Shopping for a New TV? Bring Aspirin

The long shift to digital has made the choice more complex

I went TV shopping recently, and it's not a pretty picture. Television is moving from analog to digital, just like everything else in your living room. But while the transition to digital high-definition TV (HDTV) promises stunning pictures on your own silver screen, things are getting infinitely more complicated. That's because we're going through the first real change in the way television pictures look and are transmitted since color TV came along in the 1950s. Broadcasters are reluctant to spend the money for all-new cameras and transmission gear. And Napster-stung studios are stalling, worried that picture-perfect digital copies of their reality shows and sitcom hits will leak out onto the Internet.

The result: No matter what you do, you'll be caught in the middle of a long, drawn-out shift from analog to digital that will make television shopping more of a chore than it ever was. It used to be that you just had to decide what was the biggest size set that would fit your space and budget. Now, you must ask yourself: Should I go digital now to future-proof the set against the day when analog broadcasts are switched off for good? Should I pay extra for a wide-screen--a Cinerama-like set that fits today's DVD movies and tomorrow's HDTV broadcasts--or stick to the traditional, squarish TV that best fits the gaping hole in the middle of my entertainment center?

The good news is that whatever TV you buy today will not become obsolete. When broadcasters switch over to all-digital transmissions, now slated for 2006, at most you'll have to buy a black box for about $100 that converts the new signals to the analog form required by your TV.

Budget and screen size are still the best places to start. You can get great-looking conventional sets as big as 36 inches starting at about $1,000 and 32-inch sets for $600 to $800. Consumer Reports recommends models from Toshiba and Hitachi, among others.

If you want the best picture money can buy, however, you should be shopping for a digital TV. Prices have come down dramatically over the past year, to the point where big-screen digital sets can now be had for less than $2,000. But you'll have to contend with a variable you've never had to face before: What shape should the TV be?

The beauty of a wide-screen TV--with a viewing area that's nearly twice as wide as it is high--is that it can accommodate the new rectangular-shaped HDTV broadcasts without black bars on the top and bottom to fill out the screen. And it's a better match for wide-screen movies, either broadcast on TV or from your DVD player. The problem is that most of what's available to watch on TV today is still transmitted in the squarish format and would appear in the middle of a wider screen with ugly gray bars filling out the sides.

Still, my recommendation is to go with a wide-screen set if you can afford it, especially if you use your TV mostly for watching such fare as DVD movies. Besides, setmakers have come up with several ways to get around the waste of space on your expensive screen. They stretch the picture to fit, with most of the stretch (and distortion) on the right and left edges. Or they zoom in, pushing the gray bars--as well as the top and bottom of the picture--off the edges of the screen. Some wide-screen sets, including all wide-screen projection models from Mitsubishi and Pioneer, have as many as four different ways of making the old square-format picture better fill the screen. Make the store show you them all, and make sure you can live with at least one of them.

HOME THEATER. The decision to buy a wide-screen TV isn't as tough if you're looking for a projection TV, the only kind available above 40 inches. For one thing, at that size, you're really in the market for a home theater, and you probably want a TV that mimics the look and quality of a movie screen. For another, wide-screen projection TVs aren't much more difficult to manufacture than the squarer ones and don't cost much more.

You can get a 46-inch wide-screen HDTV projection monitor from Mitsubishi for $2,100, for example, just $300 more than a 50-inch analog projection TV in the traditional screen format. If you want a glass-tube TV, though, be prepared to pay close to $1,000 extra for HDTV, plus another $1,000 or more for the wide-screen version. A 36-inch HDTV monitor from Toshiba goes for $1,895, vs. $900 for an analog TV; a comparable 34-inch wide-screen HDTV monitor from Toshiba costs $2,670.

One good strategy is to buy an HDTV monitor, also called an HDTV-ready or HDTV-upgradeable set, instead of what's now being called an "integrated" HDTV set, with the HDTV tuner built in. Even the monitors have a conventional tuner to display analog-TV signals or play DVD movies, and you can add the HDTV tuner when HDTV broadcasts become more common. Tuners now cost $600 to $1,000, depending on whether they can receive satellite-TV signals, over-the-air HDTV transmissions from a rooftop antenna, or both. Another reason to wait: With a handful of exceptions, cable-TV companies haven't decided how they will handle HDTV signals.

GHOSTS AND SNOW. Beware of the non-high-definition versions of digital TV sets that some TV makers, including Sony, offer. They're called enhanced-definition and standard-definition TVs. These EDTV and SDTV sets look better than analog TV, but that's because of the cleaner digital signal, which gets rid of ghosts and snow. They also, like all of the new digital sets, have picture-enhancement circuitry to smooth out the TV picture from analog broadcasts. (You can compare the improvement on different brands by looking for zigzags along diagonal lines in the picture.) But only HDTV sets can display the higher resolution that HDTV signals provide. Other digital sets must downgrade the HDTV signal before they can display it.

Since I'm not a diehard movie fanatic, in the end I decided to hold off on buying a new set until more digital programming becomes available. But some weekend nights, after I pop a DVD into the player and a bag of popcorn into the microwave, I have second thoughts. It must be the smell of the popcorn.

By Larry Armstrong

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