The Picture of Things to Come

As TVs go digital, here's what to look for in the showroom

Once upon a time, buying a television set was a simple matter. You went to the store and pretty much paid by the inch. If you picked the most popular screen size--20 inches a decade ago, or 27 inches five years ago--you got the best deal. Anything bigger was hundreds or thousands of dollars more.

No longer. Go to a store today, and there are still rows and rows of conventional TVs--32-in. sets in the $500 to $800 range are the most popular. But beside them are all manner of new configurations and technology: big, small, fat, thin. Their pictures are noticeably better, but their prices can be just this side of staggering.

Sets with wide, rectangular TV tubes instead of square ones range from $1,700 to $2,500. Tiny, flat, liquid-crystal TVs no good for anything but a kitchen counter command $800 and more. Those monster projection TVs against the back wall for a couple of grand look like a pretty good deal. And that ultrathin plasma model hanging on the wall, Jetsons-like, how cool is that? Oh, about $11,000 worth of cool.

This is all the result of television--like everything else in your home--going from analog to digital. You can make the switch now to future-proof your TV purchase. Or you can wait a few years, and the government will make the switch for you: By 2007, all TV stations must broadcast only digital signals. Don't worry, your old (or new) analog TV will not be obsolete anytime soon. Most people get their TV signals from cable companies, and future cable boxes will convert the digital signals to work with whatever TV you have.

If, however, you're a TiVo junkie, recording every episode of your favorite shows, you probably want to be ready when the new programming arrives. Or, if a substantial part of your family's entertainment comes courtesy of Blockbuster, you'll really notice a dramatic improvement in the picture when you're watching DVDs. Some tips for buying a set:

-- Make sure it's high-definition (HD). That means it can handle up to double the number of horizontal lines compared with analog TV, from 720 to 1,080 lines instead of today's 480. Caution: Many of the most affordable thin plasma screens, in the $3,000 to $5,000 range, are not high-definition sets and must reduce the quality of the HD signal to display it.

-- Buy a widescreen if you can afford it. Most future TV programming will be broadcast in the rectangular HD format reminiscent of a movie screen rather than the traditional, squarish shape of conventional TV. With widescreen TVs, you won't have those black bars at the top and bottom when you watch movies today--or TV shows tomorrow.

-- To save money, get an "HD-ready" set. Also called HD-upgradable or HD-compatible, it can show an HD picture but doesn't include the electronics you need to decode the HDTV signal. That's O.K. You'll still get today's analog broadcasts and, if your cable or satellite TV company offers HDTV, you can get a set-top box that will work just fine.

-- For the big picture, rear-projection TV is your best bet. Amazingly, widescreen HD projection sets measuring 40 inches and up--from $1,400 to $5,000--are cheaper than the plain analog ones were two years ago. Viewing angle is always an issue with projection sets, so, with your furniture arrangement in mind, be sure to look at them from what would be the worst possible vantage point.

Now that you're ready for the future, it's time to deal with today, when most TV programming is still the square-format, low-definition variety. The new sets are so good that they can reveal all the flaws of today's TV signal. When you're shopping, make the store turn off the HD picture and turn on an analog one. There should be some kind of video-enhancement technology that can double the lines of an analog picture to take full advantage of the resolution of an HD screen. Then you're ready to commandeer the remote control, stretch back in the recliner, and watch the future of TV unfold.

By Larry Armstrong

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