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HDTV Buyer's Guide: An Intro to HDTV

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 7/4/2009

Before buying an HDTV it is a good idea to learn a few basic things about how HDTV works. This will not only help with the purchase of an excellent HDTV, but make sure that the new HDTV doesn't find itself forced to constantly display standard definition content.

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    What Is HDTV?

    What is 1080p, anyway? First things first. If you're in the market for an HDTV and you're not already fluent in the language of the industry, you likely only know that you want to buy an HDTV. As it would happen, that definition is quite a vague. High Definition Television is a term which can refer to several different things. So, let's start at the beginning.

    For decades, television used the same resolution for all of its images. This resolution was 720:480, and it was meant for 4:3 aspect ratio tube or projection televisions owned by families the world over. This resolution was slightly different in European countries, but only slightly. It was the advent computers, with their high-resolution displays, which slowly created interest in the creation of televisions with higher resolutions.

    Modern HDTV resolutions are typically termed as 720p, 1080i, or 1080p. The number stands for the number of horizontal pixels in the display. 720p stands for the resolution of 1280x720, while 1080i and 1080p represent 1920x1080 resolution. These basic formats are separate from the native resolution of the actual displays. Most displays do offer a native resolution of 1280x720 or 1920x1080, but some displays use different resolutions such as 1366x768 or 1280x1080. However, video is not recorded into this format. A processor inside the HDTV takes care of making sure the image displays correctly. HDTV, then, is simply a few commonly accepted formats which can in fact be displayed on a variety of devices with a variety of resolutions.

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    What Do You Need?

    Confused? Don't worry. Wrapping one's head around resolutions and formats can be difficult at first. Having explained the basics of what HDTV means, it is wise to put that knowledge aside for a moment and start considering what exactly you are looking for in your new HDTV. By this, I am not speaking about resolutions. Marketing by television manufacturers has a nasty habit of giving consumers the wrong impression. You might, for example, assume that a 1080p HDTV is what you want as it has the highest resolution available. In fact, the importance of the resolution is often secondary to other qualities of an HDTV.

    A good first step is to decide what size of HDTV you're looking for. This can be easily done by determining how far away you are sitting from where the HDTV will be mounted and then using a viewing distance calculator which can tell you exactly what size to buy based on the distance you'll sit from the HDTV. This is an important part of the process, as buying an HDTV which is too small will make the HDTV pointless - the image will be so far away that your eye will not be able to make out the extra detail.

    Having determined the size you're looking for, next decide what qualities you want to have in an HDTV. Does it matter how thick or heavy the HDTV is? Do you own or plan to own numerous devices that will need to connect to the HDTV? Is color accuracy important to you? Sit down with a piece of paper and write down your priorities. Keep this handy when viewing this guide and any other guide you might read. Then take it to the store. It is very easy to mistakenly buy the wrong HDTV if you don't already know what is important to you, particularly when a retail salesman is talking about terms like Full HD and True Color while pointing suggestively at an HDTV which is just a little bit more than you were intending to pay.

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    Buying an HDTV? What is HDTV Anyway?What is HDTV? Many buyers of HDTVs have trouble answering this question. This isn't surprising, because HDTVs are very complex, and as a result buying an HDTV can be complex. Fortunately, there are some basics which, once understood, make it easy to find the right HDTV for you.
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    Tally The Hidden Costs

    The first step to buying an HDTV is finding what is important in an HDTV Perhaps the most common mistake made by those purchasing HDTVs is the assumption that an HDTV will automatically receive HD content. The world would be a nicer place if that were true, it is not. To display HD content, your HDTV needs to receive an HDTV signal. That means a signal which has a resolution of at least 720p. An HDTV can certainly display older, 480p television, but it doesn't look any better than on an older tube set.

    The major over-the-air channels in America and other countries do broadcast an HD signal over the air. Yes, that's right - it is possible to receive full HD over a set of bunny ears. Cable channels and satellite channels, however, continue to be mostly broadcasted in 480p. To gain access to HD channels you need to sign up for their HD service. Which, wouldn't you know, costs more.

    If you want to watch movies in HD then you will need an HD-DVD or Blu-Ray player and some movies which are in those formats. HD-DVD is discontinued, but players and movies can be had at bargain prices. Blu-Ray, on the other hand, still commands a price premium. New Blu-Ray movies often cost thirty dollars, and even the most basic players cost around $200 bucks. That said, those who will simply be using regular DVDs will be in for a surprise. While standard DVDs are not recorded at HD resolutions, there are numerous players capable of upscaling a DVD. This essentially means that the player has a special processor meant to turn the lower resolution DVD image into a high resolution image displayed at up to 1080p. The best upscaling players are so good that it can be sometimes difficult to tell the difference between an upscaled DVD and a Blu-Ray disc.

    Make sure that you plan to buy at least one method of receiving an HD signal before purchasing an HDTV. Many have purchased their new set only to find that they could not enjoy it without spending more on a Blu-Ray player or better cable service.

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    Next: The Battle

    That's the basics. At this point you should have an understanding of what the term HDTV means, what is important to you in an HDTV, and how you will feed your new HDTV an HD signal. With those bases covers, its time to start examining the actual televisions. The next article in this series will talk about the big question on every HDTV buyer's mind: LCD or Plasma?

HDTV Buying Guide

Buying an HDTV can seem daunting, but don't worry. Once a few basic topics are understood, HDTVs don't appear so imposing. In fact, the process of finding and buying the right HDTV can be a lot of fun.
  1. HDTV Buyer's Guide: An Intro to HDTV
  2. HDTV Buyer's Guide: Choosing Between LCD and Plasma
  3. HDTV Buying Guide: Wrapping Things Up