Must-see HDTV?

Digital technology, including high-definition TV, is changing the face of television. Here, experts demystify digital and HDTV t

Digital technology, including high-definition TV, is changing the face of television. Here, experts demystify digital and HDTV t

December 21, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

The greatest change to hit television sets in 50 years is playing out on an increasing number of screens, as digital technology brings cinematic picture quality into American living rooms.

The best of that technology, high-definition television - HDTV - offers incredibly detailed picture quality with up to five times the sharpness of traditional analog TV, along with digital surround sound capability and a widescreen format.

"HDTV is here and it's only going to get bigger," said Curt Spicher, owner of Spicher's Appliances on Pennsylvania Avenue in Hagerstown. "You've got a lot of HD programming right now, and it's only going to grow."


But with that sharper image comes consumer questions about how much it will cost to tune into high-definition - and how much time they will have to switch to digital TV before their analog sets become obsolete.

"I talk to customers almost every day who want direction," said Gary W. Davis, vice president of engineering for Hagerstown-based Antietam Cable Television, which is owned by the same company as The Herald-Mail. "Most people don't understand what digital TV is to start with, and how it is derived."

Analog vs. digital TV

Analog refers to the transmission standard used today to send most TV signals, according to information from Antietam Cable Television.

A transmission standard is the technical specification that defines the way television signals travel from their point of origin to your television. High-tension power lines, thunderstorms and other factors can interfere with the continuous electronic wave that comprises the analog signal - resulting in less-than-optimum picture quality when the signal reaches your standard analog TV set, said Cindy Garland, director of marketing for Antietam Cable. Unlike antennas, cable protects the signal from the majority of external interference, she said. The current standard TV signal in the United States is comprised of 525 scan lines and about 200,000 pixels - the small dots that create the picture on a screen that's usually 1 1/3 as wide as it is tall, or four units wide by three units tall.

The digital transmission standard - which represents pictures and sounds with zeros and ones, the binary code used by computers - offers sharper and clearer picture and sound quality than the analog standard. The minimum digital TV (DTV) signal - standard-definition TV (SDTV) - shows more than 300,000 pixels. The digital system also easily can correct interference to the signal, Garland said. And cable companies can add many more channels to their digital service level than their analog service level because a digital signal uses less bandwidth than an analog signal, she said. Davis said five to 10 digital channels will fit in the same amount of space as one analog channel.

Moreover, a digital transmission system can deliver high-definition TV standards.

Transition from analog to digital

Cable companies likely will continue to offer analog service in conjunction with digital service as long as there's a demand for analog - and as long as it continues to be cost-effective - but broadcasters will have to switch to an all-digital format by a date determined by the federal government, Davis said. Analog TVs will continue to receive analog broadcasts at least through 2006, and probably longer, according to information from the Federal Communications Commission at on the Web.

After the target analog-to-DTV transition date, consumers with analog TV sets can connect an inexpensive receiver to their existing TVs to decode digital broadcast signals - but not in high-definition, the FCC states.

The cream of the digital crop

HDTV boasts the best picture and sound quality of the digital formats - eliminating ghosts, static, snow and poor-quality video. The most popular HDTV signal standard is made up of 1,080 scan lines and about 2 million pixels displayed on a screen that is 16 units wide by 9 units tall, according to information from the FCC.

"High-definition TV has many more pixels and scan lines so the picture is many more times clearer than standard TV," Garland said. "Some people describe it as being almost three-dimensional, almost life-like."

The addition of high-definition programming and the drop in price for HDTV sets has made high-definition TV a more realistic option for a growing number of consumers, Spicher said. He said about 40 percent of the TVs sold at Spicher's Appliances in November were HDTVs, either sets with built-in HD tuners or HDTV monitors that require a digital receiver. Spicher's sells high-definition sets starting at about $1,500 for a 46-inch monitor - down from about $10,000 when the technology first hit the market, the owner said.

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