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Clearing the picture on digital TV
[Times photo: Michael Rondou]

The next generation of television promises clearer pictures, better sound, but more confusion when you're shopping for a new set.

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 10, 2000

Then we started connecting devices to it: cable boxes, videocassette recorders. Digital technology arrived, and with it came a new breed of TVs and even more gadgets to connect: DVD players, personal digital recorders, surround sound systems.

"You don't really buy a TV anymore," said Jim Barry, a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group . "You're buying a display device that can get programming from cable or antenna or satellite, VCR, DVD, camcorder for home movies, lots of different things."

Suddenly, things don't seem so simple, especially for those of us who shudder at the prospect of anything more high-tech than the VCRs we can't program. Americans bought about 27-million TV sets last year, according to the CEA, although most were conventional "analog" sets.

"A conventional TV is fine, even in this transitional era," Consumer Reports magazine said in its December issue. So the TV in the family room isn't obsolete and won't be for years.

The new digital signals make possible crystal-clear images, hundreds of new channels and more choices for TVs.

To get a clear picture of your TV options you need to understand that the image on the monitor is made up of electronic lines on the screen. The more lines in the picture, the sharper the images. A picture comes in two formats: "progressive," meaning that the TV scans the horizontal lines one at a time from top to bottom, or "interlaced," meaning that the TV scans alternate lines during two cycles that make up the complete picture.

The three main categories:

  • Conventional analog TVs, which have 480 lines and are interlaced (so they will be labeled 480i for short).
  • Standard-definition sets, which can receive digital signals and have sharper pictures than conventional sets. But they still receive only 480 lines and come in progressive or interlaced models (480p or 480i).
  • High-definition TVs, which also receive digital signals, come in 720 lines and progressive (720p) or 1,080 lines and interlaced (1080i). You can watch regular TV shows on an HDTV, but the real reason to spend $5,000 to $8,000 on one of these outfits is for the awesome picture quality of the few programs now broadcast in digital format.

A show that's available digitally often begins with an on-screen logo touting it as digital, much as the NBC peacock once signaled, in the early days of color TV, that certain broadcasts could be enjoyed "in living color." For example, recent sports events such as the Super Bowl and NCAA basketball tournament are being broadcast digitally.

Once you get the lines down, check out the shape of the screen. Conventional sets have an "aspect ratio" of 4:3, measuring width to height. Standard-definition sets can be 4:3 or 16:9, which looks more like the shape of a movie screen. High-definition is 16:9.

Consumers can choose from HDTV sets that have everything they need to receive and show digital programs, or they can buy digital-capable displays that convert to HDTV with the addition of a set-top box. Set-top boxes start around $500.

TV manufacturers that have sunk millions into developing and marketing digital sets are pushing the new format, but it's off to a slow start. The number of digital sets sold totaled 155,000 from their introduction in August 1998 through last month.

The all-digital sets are expensive, with some big-screen models costing up to $9,000, and programming is scarce. But as prices fall (some already are in the $3,000 range) and programming picks up, sales will follow. CEA predicts 10-million DTVs will be sold by 2003.

Tampa Bay area stations started digital broadcasts last year. As the DTV presence increases, people will need to know more than just the size and price of the set they want.

Even the people who sell TVs have to keep up.

"We do (staff) training on this every week," said Larry Cunningham, manager of the Sound Advice electronics store in St. Petersburg.

While price is a major consideration for consumers, Cunningham said, Sound Advice spends a lot of time explaining the differences between interlaced scanning and progressive scanning and the number of lines viewable on a screen. (Explaining which scan is better is not easy, since Cunningham says different stations go with different digital formats and newer digital TVs handle both.)

After going through the explanation, Cunningham concedes, some people have a glazed look in their eyes. "It used to be real easy," he said. "You look at a TV, the price tag and say, "I want that one.' (Now) a consumer needs to try to get as much information as he can."

Beyond understanding the picture tube, consumers still have to consider connecting gadgets, such as a DVD player or surround sound system. The industry hasn't settled on standards for connections, and manufacturers need to provide ways to work with older sets as well as the new.

A DVD player, for example, often can be connected to a TV set three ways: component video input, which gives the best picture; S-video input, which gives the next-best picture; or a standard video jack, which reduces the quality.

For their part, manufacturers are trying to provide as much information as possible, including brochures and Web sites to explain digital television.

Those kinds of educational campaigns accompany any new product rollout, said Jonas Tanenbaum, national marketing manager for Panasonic TV, who pointed out that Panasonic's Web site includes a bulletin board section where consumers can ask questions and talk about digital TV.

He says many people who attend demonstrations ask questions that show they've done some homework on the topic, though the company has received some feedback about consumer confusion from retailers. "People go into buying a TV today with some legitimate concerns," he said.

Demand for digital TV is increasing, as is awareness. If someone is confused, there are places to go for information, such was

And there's still an old-fashioned fallback position: "The state of analog TV is as good as it's ever been," Tanenbaum said, reinforcing the idea that it is still possible just to pick out a set, take it home and watch.

Barry of the CEA says a starting point for buyers is to ask what they're looking for in a TV. If, for example, they want to buy a DVD, they should look for a TV that can show the higher quality picture.

 And people obviously want better pictures. DVD sales have skyrocketed, with more than 4-million units sold last year, far exceeding industry expectations. VCR sales also increased 25 percent last year, Barry said. He attributed the increase to lower prices that have fallen below $100 for some models.

Barry expects prices to continue to fall, and as people learn more about digital TV their sales will pick up.

"Within five years, virtually everyone will be buying digital TVs," he said. "It's going to get sorted out."

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