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Are You Watching HD on Your HDTV? Are You Sure?

Posted on Tuesday, December 16th, 2008 3:56 PM by Scott Jentsch

Samsung LCD HDTVI was reading today about studies conducted recently that found that, while HDTV ownership has increased nearly 50% in the past year, more than a third are not watching HD content on them1.

To that, I can only ask: Why?

Is it a lack of understanding that, just because there is a neat little HDTV logo in the corner of their TV when they buy it, that everything doesn't magically turn into real high definition imagery?

Is it confusion based upon the misinformation thrust on consumers as a result of buying their equipment from sales drones in blue or red shirts that could just as easily be selling vacuum cleaners next week? While I'm sure that there are very qualified people that work at the popular big-box retailers, I have yet to meet one. I'm optimistic that they do exist, however.

Or is it that you come here depending on the best information to lead you down the right path towards high definition, and we have yet to show you the light? Yeah, that's probably it...

Ok, so here is my attempt to correct that sin of omission.

Buying an HDTV is a great step towards great enjoyment of movies and television shows. But just like hiring a sherpa doesn't automatically qualify you to say that you've reached the peak of Mt. Everest, you're going to have to take a few more steps to achieve high definition grandeur!

Once you have a television capable of displaying 1280x720 (commonly known as 720p) and 1920x1080 (aka 1080i and 1080p) images, you need to feed it with something capable of those resolutions.

Watching TV in HD

For television shows, you're going to need at least an antenna capable of pulling in the HD stations provided by local broadcasters. These are most commonly identified by channel numbers, with a subchannel after it. Examples for our local stations here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, are 4-1 for our NBC affiliate which is on channel 4 and 6-1 for channel 6 (Fox), and so on. If you don't have a TV antenna, or if you want to get more than the broadcast channels, you'll need to subscribe to HD service from your cable or satellite provider. Along with HD service (which you'll probably pay around $10 extra per month for), you'll need an HD receiver or HD-DVR (I recommend the latter, since who watches live TV anymore?). Most providers will give them to you for free or for a small monthly upcharge, since they're getting you for an extra $10 a month anyway.

The selection of channels varies by provider, but DirecTV offers a wide variety of HD channels, such as Discovery HD, SciFi HD, and even HGTV-HD for the crafty members of your household. Premium channels of HBO, Showtime, and the like will probably run you additional fees over and above the normal premium channel fee. I don't recommend this approach, since renting movies from places like Netflix on Blu-ray is a better option, but I'm getting ahead of myself...

Watching Movies in HD

Enjoying movies is why you come to The BigScreen Cinema Guide, and that's where HD really gets fun! It may be difficult to revel in the extra quality of HD when you're watching an episode of House Hunters, but when you pop in a copy of The Dark Knight, it should be a special experience!

While you can watch movies in HD by tuning into broadcast, cable, or satellite television channels, the best way to enjoy everything your new HDTV has to offer is to watch them on the high definition Blu-ray disc format. These discs are the same size as standard definition DVDs, but they can hold 10 times more information, resulting in full-length movies that have 6 times more picture information and higher quality sound!

Blu-ray players can play DVDs, but DVD players cannot play Blu-ray discs, so you're going to need a new player to hook up to your new HDTV. That's a good thing, though, since the quality difference is going to be impressive! Sure, you could hook up your five year old DVD player to your new HDTV, but it's not going to be in HD, and you're going to see why it's not possible to blow up a standard resolution image 6 times and come out of it with a fully satisfactory experience.

The good news is that Blu-ray players have gotten more affordable in the past few months. Up until this summer, there weren't very many players that were worth buying, and those that were would set you back about $400. Now, you can buy a Samsung Blu-ray player for around $200 on sale. There are cheaper ones to be had, but watch the reviews closely to make sure that it's worth saving $40-$50.

The Dark Knight on Blu-rayMost new releases on home video are also coming out on Blu-ray high definition disc at the same time. In the example of last week's release of The Dark Knight, you could choose from several DVD and Blu-ray editions. The price difference between the DVD and Blu-ray editions was $3.00, so you're not going to pay a high premium in many cases for the high definition version.

We highly recommend Netflix memberships for renting Blu-ray discs, as well as DVDs. Most people only watch a movie once, so why buy a movie for $20-$30, when you can rent as many as you want for as little as $8.99 a month? There are no late fees, and you don't even have to pay for mailing the discs back and forth.

Will You Notice the Difference Between HD and non-HD?

In my experience, many people say that they do not immediately recognize the higher quality afforded by real HD material when they see it. The difference can range from subtle to significant, depending on the size of your display and the type of material you watch.

Many HDTV buyers are sports fans, and sporting events are a great example of what improvements can be had by upgrading to HD. For one, HD broadcasts are in widescreen, which alone provides 33% more viewing area. Imagine seeing the behind-the-quarterback view, where you not only see the quarterback and a few players to each side, but the entire offensive line as they're set up ready for the ball to be snapped! Now, add on top of that the ability to see the texture of the grass they're playing on, and the reflection of the lights off their helmets, and you're going to be enjoying the game at a whole new level!

Movie fans will enjoy the benefits of HD as well, but those benefits may be more subtle at first. You're going to be used to watching current movies in widescreen (you don't watch pan and scan movies, do you?), so the difference that you'll see when watching movies on an HDTV in HD is going to be in the 6x greater video resolution over what you're used to seeing on DVD.

When a DVD player is connected to an HDTV, the television converts the 0.3 Megapixel image into the 2.1 Megapixel resolution of a 1080p HDTV, in a process called "upsampling." The resulting image will depend greatly upon the circuitry used to do the upsampling, and some are better than others. No matter what, though, what you're seeing is upsampled standard definition, not HD. Imagine taking that wallet-sized photo of your kids out of your wallet and having it enlarged to a 12"x15" photo. If you compare the result to the large photo sitting on your fireplace mantel at home, it's most likely not going to look very good.

Going From SD to HD May be Subtle, but Going From HD Back to SD is Not

This is where the real benefits of HD show up. Once you become accustomed to enjoying movies at the full quality that your HDTV is capable of, you won't want to go back to watching standard definition unless absolutely necessary!

I know a few people that do not feel that they have any use for HD in their home. Whether it's because they don't want to invest the money right now, or that they're just in denial about the increased picture and sound that HD provides, I'm not sure. But if you're going to buy an HDTV, by all means, don't watch standard definition material on it unless an HD version is unavailable! Even if you don't want to buy a Blu-ray player right now or pay the additional service fees to your cable or satellite provider, go out and get an inexpensive UHF antenna and enjoy free HD from your local television stations!

1 2008 national studies by Leichtman Research Group, Inc. and Frank N. Magid Associates

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