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HDTV Buyers' Guide

11 June 2006

If you truly want to enjoy your PlayStation 3 this November, you’ll want a high definition TV. The games will still look impressive on standard TVs, but to appreciate the jump in visuals from the PS2 and Xbox era, you should look to invest a fair amount in a brand new flat panel.

In this guide, I won’t be talking about rear projection or DLP. My main focus will be on affordable LCD and Plasma TVs. After all, you’ll be spending a lot on the PS3 alone, and for many, that 40” is just out of the question.

I’d just like to make you aware that this guide may be skewed to the European audience. As you’ll see later on, there are some specifications or requirements that may not be the same in North America, for example. However, in general you should be able to get a good idea of what to look for in an HDTV.

HD ready

So the very first thing you should look for, whether you’re in a store or browsing online, is the ‘HD ready’ logo.

 

 


This applies specifically to Europe. EICTA introduced this label to help consumers clearly identify which TVs meet the minimum requirements of the HD Ready specification. The spec itself was designed to protect the consumers in the future.

TVs that carry the HD ready logo must have either an HDMI connection, or a DVI connect that is HDCP compliant. HDCP stands for High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection. So in other words, it’s a form of digital rights management. It could be used, for example, to prevent you from recording certain programmes. All HDMI connections are HDCP compliant.

HD ready TVs must also have some form of analogue input, such a component. This means that the TV is suited to the connections commonly used today, and is ready for the connections that will be used in the years to come.

If you see this label, then the TV you’re looking at also supports at least 720p. This is a type of high definition output, and I’ll elaborate on the resolutions and terminology later in this article.

As far as I know, in North America the ‘HD ready’ tag does not have such minimum requirements. If you’re in the USA or Canada, it may be better to look for an ‘HD-compliant’ TV. I believe these have HD tuners built in, allowing you to view high definition programming without a decoder. In Europe, and in the UK in particular, you need to have a set top box (STB) to view HD content. This means ‘HD-compliance’ is no longer an issue, as the STB decodes the HD signal and sends it to the TV via the appropriate connection.

HDMI or DVI?

If you’re searching the internet and you find an HD ready TV that’s surprisingly cheap in comparison to others, then look a little closer. It’s probably missing HDMI. It is essential that if you want a future-proof TV, you purchase a TV with an HDMI connection. Whilst DVI can support HDCP, HDMI is by far the most preferred format. In particular, HDMI makes you immune to any downsampling of HD content in the future.

There is a lot of controversy over this. The issue is that Blu-ray and HD-DVD, competing next-generation DVD formats, include a form of protection called AACS. This protection can force what’s known as the ‘Image Constraint Token’ (ICT). What this enables movie studios to do is downgrade the resolution of the movie from high definition (720p, 1080i or 1080p) to only 540p, which barely exceeds DVD standard. Whilst it’s unknown when movie studios plan to implement this (rumours suggest no sooner than 2010), having an HDMI connection will mean you have nothing to worry about.

 

 


You may be wondering, given this situation with ICT, why Sony has decided to release a version of the PlayStation 3 that does not support HDMI. Well, we were a bit confused as well. But it’s a cost cutting move on Sony’s part to try to remain competitive with the Xbox 360. For the near future, you will still be able to play games and movie on your PS3 in full high definition with component (analogue) cables. I would still suggest going for the 60GB PS3 if you can shell out an extra $100 (or €100), because ICT is a very real threat. It’s a bit of strange direction Sony’s taken with the 20GB PS3, given their love for digital rights management.

So personally, I would recommend going for a TV with HDMI. It may cost you more, but it’s worth it if you don’t plan to buy another TV for the next few years. And HDCP is not the only reason. HDMI carries both audio and video.

Resolutions

The terminology used to describe the resolution HDTVs are able to display can be pretty confusing.

Let’s start off with the most common resolution supported by cheap or affordable, HD ready TVs: 720p. A TV that supports 720p high definition must be able to output a picture at a resolution of 1280x720. More commonly, however, 720p TVs will support up to 1366x768. This is just a strange bending of the rules, and should not result in any significant changes in quality.

The ‘p’ parts stands for ‘progressive’, and describes the way in which the lines on the screen form the picture that is produced. As a simple explanation, when a TV can output a resolution in ‘progressive’ mode, it produces each line of the image in order, and all at once. What this means is a higher number of frames per second, and generally a clearer and sharper picture.

