-wrenching price declines. Anyone who has purchased a PC already knows what that's like, observes Paul Liao, president of Panasonic Technologies. Trying to guess the best time to buy "is like trying to time the stock market," he says with a laugh. Liao's advice: "Buy the product when you think you need it." And follow the credo of the Digital Age: Never look back.

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