NYTimes.com Article: Big TV's Without a Fortune

khare@alumni.caltech.edu khare@alumni.caltech.edu
Thu, 23 Jan 2003 04:36:32 -0500 (EST)

This article from NYTimes.com 
has been sent to you by khare@alumni.caltech.edu.

As good a summary as I've seen recently of the pros and cons of the HD transition. The only videophile terror not mentioned is burn-in, always a risk with a CRT. If you're mainly watching 4:3 content, unstretched, the only "purist" solution is called picture orbiting, which obviously enough randomly shifts the picture around to prevent burn-in of logo/callsigns, etc. 

This happens on plasma, too, in my experience -- keep an eye on those Headline News displays and look for the ticker during commercials. Anyone care to flame me for saying this?

(whose lcd is just fine in any of these circumstances :-)


Big TV's Without a Fortune

January 23, 2003


WHOEVER said that money can't buy happiness has obviously
never bought a high-end home theater system. Once you're
snuggled into an $800 recliner among $5,000 surround-sound
speakers, watching a great movie on your $10,000
high-definition plasma screen, it's almost impossible not
to cheer up at least a little bit. 

Unfortunately, not many people outside Oprah's tax bracket
ever get that chance. 

It's possible, though, to buy yourself most of that
pleasure for a fraction of the price, thanks to an emerging
product category that most people have probably never heard
of: high-definition wide-screen tube TV's. They may not be
as glamorous as the plasma screens that you can hang on the
wall like high-tech moose heads, but you can buy one of
these sets without having to work two jobs. 

Tube sets (also called direct-view sets) offer blacker
blacks and punchier color than plasma screens, yet better
viewing angles and brightness than rear-projection sets
(those huge, boxy things found in basement family rooms).
But until recently, all tube sets had a squarish screen,
with a width-height ratio of 4:3. Unfortunately, movies
aren't square - they're rectangular, usually with a
width-height ratio of 16:9. When movie buffs watch a DVD on
a regular TV, they have two equally unappetizing choices:
either miserably contemplate the 25 percent of the picture
that's lost beyond the sides of the square screen, or watch
the movie in a shrunken horizontal strip with black bars
above and below. 

Plenty of people could not care less about chopped-off
movies. Others, though, are deeply disturbed. If, reading
about this conundrum, you are standing on your chair,
shaking the newspaper and screaming, "Yes! Yes!," then a
wide-screen tube TV may be just the ticket. 

The Panasonic CT34WX52, Toshiba 34HDX82, Philips 34PW9818
and Sony KV-34XBR800, for example, are all heavy,
silver-toned, sharp-edged machines that show 34 inches of
spectacular color fidelity and clarity. The Sony, with the
most real-looking picture, and the Philips, with the
longest feature list, cost $2,500; you can find the Toshiba
and Panasonic for $1,800 to $2,000. Most companies also
offer 30-inch models in the $1,500 range. Of course, if you
buy online, watch out for shipping charges. 

(For reasons of cost, weight and complexity, 34 inches is
the largest screen size now offered in this category. RCA's
two-year-old, recently discontinued F38310 had a 38-inch
screen, but room reflections in its rounded glass were
occasionally a problem. RCA now makes 34-inch flat-glass
models like its rivals.) 

Each comes with a universal remote control that
conveniently includes DVD buttons (Play, Stop, Rewind and
so on), but some are more usable than others. Panasonic's
remote is illuminated, but its 54 buttons are nearly
overwhelming; Sony's isn't backlighted, but with only 36
buttons, it's much easier to get around. (Its DVD playback
buttons are hidden away behind a flip door.) 

Each model offers plenty of component, composite and
S-video inputs (for DVD players, VCR's, satellite
receivers, and so on), and even front-panel inputs for a
camcorder. The Sony and Toshiba sets even include a DVI
(Digital Visual Interface) connector, which helps to
future-proof your investment; it permits super-high-quality
connections with current high-definition (HD) DirecTV
satellite receivers, and will mate with forthcoming HD
cable boxes, DVD players and so on. 

