September 10, 2007
| by Rebecca Day
Pity the TV owner whose tube finally blows after 20 years: When she goes into the electronics superstore to replace the set, she’ll be faced with a new generation of shapes and sizes, not to mention a bewildering range of technologies, from plasma to LCD to DLP and SXRD. She’ll see terms that didn’t exist in the analog age, such as HDMI, response time and Full HD. And she’ll gape at a wall of TVs, feeling nothing short of overwhelmed.
She isn’t the only one, of course. Even veteran HDTV owners are perplexed by the numbers and specs coming from zealous marketers. “I feel bad for the consumer,” says Bill Whalen, director of product development for Hitachi. “The marketing machines [cite an array of features and specifications to] try to get some advantage, and unfortunately, that’s to the detriment of consumers, who are confused over what they’re actually getting.”
The latest must-have feature is 1080p. Companies including Sony, Samsung, Pioneer and Sharp use the term “Full HD” to describe TVs with resolutions of 1920 x 1080. “Progressive,” or “p,” refers to the way an image is produced on the screen. A progressive image is delivered in one fell swoop in 1/60th of a second. An interlaced image (as in 1080i) is painted as every other line each 1/30th of a second.
Hitachi uses the term “Full HD” to refer to a resolution of 1920 x 1080, regardless of whether the TV displays the image in interlaced or progressive mode. Whalen notes that most content viewers see what comes to them in the 1080i format and that no broadcast content is available in 1080p. Of the major networks, CBS and NBC broadcast using a 1080i signal, as do HBO and Showtime. ABC, Fox and ESPN broadcast in 720p. Fortunately, all HDTVs convert the various signals to the native scanning format of the television, so you don’t have to worry about the different ways they are broadcast.
The 720p networks chose the progressive format because it does a better job at reproducing motion video for sports, as each picture is painted in one pass. On the other hand, 1080i is better suited to film reproduction, where you want more detail. The best of both worlds? You guessed it: 1080p, which offers the motion benefit of 720p and the resolution benefit of 1080i—roughly 2 million pixels versus 900,000.
So if you took the HDTV plunge early on, is your 1024 x 768 TV (often referred to as 720p) dangerously close to being obsolete? Not at all, says Scott Ramirez, vice president of marketing at Toshiba America. “720p and 1080p are both HD,” he notes. “As always in our industry, you have good, better and best, and you always have the next new thing.” Ramirez says 720p is still a great picture, and people love it, “but now there are things coming out that are even better, and 1080p is one of those.”
Owners of 720p TVs can rest assured that their pictures are still going to look very good,” says Tony Favia, senior product manager of large-screen LCD TVs for Sharp Electronics. “They’re just not going to look as good as they would on a 1080p set. When the time comes to upgrade to a bigger set, they’ll want to strongly think about 1080p, since that’s the direction all manufacturers are headed toward today.”
A 1080p TV is a good choice for larger screen sizes. If you sit too close to a 720p TV, you’ll see the pixel structure of the display, which distracts from the experience. When shopping for TVs, audition models at the distance you would watch from at home. “If you were going to compare a 1080p TV with a 720p in a store, in most cases you’d be looking at a set very close up and not at a typical viewing distance,” says Favia. “When you’re at home, three times the diagonal of the TV is a good viewing distance.”
The shift to 1080p has given TV makers a tiered pricing strategy to help offset the loss of the lower-resolution enhanced definition (ED) format, which has largely disappeared from the market. Pricing free falls have been a boon for consumers, who have reaped the benefits of as much as a 50 percent price drop from one year to the next.