Best Buy is campaigning for better consumer education in High Definition to prevent store returns. Customers apparently purchase flat screen televisions and expect the complete high definition experience immediately upon hooking up their system with the same old equipment and cables. Despite the lack of knowledge, I don’t think an entire “education program” is necessary. Here are the basics about high definition without getting too technical. This covers what the typical consumer should know before shopping.
Why do I want high definition? If you want to experience great picture quality comparable to theater viewing, or if you want to be able to identify the individual blades of grass in the football stadium, then high definition is for you. If you’re just interested in “keeping up with the Joneses,” then maybe you should consider using money for something else, like saving, investing, or purchasing some other smaller piece of technology.
Now that the obvious is out of the way, let’s continue.
What size television do I need? No matter what size you get, chances are you’ll always want something bigger once it’s situated in your living room (or bedroom, or bathroom). The height of your television screen should be one third of the distance between your couch and your television. For example, if your favorite chair is seven feet from your television, you would need a television 28 inches high, which translates to a diagonal measurement of 57 inches. Chances are you can get by quite comfortably with something smaller. This “rule of thumb” seems a bit on the generous side to me.
What resolution do I need? How future-proof do you want your purchase to be? If you plan on having the television for ten years, go for the best resolution available, 1080p, especially if your set is 50 inches or larger. 1080p means there are 1,080 lines of resolution from top to bottom of the screen and each frame contains the full information to draw the entire picture. The other options are 1080i, which is similar to 1080p but not as clear, and 720p, which I would not recommend. Most people can’t tell the difference between 1080i and 1080p and many people see no improvement over 720p.
What contrast ratio is best? Ignore the contrast ratio, which is usually described as a large number to 1 (that is, 1,000:1). The numbers are basically meaningless. You can’t compare across brands or across display types as there are many ways to calculate the number and there are ways to make the ratio sound better than it is. Look at response time for LCDs; a single-digit nanosecond (ns) response is best.
LCD or plasma? Or projection? The type of television you want depends on your viewing and living conditions. LCDs are more transportable, plasmas have deeper colors. Rear-projection televisions are bulky and have poor picture quality, but are less expensive. Front projectors can provide a very large display but will have trouble producing a rich picture in a room that is not sufficiently dark. These projectors may be good for an entertainment room in your basement, but probably not for your living room.
Tuner or monitor? Some high definition televisions have their own built-in high definition tuner, so a cable box isn’t necessary unless you want to unlock premium channels. Some newer televisions include CableCard technology, which unlocks premium channels without a cable box, but must be supported by your cable provider. A few televisions are labeled as “HD-ready” monitors, which means they rely on the cable box to receive and decode high definition programming.
What kind of cable service do I need? If you plan to watch television broadcasts on your new television, you need high definition service, either over the air, cable (fiber optic or analog coaxial), or satellite. Cable providers like Comcast, Cablevision, or Verizon FiOS might include a few high definition stations with their basic digital service, but the best programming will cost extra.
High definition is currently only broadcast in 720p or 1080i, so if you plan on watching television only, you won’t benefit from having a television with a resolution of 1080p for another few years. As Broadcasters increase their bandwidth and content providers begin supplying programs at the highest resolution, 1080p will become more practical.
Most television is not broadcast in high definition, and sometimes standard definition broadcasts look worse on a high definition television than they do on a standard television. That’s something you’ll have to live with until cable companies cease standard definition programming. Standard definition programs on a high definition channel will often look very good, almost as good as the source material.
Will my old DVD player work? Yes, you can hook up your old DVD player to your new television. Don’t expect your DVDs to look fantastic. If your DVD machine was purchased in the last year, it may be “upconverting,” which means it will convert standard definition DVDs (all DVDs are standard definition) to higher resolution. You’ll need to use component cables or HDMI cables to take advantage of this feature.
You can’t play HD DVDs or Blu-Ray discs in your old DVD player (except for some combo discs which are being phased out). If you want true high definition movie experience, you’ll need to purchase an HD DVD player, a Blu-Ray player, or a combination device that plays both. The movie studios are quickly choosing exclusive deals with either HD DVD or Blu-Ray formats. The two are basically on equal footing in terms of quality, but HD DVD players cost less.
If you want to get started right away, choose either HD DVD for its better prices, or view the current library of movies available on each format and choose the technology with the highest number of movies you’d like to experience in high definition. Here are the HD DVD and Blu-Ray library libraries on Amazon.com. High definition discs cost more than standard DVDs.
What kind of cables will I need? Component cables, which include three RCA cables for video and the standard red and white RCA cables for audio, are sufficient for 1080i. Your cable box won’t need an HDMI output until television is broadcast at 1080p. You may want an HDMI cable if you have an upconverting DVD, HD DVD, or Blu-Ray player.
The store will try to sell you expensive cables, usually Monster brand. You don’t need these cables; they are overpriced, and the less expensive cables are just as good over short distances. Monoprice.com is a good source for inexpensive cables. I don’t expect Best Buy’s consumer education program to inform about the quality of less expensive cables. The store’s mark-up and profit margin are very high for these items, much moreso than for the televisions.
Do I need a new audio system? Possibly not. If your current surround sound system accepts digital optical connections, in many cases you do not need to purchase anything new. Audio signals travel over HDMI as well, but only newer audio systems have HDMI inputs. You probably only need 5.1 channels. Your DVD player will likely do all the audio signal decoding you need.
Chances are you will not be satisfied with using your new television’s built-in speakers for all audio. Television manufacturers don’t focus on providing great audio on the sets because they expect most customers will be connecting the panels to surround sound speaker systems.
What brands should I purchase? You can’t go wrong with any of the major brands, but do extensive research before purchasing. Each model has its own quirks, and as long as any particular item has been on the market for several months, you will be able to find detailed commentary from professional critics and customers. My favorite first stops for commentary are Consumer Reports, CNET’s user reviews, and Epinions.
I own a Sharp Aquos 42 inch LCD.
This is all you need to know to get started. Feel free to contribute any additional tips, offer corrections, or pick a fight.
Updated February 6, 2012 and originally published September 25, 2007.