HDTV: High-Anxiety Television

The gear is pricey and confusing--and likely to be obsolete by next year

For months, every time I walked into an electronics shop, glitzy high-definition televisions beckoned. They seduced me with the promise of crystal-clear pictures, amazing stereo sound, and wide-screen viewing. But after succumbing to the temptation of HDTV, I'm ready to pull the plug on the brief affair--at least for now.

Digital-TV sales have jumped fourfold in the past year, with some 2.6 million sets sold to date, thanks largely to a booming DVD market, falling prices, and demand for home theater (the marriage of high-quality audio and video in your family room). Yet only a small percentage of those buyers have hooked up the sets to receive high-definition digital signals. If my experience is any indicator, there's good reason why: HDTV simply is not ready for prime time.

In our HDTV challenge, I set up three high-definition sets and one "HD-ready" TV in one home. In testing loaners of four top-of-the-line sets from Thomson Multimedia (TMS ), Sony (SNE ), Samsung, and Mitsubishi, just about everything that could go wrong did. One set conked out after one day; others couldn't receive the digital signals from local stations. All apparently lack technology that allows consumers to perform basic functions, such as recording high-definition programs. "Very little has been standard about this whole [HDTV] transition," says Tim Alessi, Sony's marketing director for TVs and set-top boxes.

That's an understatement. The learning curve on HDTV is so steep that it's easy to fall off. The first challenge is understanding the differences in digital-TV formats. A true HDTV set has a rectangular, movie-screen shape rather than the more square traditional one. It should include an integrated tuner capable of decoding the 18 approved types of high-definition signals. Such sets retail for $3,000 or more.

So-called HD-ready sets and HD monitors, by contrast, cost less than $1,500, can be either shape, and most often need an additional set-top box to decode digital signals in the three most common formats: DVD-quality good (480p), small-cinema better (720p), and marquee theater-like best (1080i). Those set-top boxes, which often require you to flip a decoding switch to adjust for different formats or stations, sell for about $600. To fit wide-screen, high-definition pictures onto conventional sets, manufacturers typically add black bands at the top and bottom. Critics note, however, that continued use of this system can lead to so-called image burn, where the darkened strips become permanently imprinted on TV screens.

The biggest issue is choosing a set that suits you best. Manufacturers offer diagonal viewing sizes ranging from 27 inches to nearly 7 feet. It's hard to tell which brand has the best picture. Most in-store demos are not showing high-definition content. Instead, you're more likely to be watching a DVD, only one step above analog TV.

Getting the set home is no snap, either. Because many weigh in excess of 200 pounds, retailers often tack on an extra charge for what's known as white-glove service, where a freight company delivers the set to your home, sets it up, and hauls away the packaging. RCA arranged for such service in delivering a 38-inch set with an integrated DirecTV set-top box, but the contractor insisted he was required to take it only to the front door of my building, even though my apartment was just up a flight of stairs and there was an elevator. He changed his stance after I slipped him $20. Fortunately, the three other deliveries went without a hitch.

Once the set is unpacked and plugged in, it's as simple as hitting the remote, right? Not if you want to watch high-definition television. Local broadcasts, if available, are transmitted mostly in standard digital (480p)--not high definition. CBS broadcasts much of its prime-time lineup in the best high-definition format of 1,080 interlaced lines, while ABC sends out a few prime-time shows in 720p. Premium movie channels HBO and Showtime Networks each offer a channel that sends out higher-quality digital signals.

The trick is getting those signals to your TV. Most of the cable industry offers no high-definition programming, and only about 15% of commercial TV stations have made the switch to transmitting even the improved pictures of standard digital programming. At the urging of the Federal Communications Commission, many cable companies this month pledged to do better in the next year.

Having done my homework, I figured I could at least receive a ghost-free digital signal in San Francisco, where most stations had long since begun offering digital feeds. Wrong again. Another lesson: You need an antenna to pull the digital signal out of the air.

That learned, here's where things got interesting. The first antenna--a RadioShack model nearly as big as the new BMW Mini Cooper but not as stylish--got me only one station, an NBC affiliate in Sacramento, some 80 miles to the east. I then discovered that Terk Technologies sells a $300 model made especially for HDTV signals. To my surprise, though, this radar-shaped antenna works only in certain locations, of which my address is not one. A Terk representative next recommended a $50 antenna as the most likely to catch any local signal. The best I could get? On a clear day, that NBC station in Sacramento. On rainy days, forget it.

What was the problem? Like satellite feeds, digital signals are line-of-sight: You either get them or you don't. I didn't, according to the tech gurus I consulted, because my apartment is situated below San Francisco's major broadcasting tower. The local DTV signals were overshooting every antenna I tried to put in their path. For those folks burdened with the same circumstances, the installer's boss noted that a $5,000 oscillator could tune in the signals as they bounced off nearby buildings. Since I doubted my expense account would cover such a gadget, I declined.

I had better luck with satellite providers. The two main services, DirecTV and EchoStar Communications (DISH ), already send pictures digitally, and the differences between watching them on analog and HDTV sets was remarkable. For high-definition content, DirecTV and EchoStar offer HBO and Showtime, while EchoStar throws in, under "special waiver," an East or West Coast feed of CBS. Each service also requires a special antenna to get HD feeds.

But I had troubles with satellite services, too. The RCA was the set that inexplicably conked out after just a few hours' operation. After RCA dispatched a service representative to replace the entire innards, the built-in DirecTV tuner and HD decoder made setup a snap.

When I turned to the HD-ready, 30-inch Samsung television, it was a different story. I learned that some DirecTV boxes are incapable of receiving high-definition content, including the combined TiVo/DirecTV box in my possession. (That's a unit that combines the TiVo personal video recorder and DirecTV satellite receiver.) A separate Samsung box could decode the high-definition signal, but there was no way to feed the unscrambled DirecTV signal from the TiVo unit to the Samsung decoder. The only solution? Buy yet another stand-alone DirecTV box.

EchoStar seemed a better bet, with more HDTV offerings for the same price. But there was fine print here, too. EchoStar's decoder box adds $600 to the HDTV tab, plus you need a second dish to pair up regular offerings with the HDTV content. That's because the feed comes from a satellite in a different orbit. If you're using either satellite service, you'll have to get an additional antenna for local broadcasts.

Even if you do finally get set up, there's another compelling reason to pass on HDTV: Your brand-new set may be obsolete. Bowing to Hollywood's concerns about digital piracy, TV makers currently ship sets that allow you only to watch high-definition programs, not record them. But in April, satellite providers and six electronics companies--Thomson, Matsushita, Sony, Hitachi, Philips Electronics, and Toshiba--announced their support for a new, studio-sanctioned HDTV connector that transmits encrypted high-definition audio and video and doesn't allow for recording. So it's now practically a given that broadcasters will deliver the best content through this new connector, which will not be included in high-definition TV sets until at least next year.

What happens to the $4 billion worth of sets already on the market? Some manufacturers suggest that existing HDTV owners will have to shell out more money for another set-top box that includes the connector technology, while others say the ramifications are unclear. "We have a grandfathering issue we have to manage very carefully," says David Arland, director of U.S. government and public relations for Thomson/RCA. Unfortunately, while the consumer-electronics and broadcast industries grapple with such issues, the move to high-definition television is enough to give anyone gray hairs.

By Cliff Edwards

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