Consumer Report's "HDTV: The big picture"

(Undated-Consumer Reports) March 7, 2005 - In some ways, the high-definition (HD) TV set is to this decade what the color TV was to the 1960s. It's exciting, it's expensive, and there hasn't been much to watch.

But that picture is changing. Prices for HDTVs have plummeted over the past few years, while HD programming has proliferated. So you may be among the countless consumers trying to decide whether it's time for you to take the plunge.

Our take? If you're shopping for a main TV, it's time to think seriously about getting an HD set. The picture quality of the best HDTVs is far better than anything you can get with a standard-definition TV. To fully appreciate HD's sharp detail and clarity, you really have to see it for yourself.

There are many models to choose from, including picture-tube sets , thin LCD and plasma flat panels, and jumbo-screen rear-projection models . And you won't have to take out a second mortgage to pay the tab.

Prices have dropped sharply over the past few years. The lowest-priced option, a 27-inch HD-ready picture-tube TV, now sells for as little as $550, and a 30-inch or 32-inch set of this type starts at less than $1,000.

Plasma TVs, the big flat panels with the big fat price tags, start at less than $3,000 in the best-selling 42-inch size. While that's not exactly a bargain, it's still much less than you would have paid for a plasma TV a year or two ago.

Whatever set you choose, you'll find there's more HD programming to watch. The major networks now broadcast a good chunk of their prime-time programs in high definition.

HD offerings are widely available on cable and satellite TV, including channels such as HBO, Showtime, Discovery, ESPN, and HDNet. Sports fans can enjoy virtual front-row seats at many football, basketball, and baseball games, as well as special events such as the Super Bowl, thanks to HD.

While we believe that HD sets are ready for prime time, not every new feature and attribute of these sets is worth buying. For example, the first generation of digital-cable-ready (DCR) TVs just hitting the market is a mixed bag.

These new plug-and-play sets are the first TVs that can get some digital-cable programming without using a cable box. They can unscramble premium channels, including HD programming, when a CableCard (provided by the cable company for a monthly rental fee) is inserted into a slot on the TV set.

The hitch is that these sets don't have all the functionality of a cable box: The first-generation cards are one-way, so you won't get an interactive program guide or video on demand via the remote control, which a two-way cable box provides. Also, DCR sets cost more than other HDTVs, so we'd pass on them for now. Choices presents bottom-line choices in an HDTV, depending on your priorities.

buying and using an HDTV

Have the TV delivered and set up. Many big-screen TVs are too heavy to lift. Major chains such as Best Buy, Circuit City , and Sears offer TV delivery and installation.

For $100, Sears will deliver and connect a TV to two devices, program two remotes, and give you a demo. For $180, Sears will hook up your sound system as well. For plasma TVs, installation costs $330 to $700. Big-box chains such as Costco and Wal-Mart generally don't offer installation. You may want to consider service in deciding where to buy.

To find a third-party installer, contact the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (800-669-5329 or ), an industry group that offers vetted, experienced installers.

Prepare for more button presses

Even with a basic setup, you'll probably have several devices hooked up to your TV via various inputs: a digital-cable box or satellite receiver, a DVD player, a VCR, and maybe a digital video recorder such as a TiVo. You have to press the "input" or "video" button on your remote to cycle through the inputs to the source you want.

Ask the installer to program the remote for you and to draw a diagram explaining the hookup. (This is useful if you have to disconnect things at any point.) Try it before the pro leaves.

Don't expect all programs to look better

While HD programming will look great on a good HDTV, there will be a fair amount of standard-definition content for a few years. With standard-definition programs, image quality varies.

Given a clean, strong analog signal, some HDTVs make regular programming look better than on a regular TV. But with a poor signal, which sometimes occurs with cable (even digital cable, according to our consumer surveys), the picture can look worse. Also, you'll see only marginal improvement in DVD image quality until high-definition DVDs arrive. That won't be until next year at the earliest.

Posted 6:12pm by Chantelle Janelle