On The Road To HDTV Paradise

There's a big do-it-yourself challenge with high definition

Before last year's Super Bowl, I decided the time had come to upgrade to a high-definition TV. It took me nearly until the start of this year's football playoffs to do the deed. I'm delighted with my HDTV, but the process of buying a display and setting up the service taught me that consumers still face a lot of pitfalls on the road to TV paradise.

My home TV room is small and would have been overwhelmed by one of the popular 40-inch plasma displays, so I settled for a 32-inch LCD. After much pondering, I chose the Sharp (SHCAY ) Aquos LC-32G4U, which I bought online for about $2,800. (Prices climb quickly: A 37-inch version of the same set costs about $900 more.) Two features drew me to the model. First, it doesn't contain a digital TV tuner -- something you don't need if you have a cable set-top box, as I do. Second, all the wires from your cable box, a DVD player, and other devices run to a separate box that is connected to the display itself by a single fat cable. This makes it easier to hide the inevitable rat's nest of wires.

Those wires are something the consumer-electronics industry should do something about. With equipment you plug into computer networks, there are usually just two standard connections: one for power and one for data. My new TV has eight different types of audio and video connections. Several of these are dedicated to DVD players, which can connect to a display in various ways -- and you, the viewer, have to figure out which is best. Simplification and standardization would help a lot.

CHOOSING A SOURCE OF HDTV CONTENT was easy. As a subscriber to Comcast's (CMCSA ) digital cable service, I knew from the program guide that a decent assortment of HD channels was available. Comcast offers a Motorola (MOT ) set-top box with a digital video recorder, welcome because my Replay TV unit can't handle HD. Although Comcast usually likes consumers to do their own installations, it insists on sending out a technician for HD because of the difficulty of choosing the right connections. The setup took a few minutes, and the new services add about $7 a month to my already hefty cable bill.

Selecting HD programming is not a simple matter of turning on the set. Some cable channels, but not all, broadcast continuously in radiant color and clarity. On ESPN HD and Discovery HD, for example, images have a depth that good photographs and film deliver but that is lacking in standard TV. And the wide-screen format, which ESPN uses only part of the time, is particularly helpful in sports because it lets you see much more of the action.

Most network broadcast stations simulcast their regular programming on digital channels, and you learn quickly that digital is not necessarily HD. Some of the content is true high definition, which means the picture consists of at least 720 rows of pixels, compared with standard TV's 480. But much programming looks about the same as analog broadcasts.

In fact, despite all the hype about digital TV, analog channels account for most of what you will see on a digital cable system. And since analog shows weren't created for wide-screen viewing, there's a big do-it-yourself challenge. You must decide whether to watch with black bars on either side of the picture or stretch the image to fill the wide screen, which makes things short and fat. My Sharp also offers something called "smart stretch," which minimizes the distortion in the middle of the screen. For reasons I still don't understand, different shows look better in different formats, so you have to experiment.

In just a few years, the transition to digital TV will be complete, making things simpler for the viewer. And the industry will eventually find easier ways to connect gear. For now, HDTV is more challenging than it ought to be, but when it works, those beautiful images make the trouble and expense well worth it.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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