The other mode is called ‘interlaced’, and is abbreviated to ‘i’. This format draws all the odd lines first, and then goes back and draws the even lines. Whilst this happens too quickly for the human eye to see in action, interlaced TVs will often exhibit very slightly flickering. Usually this will go unnoticed because up till now most TVs have been interlaced so we’re all used to it. But put side by side with a progressive scan TV, and you’ll probably notice the difference.

HD ready interlaced TVs support 1080i. This resolution is 1920x1080. Since it displays a higher resolution than 720p TVs, the picture quality should be far better, especially on larger TVs.

But the behemoth of HDTV resolutions is 1080p. This combines the benefits of an extremely high resolution with progressive scan. Unfortunately, broadcasters do not transmit their programmes in this resolution (probably due to the high bandwidth requirements). But next generation DVD formats offer the capability of 1080p movies. In particular, Blu-ray players are able to output 1080p movies. Unfortunately, the first HD-DVD players are not able to output this resolution, but will in the future.

Be aware, however, that in order to view high definition content in 1080i or 1080p, you must have a compatible TV. Currently, 1080p TVs are rare, and those that do exist are very expensive. If you’re looking for a reasonably priced TV, you’ll probably end up purchasing a 1080i TV, or on lower budgets a 720p TV.

Here’s an image, courtesy of Wikipedia, that demonstrates the differences in resolution:

 

 


Sizes

If you’ve got the money, you’ll want a big TV. The cost of 40” TVs is dropping all the time, but they will still require some saving up if you want a quality 1080i (or even 1080p next year). Remember from Part 1 that any TV you buy should include at least DVI with HDCP compliance, or even better, HDMI. This generally pushes the price up slightly, but in the 40” range, the difference is often negligible. So be careful!

The smallest TVs that support the requirements I specified in Part 1 are usually 26”. Be warned that you will not see the true benefits of HD on this size TV, but it’s a perfectly good HD solution for gaming in a bedroom.

Moving on to some of the questions members have asked. I’ve removed some of the slang and “1337speek” for clarity.

DeAdLy_cOoKiE: Is it possible for HDTV to have 100Hz or even 120Hz?

HDTVs already support 100Hz. I suspect your question about 120Hz is related to Sony’s claim that the future will see 120 frames per second content. Whilst I’m sure the technology could be developed to support 120Hz, it seems a little pointless. The benefits of 50/60Hz to 100Hz are clear. It really has made a difference to the quality and clarity of the picture. However, I don’t think the human eye would be able to see the difference between 100Hz and 120Hz.

barney_2k: What about saying to the public that you can use a normal CRT PC Moniter to get High Def?

Ok public: you can use a normal CRT PC monitor for high definition! Thanks for your contribution Barney, you are quite right. It is possible to use your computer monitor for HD. The problem, however, is the lack of widescreen CRTs, and the cost of large widescreen LCD monitors. It may be a better investment to buy a large LCD TV, instead of an LCD monitor, so you can use it for gaming, watching TV and for the PC.

Breath_of_The_Dying: Isn't it for a fact that AACS only applies to movies? So anyone getting the 20gig version need not worry about HD for gaming.

You are correct. AACS does not apply to gaming (see Part 1 for an explanation of AACS). So if you only want to use the PS3 for gaming, then the 20GB config is a good option. However, I can almost guarantee that you will want to use the PS3 for movies at some point. $500 is a hefty investment, and I’m sure you’ll want to fully exploit the system. And although I mentioned that the image constraint will not be implemented any time soon, it feels like a safer bet to opt for the 60GB config for the guaranteed HCDP compliance, and the improved quality because of the digital connection (HDMI).

Schmeh: Not all HDMI connections are HDCP compliant.

Whilst it may be true that the very first HDTVs to support HDMI may not be HDCP compliant, this is a buyers’ guide for those looking to buy an HDTV now. And therefore, it’s reasonable to say that all HDMI connections are HDCP compliant, because nowadays they are.

I would like to address some concerns a number of members raised about my lack of coverage of CRTs and rear projection HDTVs.

HD-CRT TVs are available and are affordable. But these are large and bulky, and exhibit a few problems. The most common issue I have heard about is that the picture is not scaled correctly to the size of the TV, often leading to parts of the image being cut off. There are also cases of warping at the corners of the image.

Rear projection HDTVs are available as well. The problem most people will have with these is the sheer size of them when you get into the 30 and 40” range. I suspect they too would suffer the same problems as HD-CRTs, but if anyone can enlighten me, drop me a line. My contact details are on the Staff page.

So concluding, I hope you’ve found these two parts helpful. The guide was targeted at the majority who will want a convenient, affordable HD solution, and an LCD or Plasma TV will meet these requirements. Please feel free to send me any comments, either via email or on PS3Forums.


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