Remember Neo's dilemma in The Matrix? Morpheus offers him two views of reality, extending a blue pill in his left hand and a red one in his right. Anyone shopping to equip a high-definition home theater this fall may have a similar Matrix moment. Only in this rendition, Morpheus will be offering up a rainbow of choices for products and services -- any one of which might precipitate buyer's remorse.
So what's the road best traveled when it comes to the high-definition experience? In my quest to find out, I looked at the latest in 42-in. and 50-in. plasma TV sets from Panasonic (PC ), Pioneer (PIO ), and Sony (SNE ) as well as LCD TVs from Dell (DELL ) and Samsung. Then I compared services from DirecTV (DTV ), DISH Network (DISH ), and Comcast -- the leading cable and satellite providers in my area -- judging them on the basis of picture quality, volume of HDTV programming, and ease of recording. My conclusion is that setting up a high-definition theater today is both affordable and sensible: If you choose carefully, products on sale right now could keep you satisfied for many years.
That's not to say the choices are simple. The first step is figuring out which screen is best for your home. That obviously depends on personal tastes, budget, and the size of the room where the TV will reside. The cheapest route to HDTV is a conventional tube-based set, which you can get for under $1,000. But nobody enjoys sacrificing whole swaths of the living room for a box the size of a washing machine. That's why the action in home theaters is quickly shifting to thin and light flat-screen TVs.
Sharper and Sharper
Of these, the three fastest-growing categories are rear-projection, plasma, and liquid-crystal displays (LCDS). Rear-projection sets typically cost less than the alternatives, but there are trade-offs. Most such TVs are at least twice as thick as plasma and LCD sets. And the subcategories in the projection market can be baffling. You'll find models based on "digital light processing" chips, LCD panels, and a technology called liquid crystal on silicon (LCOS). Don't get hung up on these. All three approaches offer great pictures. The one caveat is that rear-projection screens generally look best in a darkened room.
For bigger spenders, plasma displays are the preferred choice. But not all such screens are created equal. Salespeople in electronics shops will explain the differences using ungainly terms such as "native resolution" and "480p vs. 1080i." You can bone up on the fine points of pixels and "scanning lines" at hdtv.cnet.com and other Web sites dedicated to HDTV, but it isn't essential. The one distinction that will matter right away is whether you want so-called enhanced definition (EDTV), or a higher-resolution display. The former choice will basically limit viewing to the quality you get from a good DVD player. If you can afford to step up to a high-definition set, it will pay off two years down the road when a lot more HDTV programming will be available.
At the moment, EDTVs are one of the hottest categories in plasma sets. They generally cost less than $3,000, and the pictures look great. Panasonic's hot-selling 42-in. TH-42PD25U/P EDTV offered clear, bright pictures of a Green Bay Packers game, but crowd shots and other finer detail looked blurry when viewed side by side with higher definition sets from Sony and Panasonic for $5,500 or less. Pioneer's equally impressive 50-inch PDP5040HD sells for about $6,000. Be sure to check out plasma sets from Fujitsu and Samsung, too.
There are some disadvantages to plasma technology. Older plasma sets are prone to "burn-in," where static images such as paused game scenes, black space, or station logos appear as a ghost on the screen that can't be erased. Plasma displays also lose their brightness over an extended time. If you kept a set running day and night, it would last for about 2 1/2 years, compared with a five-year projected life span for liquid-crystal displays. LCDs also tend to be lighter, about an inch thinner, and more energy-efficient. Samsung's ultracool 46-in. LTP468W, for $8,000, is the first LCD capable of displaying all forms of HDTV.
The next issue to resolve is how you would like to receive your HDTV signal. The three options right now are via cable, satellite TV, or over the airwaves. The last option is the simplest. It's free and requires nothing more than a built-in tuner and an antenna such as Terk's $39.99 HDTVi. But reception may be spotty, depending on where you live.
Of the three for-pay cable and satellite services I compared, all had excellent features at comparable prices, but there were differences. Comcast had the best all-in-one deal. It had an impressive high-definition lineup, including all the major local networks, and something called On Demand, which offers a downloadable library of premium channel shows and pay-per-view.
The Comcast service got three demerits, in my book. The film library was limited, compared with what you can get from a DVD rental outlet. I was also turned off by the fact that a third of its channels still are broadcast in analog, which looks lousy on a big screen. And Comcast came up short in providing a system for recording shows. A year ago, Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, and other cable-TV companies began advertising HDTV cable boxes with TiVo (TIVO )-like recording systems built by Motorola (MOT ) and Scientific-Atlanta. Prices run about $10 a month, which covers equipment rental and service. But the boxes are unavailable in many areas, including mine.
The all-digital satellite providers were more to my liking. DISH, for example, offered eight HD stations, which could be recorded with a $1,000 DISH digital video recorder. The system offers picture-in-picture capability that lets you look at two shows at once, even if this is not a standard feature on your TV.
DirecTV was my favorite of the paid services -- but not by a wide margin. I especially appreciated the $1,000 high-definition TiVo box, which benefits from the graceful tivo interface and also aggregates over-the-air TV signals along with DirecTV programs in the same program guide. That helped offset the satellite provider's extremely skimpy local HDTV lineup and an $11-a-month add-on cost for a complete HD package.
To round out a home theater, I recommend a Bose Lifestyle 48 sound system ($4,000 including DVD player) and a Monster power adapter to protect your system from electrical surges. Whether you choose plasma over LCD or satellite over cable, there will be no shortage of digital delights.
By Cliff Edwards