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Digital TVs you can afford

Standard-definition sets boast over-the-air DVD-quality pictures plus low prices. By Gary Krakow.
RCA's new 27-inch SDTV - a solution for receiving digital broadcasts in the present and the future.
RCA's new 27-inch SDTV - a solution for receiving digital broadcasts in the present and the future.RCA

Someday in the near future, nearly every household in the United States will have to deal with the fact that television, as we’ve known it, will disappear forever. At some point the government will see to it that old-fashioned analog TV will stop being broadcast over the airwaves in favor of new digital programming -- on a new bunch of channels.

Of course, if you have cable or satellite service you won’t notice much change.  But for the gazillions of analog TV sets out there it will be a day of reckoning. Either you’ll have to go out and buy a digital tuner to attach to your trusted TV, or junk the old clunker and buy a new TV.

Then again, you might have already purchased one of those nifty HDTV’s in the past few years -- high-definition quality digital TVs, probably very narrow depth flat-screens with designer lines and very high prices.

There’s got to be another way to go about this. I agree with RCA that there’s a majority of consumers who are seeking the most affordable path to the clarity and rich color images offered by all-new high-definition models.

RCA just announced a new line of 22 digital TVs – all the way up to a magnificent 61-inch high-definition DLP TV ($2,799).  But it’s what was at the bottom of the line-up that excited me.

The 27V514Tis an ordinary looking 27-inch color TV.  It has a picture tube and a familiar 4:3 ratio, non-wide-screen picture. It has a suggested retail price of $279.  At the Home Entertainment Show in New York this week, it attracted people to it like moths to a flame.

Digital showdown
In one corner of RCA’s large demonstration room there were two nearly identical TVs.  They were both 27-in standard-definition monitors.  Both were attached to the same indoor antenna and both were tuned to the same station.

The only difference was that one set, the 27B514T, had a digital tuner while the other had a plain, old analog one. I can’t express strongly enough how much better the digital picture looked.  It was an order of magnitude better. The analog screen suffered with ghosts, snow and noise. The digital screen was magnificent. RCA calls it DVD quality -- sharp and clear. 

Don’t forget, this demonstration used an indoor antenna, split two ways, and inside a New York City hotel.  If you study the laws of probability you’ll know that these TVs shouldn’t receive anything.  I’m glad they did.

It proves that the electronics industry is starting to listen.  When the great switchover happens people are still going to balk at spending thousands to take part in the digital TV revolution.  Now, it looks like they won’t have to. Digital standard-definition TVs (SDTVs) are on their way.

The RCA representatives were telling me that most of them, back home in Indianapolis, use their digital tuners and a set of “rabbit-ears” to pick-up local digital broadcasts.  They prefer watching the over-the-air digital programming over the non-digital versions of the same shows on their cable systems. 

If you must have high-definition on a budget, RCA has a solution for you too.  The D27F750T direct-view (that means picture tube) set has a lot more bells and whistles than its SDTV cousin, a better sound system and a suggested retail price of $549.

Last year I tested a reasonable Samsung 26-in direct-view HDTV with a 16:9 widescreen picture.  I loved it.  Now, prices are still falling and that’s good for all consumers.  I’ll bet that by the time you’re forced to switch your living room TV to digital you’ll have a huge choice and it won’t break your budget.