Lifestyle

Weapons of mass entertainment: Shopping for a new TV

Part 1

At first, it seemed so easy. Marcy Mihalcheon, a 40-year-old Toronto businesswoman, wanted a television for her newly renovated living room. She already had a Jetsonesque TV with a liquid crystal display in her bedroom, and she figured moving one size up would do the trick. But late in the renovation, she realized she had a problem — there wasn’t room to accommodate the model she wanted. She needed options.

As Mihalcheon will tell you, buying a TV can be a colossal headache. The broadcasting world is moving from analog to digital programming at the same time as the standard cathode-ray tube is being challenged by new technologies that use plasma, crystals or other technologies to create the picture you see. Consumers are left to choose from among a mind-numbing variety of options.

Lesson No. 1? Don’t be overwhelmed by gee-whiz technospeak. While some of the leading-edge models are great conversation pieces, choosing a television is ultimately a matter of what’s going to look good to your own eye in your own living room. Analog TVs — the old war horses that we’ve used for years — represent some of the best deals out there right now. If you want to move up the technology curve, know what you can expect for the extra cash you’re spending.

A good place to begin is with a bit of research. Go to www.cnet.com for an excellent primer on many basic television questions as well as reviews of top sets. Consumer Reports also offers reviews and overviews at www.consumerreports.org, but you’ll have to pay to gain access. If you’re baffled by the analog vs. digital issue, visit the Canadian Digital Television Association at www.cdtv.ca for a good backgrounder on the topic. Then ask yourself a few questions:

How big is big enough? It depends upon personal taste and the size of your viewing room. The easiest way for most people to gauge the appropriate size is to take a tape measure to the store and position themselves as far away from the screen as they’ll be sitting at home. Does the television look too small? Too big? You’re the best judge of what you like.

The shape of the screen is also important. The almost square television we all know has a 4 x 3 “aspect ratio” — in other words, the picture is four units wide compared to three units high. Compare that to wide screen televisions, which feature a 16 x 9 aspect ratio. The picture is a lot wider in comparison to the height, which allows you to see movies in the same panoramic way they were originally shot, rather than with the edges cut off to fit a narrower screen. Having this wide-angled viewpoint may be important if you’re a film buff or watch a lot of DVDs; it’s not an issue if your viewing fare consists of television shows and sports.

Do I want analog or digital? Analog sets have been around since the dawn of TV time. They read broadcast signals that arrive as waves of electrons. Problem is, even small flaws in transmission distort the waves and reduce the quality of the picture. Digital TV, on the other hand, reads signals that encode all information in the electronic equivalent of ones and zeros. This reduces the possibility of distortion and can result in a cleaner, sharper picture.

But not always. Digital televisions produce a better picture than an analog unit only if they’re getting digital input. DVDs, digital cable or satellite all provide this high-quality digital feed. VCRs or analog cable hook-ups don’t. If this is how you receive most of your TV viewing, you’re no better off with a digital set than with an analog one.

Stephen deWeerd, general manager at Toronto-based Brentview Electronics Ltd., says digital TVs look great in the showroom because many dealers pump their sets full of top-quality digital signals to wow customers. To get a more realistic understanding of what you’re likely to experience at home, de Weerd recommends asking your dealer to show you a digital TV running analog programming, like a VCR or an analog cable feed.

How about high-definition digital TV? Even sharper and clearer than regular digital programming is high-definition digital TV — a.k.a. HDTV or “high def” to those in the know. North American television stations are slowly making the transition to this new broadcasting standard and most digital TVs above 27 inches are already capable of handling the superior HDTV signal. Unfortunately, HDTV programming is available now only on a limited basis. Cable and satellite providers offer some of their content in the HDTV format, but the transition to this format is expected to take a decade.

Don’t bother paying for HDTV capabilities if you’re buying a television smaller than 33 inches, says Josh Bernoff, a principal analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. “For people who are getting a smaller set,” he says, “you’ll find the high-definition sets are both dramatically more expensive and not that much better than analog.”

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Part 1 Part 2

From the June/July 2003 issue.

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