DTV Primer

Chris Llana, Editor


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TV Store Update

June 1, 2006

In the wake of the gutting of the Digital TV Transition law's mandatory labeling requirement, the TV industry made a big deal of their commitment to implement a voluntary consumer education program.

To see what progress they've made, I just made a trip to my local Circuit City and Best Buy stores to see just how sincere they were. In two words -- not very.

I also wanted to see if there has been a shift toward widescreen digital TVs less than 35" in size. On this issue I was again disappointed.

Labeling

Circuit City had one nice sign posted across an aisle from the big-TV section. The text was okay, telling readers about the U.S. transition from analog to the new digital TV standard.

Unfortunately this sign was half-way across the store from the small-TV section, where row after row of analog 4:3 sets were placed on display.

In other words, the sign was nowhere near the only televisions not already required to have integrated digital tuners. These smaller sets were located near the door; shoppers coming in to buy a small TV would not see the DTV transition sign.

These are the consumers who most need the information. There were no similar signs on or near the small analog sets.

And by the way, I could not find a single TV under 25" with either a digital tuner or a widescreen (16:9) display.

Over in Best Buy I again found rows of small analog 4:3 sets, but there were some signs nearby that said:

"Is your TV ready for digital? The switch to digital broadcasting is coming soon. Ask a TV specialist about getting your TV ready to receive digital signals. Pick up a brochure for more information."

First, these signs were above and behind TVs on the upper shelf; I missed them the first time I went by, and I'm over six feet tall and was looking for the signs.

Second, the words give notice that something is going to happen, but the message in no way warns consumers against buying analog TVs, only that they should get their TV ready to receive digital signals.

Third, there were no brochures anywhere in sight, so I asked a salesperson about them and was led on a hike to the place where the big TVs are arrayed and pointed to an inconspicuous little plastic container with small flyers. On the front:

"Is your TV ready for digital? What you need to know about the DTV Transition."

Inside the flyer was a mash of disorganized bits of information, very muddled, some misleading, incomplete thoughts, with important information missing.

To be sure, most of the bits were accurate, it's just that the presentation was poor. If I didn't already know what was going on, I would have been thoroughly confused.

At the beginning, the flyer makes the claim that "In order to find additional space for emergency communications, the U.S. Congress decided in 1997 that it was time for TV broadcasting to move to more modern and efficient digital techniques, which support HDTV and allow broadcasters to offer more channels to viewers."

Certainly one of the benefits of the transition is to free up more frequencies for emergency service providers, but that was not the motivation behind the transition to a new digital/HD standard, and the industry committees working on the switch in the 1980s and early 1990s were not thinking about other uses for TV spectrum.

My guess is that whoever wrote the flyer knew a little bit but not enough.

The drift of the rest of it seems to be that the path of least resistance and least confusion for the consumer would be to get their TV hooked up to a cable, satellite, or telephone company video service.

And, as it says on the back, to "ask a customer specialist for more details."

I thought about including the whole text but couldn't bring myself to type it all out. If you like, go to a Best Buy and ask for the brochure, and perhaps "for more details," and decide for yourself.

What's on the Shelves

As I mentioned, small TVs are still analog 4:3 sets.

All new medium TVs (25" to 35") are now required to have digital tuners. And they do. It's just that most of these sets on the shelves look just like the old NTSC sets they replaced -- with 4:3 aspect-ratio standard-definition displays.

And to those industry lobbyists who vehemently claimed that digital tuners would add $hundreds to the cost of a TV, I saw a 27" set with a digital tuner selling for $270 (about what it cost before digital).

There were also some very nice mid-sized widescreen digital TVs.

Large TVs (35" and larger) now all have widescreen displays.

Large CRT rear-projection sets are still available at very affordable price points (eg. Hitachi 57" for $1425).

I also noticed a 42" widescreen plasma set showing The Incredibles. Since this film is supposed to look amazingly good in high-def, I homed in on the set, and was disappointed at the picture. Scan lines were clearly visible.

Checking the sign, I noted that this sexy flat-panel plasma was a standard definition set (buyer beware).

There are only a very few (and pricey) plasma sets that can display full-specification high definition (1920 x 1080).

I ask myself, why would anyone spend the money for a big widescreen set that cannot display more than 480 lines of resolution?

Even the higher resolution plasma sets are not all that you might expect, as I just discovered after reading a brand new Hitachi press release.

"Hitachi Introduces World's First 42-Inch Plasma With 1080 Line Display

"New Televisions Feature Sleek Aluminum and Glass Designs"

Down in the text, I found the resolution: "The 42HDS69 has 1024 x 1080 resolution using Alternate Lighting of Surfaces (ALiS) panel technology that delivers more than 1.1 million pixels."

Unfortunately, full-specification high-definition requires a 1920 x 1080 display that delivers 2,073,600 pixels. Hitachi's new "1080" plasma display delivers about half of those pixels.

The press release also announced a new 55" plasma TV: "The 55HDS69, with 1365 x 768 resolution and high-contrast black rib structure is designed for consumers that want big impact in a large screen plasma product."

That works out to 1,048,320 pixels, again about half the pixels of full-spec HD.

You can therefore understand why they highlight the sets' "sleek aluminum and glass designs."

I once again remind you that the new high-def 1080p HD-DVD and Blu-ray players need a 1920 x 1080 display to show their stuff.