Making the leap to HDTV is a no brainer: Go to the superstore, settle on a size, pick a model with the best picture for the price, and pay the cashier. Piece of cake, right? Wrong. For lots of reasons. Like, how do you know if you’re getting the highest definition picture possible? Or whether that hi-def DVD player you’re thinking of buying as well will connect properly to your new HDTV?
Knowing the essential ins and outs of HDTV before you leave the house means you won’t be sorry after you bring home your big new purchase. Here are the top 10 things to know before you buy:
1. Genuine HDTV? A minimum of 1280 x 720 pixels — or little points of light — means you’re in genuine HDTV waters, while EDTVs (enhanced definition TV), offer lower resolutions. Make sure you go with true HDTV. And absolutely make sure the set has at least one HDMI connection port that supports 1080p and supports HDCP, the connection and protocol that guarantees you’ll be able to plug in a Blue-Ray or HD-DVD DVD player, as well as receive and view copy protected broadcasts.
2. Slim is in. The popular plasma type HDTVs tout generally “truer blacks” when it comes to contrast, while LCD, which costs more per inch, is typically brighter. Huge, boxy, rear projection sets are cheap, but the viewing angle and brightness can be spotty. Consider an HDTV projector if you want to fill a whole wall. Lastly, experts agree that “tube” type HDTVs have the best picture, and apart from the fact they’re a dying breed, you’ll need to recruit half a football team to haul one into the house.
3. My favorite movie. Test drive potential HDTV purchases with your own DVD. Colorful, fast-moving titles like "Pirates of the Caribbean" work best. Pay special attention to the set's ability to handle quick action without the picture breaking up. A faster “response rate” means no blocky pixels when watching the Super Bowl. And be ready for a little shocker: Channels that are not broadcast in HD won’t look very pretty and some will look downright ugly, because the poor quality of standard broadcast gets magnified – and uglified – by your new, super-sharp screen.
4. How hi is up? Cable channels that offer HD generally broadcast in 720p, which is great quality, while some transmit in 1080i, which is even higher, though many debate on whether it’s actually better. Most HDTVs offer some or all of three resolutions: 480p, 720p, 1080i. Some of the latest HDTVs are beginning to offer 1080p, but they cost more. Get at least 720p and 1080i capability in your choice.
5. Tune in or out? To grab free, local high-def network channels over the air with an antenna, make sure your HDTV has a built-in tuner. For beyond-basic cable or satellite subscribers, consider an HDTV-capable “display,” or “monitor,” which leaves out the built-in tuner to save some bucks.
6. Good connections. While most HDTVs have component (red, green and blue) video inputs to connect to your cable, satellite tuner and DVD player, double check to make sure. Two or more sets means no swapping cables between cable and DVD and Xbox 360, for instance. Also, I repeat — make sure your new HDTV has an HDMI input with HDCP support — the connection and anti-piracy combo that future-proofs your purchase for years to come.
7. Plugging in. Connect your gear together using the highest resolution connections possible. DVI/HDMI is highest, followed by component, S-Video, plain Video-in, and finally the lowliest of low-quality lows, old fashioned Coax. HDTV cable and video games require at least the component connection, while hi-def Blu-Ray and HD-DVD players will plug in to the HDMI port for the highest resolution possible.
8. Wide or Not. You can choose between showing bars on either side of a non-widescreen program so that the image looks correct, or you can zoom it to fill the screen. But doing so will squash and widen people and objects. Experiment with the TV’s remote, and your cable or satellite box’s remote, to attain the best look.
9. Make Adjustments. HDTVs ship from the factory with the settings cranked up high in order to show off on the showroom floor. At home, kick things down a few notches by choosing the built-in picture preset settings like “Sports,” or “Vivid,” or “Natural.” Tune to a program with dark and light scenery (or use a DVD), to help find the picture-perfect balance.
10. Surrounded by Sound. Now that you’re feasting your eyes on a super hi-def picture, don’t forget the sound. HDTV boasts Cineplex-like surround sound – providing you have a receiver and speaker system to hear it. Those “Home Theater in a Box” systems have DVD players built-in, or consider a separate receiver and speaker system if you plan to buy a Blu-Ray or HD-DVD player. And make sure to use the “optical” or “digital audio” sound outputs from your HDTV cable or satellite or video game box when you connect to the receiver – that way you’re sure to be surround by the best possible sound around.