The Skinny on DTV

by Gareth Branwyn for Digital Living Today

There’s a lot of talk about “digital television” and HDTV (high-definition television), but many consumers are embarrassed to admit they don’t know what these terms mean. Even those that do are often unsure whether these technologies are ready for primetime. If you’re one of the confused, here’s a rundown of what you should know.

Behind the Lingo. Most people use the term HDTV when they really mean DTV. Digital Television refers to all aspects of a TV signal recorded, transmitted and displayed in digital format. One aspect of that digital broadcast is the high-definition, or HDTV, signal. HDTV offers 1,080 lines of resolution whereas a conventional analog TV displays only 480 lines. HDTV receivers also offer CD-quality sound (if you have the stereo system to deliver it). HDTV sets are usually flat-screened, so there’s less glare, and they use a letterbox aspect ratio (giving you a wider, more inclusive picture). Besides high-definition picture and CD sound, a DTV signal can deliver other data (the so-called Interactive, or “iTV,” component), such as Web content, electronic coupons, and onscreen shopping. One thing that confuses many unwary consumers is the often-unmentioned fact that most HDTVs are actually only “HDTV-ready.” They have improved digital picture and sound, but to be fully high-definition, they need an additional HDTV receiver which costs around $1,000. If you’re looking for a complete HDTV set, you need to look for ones sold as “Integrated HDTV.”

What’s on (HD)TV Tonight? That “helpful” salesdroid at TV Bargain Barn may neglect to mention there aren’t many shows currently broadcasted in HDTV format. While the picture and sound are better on all channels right out of the box, after you blow lots of your hard-earned salary on the set, you’d like to be able to enjoy it fully. All commercial stations are required to be DTV-capable by May 2002 and all non-commercial stations by May 2003. Networks are not required to broadcast all of their programming in digital until 2006 (no promise that they’ll actually meet the deadline). So, while you plunk down three to five grand on an integrated HDTV package today, it could be years before you can enjoy its full benefits (and all the while, the technology is improving and the price is dropping).

Indulgence vs. Investment. If you’re going to have to wait until 2006 to see everything in high-definition, should you invest in this technology today? It all depends on how much money you have to burn and how patient you are waiting for the future to arrive. An interim solution for those of us on a budget is the so-called “high-resolution” DTVs (delivering up to 930-lines), such as RCA’s MM36100 (under $1,600 on the street). The MM36100 has received favorable reviews and is one of the better DTV bargains on the market.

If you’ve just bought an analog TV, you can still “go digital” with RCA’s DTC100 digital receiver ($550, If you hook the DTC100 up to a DirectTV dish and your analog set, it will “upconvert” the signal to 540-lines of resolution. Even local “off-the-air” (OTA) analog channels get an image boost. It’s no HDTV, but it’s an improvement that looks better than DVD output. If you want, you can hook the DTC100 up to your computer monitor for true high-def reception. The DTC100 is another interim solution worth considering. With this receiver, when you do eventually upgrade to an HDTV set, you’ll already have a high-definition receiver for it. The big drawback to the DCT100 is that you need VGA input on your TV (as opposed to the typical composite audio/video cables). VGA is, unfortunately, not a standard feature on most televisions.

***DLT Tip:
Feel free to do DTV research online, but don’t buy a set, no matter how highly recommended, until you see and hear it. Consumers’ needs are different and so are their eyes and ears. Also, if you get a big set that requires a forklift (or four XFL linebackers) to install in your home entertainment center, don’t forget to hook cables up to ALL of the audio/video inputs in the back and stash them behind or to the side of the unit. (And don’t forget to label them.) Once that monstrosity is in place, it’s unlikely to move for anything.

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