HDTV Plunge

September 18, 2007 at 12:34 pm Leave a comment

Wow, it’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything…

I was at a trade show a couple of weeks ago, and have been catching up at work and trying to get things ready for Winter around my house.

I did want to start commenting on HDTV, in that I finally took the plunge last week after borrowing some money to take care of a variety of things…

Last week, I bought a Westinghouse TX-42F430S from Best Buy. It is a full 1080p 42″ LCD flat-panel, which I quickly fell in love with. The honeymoon didn’t last long. I’ll say this- I thought the picture and sound were both incredible. The 4 HDMI inputs and multitude of analog inputs and outputs also seemed to have a lot of potential. It was also relatively lightweight and easy to hang on the wall with a $100 wall mount from Wal-Mart. And lastly- it seemed to be the perfect size for my livingroom- a great replacement for an older 36″ 4:3 CRT set.

So what went wrong? Well- here is a rundown of problems I had:

The remote control, or at least the TV’s processing of signals from it, is flaky. Sometimes it was necessary to press buttons several times for them to work, and sometimes they just wouldn’t work at all. This made almost everything difficult.

One of the great features of this TV is its online guide, which it apparently gets data for from the DTV signals from individual stations. The problem is you can only access it for the station you are tuned to, and the data is lost as soon as you change stations. This was made even more aggravating by the fact that it would never display for the actual station you were on. It was kind-of nice to see what was coming up on each station though. A really simple/cheap memory buffer would have been nice.

Random other things, which seemed to be memory related. You could turn the TV “off” in two different modes- Energy Saver, which is REALLY “off” and Standby. In Energy Saver “off”, it would take the TV about a half-minute to turn on. This was mildly annoying, but tolerable. However- it seemed every time the TV was turned “on” from this mode- something strange would happen. Most of the time- it would be tuned to a non-existent station (not the last tuned one, as one would expect). Sometimes closed captioning would be on. Other times the audio would be muted. These generally weren’t problems if you turned it “off” into standby mode- but then it would also then use 40 watts of electricity and apparently keep the backlight and most other electronic components energized.

The last straw was audio/video sync. This has been an ongoing problem in the broadcast DTV/HDTV world as the audio and video signals are encoded and transmitted separately. Sometimes this is a problem for people with home theater systems that separate audio and video processing in different boxes, as it takes a lot less digital horsepower to decode the audio signal. In some cases- people resort to digital delay loops for the audio channel to keep things synced up.

The problem is this generally shouldn’t be an issue in an HDTV with an integrated tuner. With the Westinghouse- every DTV/HDTV channel would start out in sync, but would get progressively more out-of-sync as time went on. After about five minutes watching an individual channel- things would start to look noticeably off. After about ten minutes- it would be like watching a dubbed Japanese movie. I quickly got into the habit of hitting the channel-swap/last-channel button every commercial break, just to re-sync the audio.

I finally had enough yesterday morning. I’ll admit this was the cheapest 1080p LCD I could find, but I wasn’t expecting this many hassles with what to me was a very expensive TV. I packed it up yesterday afternoon and brought it back to Best Buy.

I now have a Hitachi P50H401. It’s a 50″ plasma that represented some compromises on my part, but I just couldn’t pass up the price. I wasn’t all that interested in a plasma set. I sold plasmas when I worked for Sony, and always found them to be a bit touchy and loud. It seemed like they would die or go bad in some other way if you just looked at them wrong, and they all had a buzz that drove me crazy (which was attributed to the altitude here in the Denver area). Well- they seem to have improved a great deal since then. I don’t notice any buzz/hum at all, and it at least lived through getting unpacked and clumsily hung up on the wall by me and Adam.

I also gave up on 1080p. Most plasmas are still 720p, but this one is 1080i which is still a step up. There was something about having a 1080p LCD though that felt good. Since 1080p is currently the highest possible HDTV resolution, I felt it was future-proof to some extent. Of course- there are already higher resolution standards being toyed with. I also have to admit that I could probably only tell the difference between 1080i and 1080p if I knew ahead of time what the interlacing was and had the screen six inches away from my nose. The Hitachi will accept a 1080p signal (and interlace the frames for display), so I don’t really feel I’m going to miss out on much.

It also is one HDMI port short of the Westinghouse, but then again- I can’t see ever having more than 3 HDMI components anyway- DVD player (I am currently using a 1080i up-converting one with HDMI anyway), satellite or cable box, and HTPC. The latter would probably use VGA or DVI anyway, so wouldn’t be a factor.

The final compromise was one I never in my life thought I would have- size. The thing is huge, at least for me. It takes up a lot of wall space, and partially blocks a window and my living room light switches. It isn’t really all that heavy (106 lbs), but definitely takes two people to move because of its size. At least I know if someone tries to steal it- they are going to have their work cut out for them (besides having to work it off the wall mount). The earlier 42″ set was pretty-much perfect in this respect- it fit the wall nicely and didn’t seem to overwhelm the room.

But- it only cost me $300 more than the Westinghouse, and so far works great. I looked at alternative 42″ flat panels and none of them had the picture quality that the Westinghouse had. They were also all MORE expensive than the Hitachi.

My only real concern right now, which brings up another point, is phosphor burn-in and life, which is always an issue with plasmas. I love HDTV at 16:9, but unfortunately there is still WAY too much 4:3 programming out there. All of the local stations have digital broadcasts, but only one of them is fairly consistently in 16:9. Even a lot of the HDTV 1080i broadcasts feature 4:3 content, for which there are only a few display options on a 16:9 set:
Letterboxed: Similar to the widescreen DVD letterboxing most are familiar with- only on the sides instead of top and bottom.
Stretched: The picture is stretched horizontally- making everyone and everything fat and distorted.
Zoomed: The picture is zoomed in to fill the screen horizontally- cutting off about 10% of the top and bottom of the picture.

There really is no good option for 4:3. Actually the best one for me is letterboxed. I don’t mind the black/grey bars as they are unobtrusive to me. While this isn’t a problem with LCDs (the backlight and LCD pixels are unaffected by it), it does present a problem for plasmas. The high intensity/sensitivity phosphors used to make a plasma display are designed for fast on-and-off action, making them ideal for fast moving action on TV and in movies. Unfortunately they are also prone to “burn-in” or “ghosting” if a static image is displayed for a long time. They will also slowly lose intensity over time. Generally this is the same lifespan and intensity loss experienced with a standard CRT, so it wouldn’t ordinarily be noticed. The problem with letterboxed content is it presents essentially a negative static image. If more than a certain percentage of content (Hitachi says 15%) is letterboxed- a noticeable difference in pixel intensity and image quality will occur outside of the letterbox area when actual 16:9 content is viewed. So- watching letterboxed content on a plasma display is very strongly discouraged. This means I have to use either stretch or zoom mode, both of which I hate.

I suppose with DTV being mandated in a little over a year and brisk sales of widescreen TVs that most 4:3 content will be going away. Obviously old reruns and movies won’t be changing formats, but things like news, sports, talk shows, and current sitcoms and dramas will all be produced in 16:9. I also have found myself, even though it has only been a week, shunning non-HDTV content. Fortunately MOST current shows are in HDTV, and the most annoying things that aren’t have been local news and some older re-runs. My favorite morning news is in 4:3, which sucks.

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Entry filed under: Cable TV, DTV/HDTV, Home Theater, Satellite TV.

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