Once everything is hooked up, most of the remotes require
repeated presses on a Source button to cycle through your
video sources in sequence. Each set lets you rename your
inputs (so you see "VCR" or "DVD" on the screen, rather
than "Input 1" and "Input 2"), but only the Toshiba's
remote has dedicated buttons for each input. 

The manufacturers assume that anyone who would spend $2,000
on a TV has an external sound system. But for everyone
else, the Philips unit takes the cake. It contains six
built-in speakers (including a subwoofer) and even a
built-in Dolby decoder. What that means is that the TV
itself can serve as the center, front left and front right
speakers of a complete five-channel surround-sound system;
all you have to buy and connect is the two rear speakers. 

Not all sources of video that you'll be watching on these
sets are created equal. DVD's, for example, look
spectacular, especially the ones labeled "Enhanced for
wide-screen" or "Anamorphic wide-screen." Something about
the way they fill your field of vision makes them more
immersive and captivating. 

Wide-screen tube TV's are also HD monitors, meaning that
they can deliver the stunningly clear, detailed,
wide-screen picture of high-definition TV broadcasts. The
wide-screen aspect of HD does wonders not only for movies,
but also for sports: in a single camera shot, you can see
many more hockey players, the pitcher, the batter and the
runner on first, the football players behind the line of
scrimmage, and so on. 

The Federal Communications Commission has mandated that all
American television broadcasters switch to a digital signal
by the end of 2006. But so far, few people get HDTV. 

After all, you need a box called an HD tuner (about $350)
to see HD shows, plus access to an HD signal. The major
networks generally broadcast in high definition during
prime time, as do certain satellite-dish channels. But 70
percent of Americans get their TV by cable, and the cable
companies have only just begun HDTV broadcasting in certain

So until 2006, what people will probably watch most of the
time is regular, square, low-definition television, using
cable, satellite or antenna. This is where things get

For example, how should your wide-screen TV screen handle
traditional square broadcasts? As it turns out, you have a
choice. You can view the square image in the center of the
rectangular screen, flanked by vertical bars. You can have
the square picture stretched horizontally as though it's on
a sheet of Silly Putty. 

Or you can enlarge the image so much that it fills the
rectangular screen from edge to edge horizontally - but
gets lopped off at the top and bottom. (Who would ever
choose this option?) 

Fortunately, every set offers a fourth setting: they
cleverly stretch the square picture disproportionately more
at the outer edges, leaving the center of the frame
relatively undistorted. (Remember that a 34-inch
rectangular screen, measured diagonally, is actually much
shorter than a 34-inch square one. But this "smart stretch"
mode helps compensate for the loss of size by making every
show look like a wide-screen movie.) 

Incidentally, when you look at these sets in the store, you
should know that they virtually always display an HDTV
signal or DVD. You will never see a cable broadcast. That's
because cable TV can look awful on an HDTV set. When
amplified by line-doubling circuitry (which tries to endow
normal TV with high resolution), weak cable signals can
display shimmering dots and stair-stepped diagonal lines,
as if you are watching through a sheet of mosquito netting.

The four sets reviewed here offer controls explicitly
designed to reduce this "video noise," but they are not
always completely successful. If some of your cable
channels seem fuzzy, lobby your cable company to hurry up
with its HDTV transition. 

In time, these sets will feature built-in HDTV tuners,
larger screen sizes and lower prices. 

But even now, wide-screen tube sets constitute an unsung
niche that is worthy of a close look. They offer
sensational picture quality, shaped properly for movies and
HDTV, at a lower cost than flat panels and most
rear-projection sets. 

All of these models are beauties, but some standouts
emerge: the Sony for its picture quality and DVI connector,
for example, and the Philips for its long list of bells and
whistles (picture zoom-in, multiple pictures-in-picture, a
detail enhancer called Pixel Plus, a leveler that keeps the
speaker volume constant as you change channels, and so on).
Of course, those also happen to be the most expensive sets.
If you're not such a purist, you'll find that the Toshiba
and Panasonic models offer an extremely desirable feature
of their own: a price that's about $600 lower. 

No matter which you choose, though, one thing is for sure:
Even if money can't buy happiness, it sure can buy a really
nice TV. 


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