HDTVs Hit the Mass Market

One final lesson from this year’s Consumer Electronics Show: Now might be the time to buy a high-definition television.

At last year’s CES, it was hard to find any sales reps at the cable and satellite companies’ booths who knew enough even to talk about their high-definition offerings. At this year’s show, HDTV was their No. 1 pitch. DISH Network, one of the two major satellite broadcasting companies, touted an eyebrow-raising deal: Buy its new high-definition satellite receiver plus either a 34-inch widescreen HDTV monitor or a 40-inch widescreen HD rear-projection television—for, all told, $1,000.

To put this in perspective: A few months ago, DISH was selling its HD satellite receiver for $600. Even now, no company sells an HDTV set as big as 34 inches for less than $1,500. Yet now you can get an HD receiver and set—plus the high-definition satellite dish and free installation—for a mere grand.

A caveat: The TVs they’re offering (both made by RCA, though DISH won’t tell you that) are far from the best high-definition sets on the market. The 40-inch rear-projection TV is lousy. The 34-inch monitor, though, is pretty good (if professionally calibrated), and at DISH’s price tag, it’s a steal.

DISH and its biggest competitor, DirecTV, each offer continuous HD programming on HBO, Showtime, Discovery, ESPN, HDNet Movies, and an HD pay-per-view channel. DISH also beams CBS’s high-def shows (about half the network’s prime time lineup). A new satellite network called Voom boasts 39 channels of HD programs, among them 21 channels offered by no other company, including 10 that show movies all the time.

The satellite companies are shifting into gear because of competition from the cable companies. Two years ago, almost no cable service offered high-def, and those that did seemed to have no customer service staffers who knew about it. Now almost all of them offer it for most of the channels that the satellites cover, as well as for local network affiliates, which have also gone high-def. The satellite companies have responded by lowering rates and expanding service.

A friend of mine recently subscribed to HD cable, only to discover that his beloved TiVo box couldn’t record in high definition. His anguish needn’t last long. DISH came out just last week with an all-in-one-box HD satellite-receiver and HD digital-video recorder. (I bought one of the first units; it’s cool.) It sells for $900. It also offers this unit and one of those RCA HD televisions (see above) for, all told, $1,600. DirecTV is about to come out with a similar product. At the show, Motorola, Scientific Atlantic, and Pioneer displayed high-def DVRs for cable boxes.

TV manufacturers are doing their part to make high-def more accessible. Pioneer, Sony, and a few others exhibited televisions with built-in HD tuners. Until now, many consumers who excitedly buy an “HD-ready” television are steamed when they get home and learn what the term means—that they have to buy or lease a special HD decoder box from their cable or satellite company if they want to watch HD. With these new TV-plus-tuners, they don’t.

Now some bad news. Prices for high-definition televisions have not dropped as steeply as many analysts had predicted. Specifically, the day of the good $1,000 HDTV set has not yet arrived (except, sort of, in the deal from DISH Network). Samsung showed a 27-inch widescreen HDTV at the show that retails for $800, but it looked terrible.

Still, if you’re willing to spend a bit more, prices are falling. Sony has a 51-inch widescreen rear-projection HDTV, the KP-51WS510, for $1,800, and it looks very good. (Just a couple years ago, rear-projection TVs that looked much worse sold for more than three times as much.) Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, and a few others have also figured out how to streamline the big rear ends of rear-projection TVs so they don’t look clunky anymore. Viewed head-on, they look like flat panels.

Among “direct-view” HDTVs (i.e., a TV powered by a picture tube, not by plasma gas, digital light projection, or liquid-crystal displays), Sony’s KV-34XBR910, a 34-inch widescreen HD monitor—retailing at $2,500 but available for $2,000—is the best set of its kind on the market. If you don’t need the bigger screen of a plasma, DLP, or LCD monitor—and can’t handle the still bigger screens allowed by projectors—it may be the best TV made today, period.

Eighteen months ago, I wrote here that plasma TVs, while very cool as pieces of electronic furniture, weren’t quite ready for prime time. Unless you want to drop a big wad of money, that’s still true today. Pioneer’s new high-def plasmas are superb—the blacks are blacker, the colors are truer, and motion is smoother than on any plasma made by a mass-market company—but they cost $10,000 to $15,000. Sony, Panasonic, Fujitsu, and Hitachi make very good HD plasmas but for only a few thousand dollars cheaper. Plasmas by the boutique companies—notably Runco and Faroudja (which attach their own video processors to Pioneer, Panasonic, or Fujitsu screens)—cost as much as $25,000. A general rule of thumb, for now: Any plasma that costs less than $7,000 is either not good, not high-definition, or both. (For a guide to what is and is not “high definition,” click here.)

Another general warning: Almost all plasmas look amazing when showing computer-animation films or nature documentaries shot in daylight. This is why consumer electronics stores display plasmas with continuous tape loops of Finding Nemo or the HD Discovery Channel. When you go to a store, bring along a DVD that has some dark scenes, or ask the dealer to turn on a standard-definition TV show. You’ll find, on the unlikely chance that the dealer will cooperate, that most plasmas won’t look nearly so amazing.

DVDs may soon get a high-def gloss as well. The trade press has printed much about the intense competition between two consortiums—headed by Sony and Toshiba, respectively—over new formats for high-definition DVDs. Both of those companies displayed prototype HD-DVD players and discs. But they weren’t showing them on their best monitors (there was no way to tell how they looked), and when I asked reps from both firms when the new technology would hit the shelves, I got chuckles and shrugs.

Still, there are software approaches to this goal. For several years, high-end firms have made devices called “scalers”—black boxes that, plugged in between a DVD player and an HDTV, “up-convert” a DVD’s image to high-definition. Good scalers tend to cost a few thousand dollars. However, at this year’s show, a new company called V Inc. displayed a DVD player, called the Bravo D-1, which contains an internal HD scaler. The player’s price: $199. As a sign of how good it is, Joe Kane—the designer I wrote about yesterday, who displayed a $12,000 DLP projector that redefined how good DLP can be—used the Bravo D-1 as his DVD player. (For a caveat about the D-1, click here.)

As you might be figuring out, buying a new TV these days is complicated. Approach the task as if you were buying a car. Read up a lot. Take things for the visual equivalent of an extensive test drive. Don’t listen to dealers, especially at stores like Best Buy and Circuit City. Gary Merson, who reviews high-def televisions for The Perfect Vision and publishes an online HDTV newsletter, periodically visits these stores in the New York metropolitan area and innocently asks sales clerks how to get high-definition television on their stores’ nifty HD-ready sets. The clerks’ answers, he reports, are always wrong—and, still more disturbing, wrong in different ways. He did find one curious pattern: Clerks at several stores advised him that a plasma TV’s power cord had to be recharged every few months, or else the plasma gas will stop flowing. If you’re wondering even for a second if this advice might be true, put the subject out of your mind, and leave your money in the bank. You’re not HD-ready.