If you’re going wide-screen, you’re in the land of HDTV. But what are you going to watch?
Buying a television used to be relatively simple; all you had to weigh were picture quality and screen size. Then came the evolution of display technology and the need to choose between projection, plasma screen, and LCD. The dominance of LCD in the marketplace, for televisions smaller than 50 inches, has made display technology a moot point for most consumers. High-definition television, however, has added yet another factor to consider: HDTV video-mode support.
HDTV video-mode support determines the maximum resolution a television can display when showing high-definition content. The three most common HDTV video modes on the market are commonly referred to by their shorthand: 720p, 1080p, and 1080i.
The letter at the end of each name refers to how the resolution is implemented: "p" for progressive scan; "i" for interlaced. (Interlaced video, which alternates refreshing even and odd lines of display, is theoretically of lesser quality.) The number in each name refers to the video mode's vertical resolution. A 720p model offers more than twice the resolution of conventional DVDs, whereas 1080s offer over twice the resolution of 720p–six times that of a DVD. All of these video modes are wide-screen, with more pixels horizontally than vertically.
One thing to consider when deciding whether or not to pay the extra few hundred to go from 720p to a 1080-capable HDTV is what you'll be watching. Regular television (a mere 480) isn't enhanced by any of these video modes and will, if anything, look worse as the superior resolution and contrast of high-def sets make flaws and ghosting sharply visible. There are many cable channels that provide content for 720p video mode–and even some native 1080i–but for 1080 you're mainly looking at next-generation DVD players, such as Blu-ray and HD-DVD, and high-end gaming consoles, such as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. (For a roundup of high-def channels, visit www.avsforum.com)
After determining which HDTV mode suits you, another factor to consider is size. Determining optimum screen size for your watching area will ensure you get the most out of your purchase. The most popular choice is the 40-inch screen, but if your set is less than 1.5 metres from where you watch it you could get by nicely with a smaller screen. If your television is more than two metres from the viewing area, however, you may want to consider a screen size of 50 inches or more.
Prices have come down significantly in recent years. If 1080 support isn't a priority, the Toshiba 42HL57 offers a 42-inch LCD display and 720p support for $1,600, though some retailers, like Future Shop, offer it for around $1,200. For 1080 support, you don't have to spend much more; the Samsung LN–T4061F (about $1,800) is a good mid-range unit with 1080p support and a 40-inch LCD display. For those with cash to spare, the Sony Bravia XBR KDL–40XBR4 (suggested price: $3,000) is a higher-end solution with a feature set comparable to the Samsung, but with truly stunning picture quality and colour, plus a 120-hertz refresh rate, which prevents video "stuttering" during video motion and panning.
One last consideration when budgeting for a HDTV purchase: to watch high-definition channels over cable you'll need an HDTV cable box. These start at $400 and are available directly from your provider or local home-electronics retailers.