Dreaming about a great big box under the tree this year? Sure there'll be rectangular boxes containing new shirts and maybe a bigger one with a jacket. You'll unwrap packages from the kids filled with golf tees and ties, and maybe even a nice-size box containing a new DVD player. But those miniature thrills just can't compare to what you really want: a big-screen HDTV. It may be time to play Santa to yourself. The latest crop of rear-projection sets is better and more affordable than ever, but it's also more varied and confusing. Deciphering those little placards at the electronics store can be a pain, and if you seek help, the salesman often knows less than you do. The Web provides some guidance, but you can spend weeks doing research. Let me help you make sense of the options, leaving you more time to enjoy that new TV.
Size and Sofa
First, decide exactly how big a box you want. Large-screen rear-projection TVs (RPTVs) start with screen sizes of around 40 inches (diagonal). That may not seem much larger than a 36-inch tube TV, but a 40-inch screen won't fit in most entertainment centers. The good news is that some new RPTVs are actually slimmer than comparable-size direct-view sets and can fit into smaller living rooms or large bedrooms. Look at the seating layout in your home and determine how close to the TV you want to be. Ideally, you should sit close enough to enjoy the most theatrical experience, but not so close that the elements of the picture-scan lines or pixels-become visible. For a widescreen HDTV, a good rule of thumb is to sit one and a half times as far from the TV as its screen measures diagonally-for example, 60 inches away from a 40-inch screen. Rear-projection sets also demand that your eyes be close to level with the center of the screen for the best picture. High-Def or the Highway Once upon a time, rear-projection technology meant a nasty-looking picture. Walk into popular sports bars, and chances are they will have an old RPTV showing a fuzzy, distorted picture of the game. Not so with today's models. The overwhelming majority are actually digital high-definition TVs capable of displaying regular broadcast TV, DVDs, and true HDTV. The main decision is whether to get an integrated HDTV or an HDTV monitor. An integrated HDTV has a built-in over-the-air digital tuner that can receive and decode high-definition signals. At this writing, fewer than two dozen rear-projection HDTVs are integrated. All the rest are HDTV monitors, often called "HDTV-ready." These are much less expensive than integrated sets but require a separate set-top tuner to receive high-def programming. Add-on tuners, mainly available from Samsung, Sony, Mitsubishi, and Zenith, generally cost between $500 and $800. An integrated HDTV is easier to set up and use since it has only one remote control and no extra connections. On the other hand, most set-top HDTV tuners also offer satellite reception and could add more features, such as hard-disk-based time-shifting, in the near future. Going with an integrated set may be a good idea if your area has a lot of stations currently broadcasting HDTV or if you just prefer the simplicity. Almost every current RPTV can display high-definition programs in the 1080i (interlaced) format. Other sets-primarily those using fixed-pixel Digital Light Processing (DLP) or liquid-crystal display (LCD) technology-can display them without processing in the 720p (progressive-scan) high-def format that's being broadcast by ABC. Both are a serious improvement over standard-definition 480i TV, which offers a maximum of 480 lines of vertical resolution. With more than twice as much picture information, HDTV images look incredibly lifelike and detailed. You can count hairs in an actor's eyebrows during a closeup, or read signs like "NBC = Nobody Beats Clemson" in wide-angle crowd shots. True high-definition programming is becoming increasingly widespread on broadcast TV, satellite, and even digital cable. HBO, ShowTime, The Discovery Channel, and other networks have 24-hour channels devoted to HDTV, while CBS and ABC offer a cluster of high-def programs in their prime-time schedules. Between the Bars If you've seen The Sopranos on HBO recently, you probably noticed black bars above and below the picture. The majority of high-definition programs appear in a widescreen format, as do most DVD movies. A widescreen set, whose display has 16 units of width for every 9 units of height-a 16:9 aspect ratio-delivers a more theatrical image and in most cases eliminates those black bars. Most movie directors produce their films in a ratio that's close to 16:9, and many go even wider-which results in small black bars even on a widescreen set. The only downside to a widescreen television is that most TV programs are still broadcast in a squarish 4:3 aspect ratio. If you watch 4:3 programs on a widescreen set, the usual display options include putting vertical bars up on either side of the image, cropping the top and bottom to fill the screen, and electronically stretching the picture, which can make everybody look short and fat. However, many sets have additional modes that crop less or stretch the image more toward the sides, leaving the middle relatively intact. Display Decisions The newest choice facing RPTV shoppers is between a standard CRT (cathode-ray tube) projector and one that uses fixed-pixel technology. The majority of sets have CRTs, which are the small red, green, and blue tubes that project the picture from behind onto the screen. CRT-based TVs are typically less expensive than their fixed-pixel counterparts, and videophiles still prefer tubes because they generally convey more accurate color and can achieve deeper blacks in dim lighting conditions. On the other hand, CRTs require regular maintenance since the tubes can drift out of alignment, making the image fuzzy and causing colors to spill over the edges of objects and text. Some manufacturers offer models with automatic convergence, although this feature tends to be less accurate than a manual convergence option. The newer fixed-pixel TVs use either LCD or DLP chips and a bright lamp. The term "fixed-pixel" refers to the chip itself. Most of these TVs have a native resolution of 1,280 x 720 pixels, which is an exact fit for programs broadcast in the 720p format. They don't require any maintenance, but their performance, especially when reproducing deep blacks, still lags slightly behind that of CRT sets-though DLP generally beats LCD in black-level reproduction. Both can produce a much brighter picture than a CRT. And many are just as bright as standard single-tube direct-view sets, so they're great if you have little control over the ambient light in your room. Picture Processing Since high-definition programming isn't available to everyone all the time, every HDTV uses some sort of processing to improve regular analog images. Usually it "upconverts" a 480i picture to progressive-scan format. The most obvious benefit of progressive-scan is that it all but eliminates visible scan lines. Look closely at a regular TV set, and you'll see that the picture is composed of thin horizontal lines, which become more visible on larger screens. But TVs with progressive-scan processing let you sit much closer to the picture and still not see any scan lines, which makes the picture more stable and filmlike. The quality of the video processing in RPTVs has improved dramatically over the last couple of years. Almost all models now incorporate 2:3 pulldown (also called 3:2 pulldown) performed by a special circuit that can detect whether an incoming video signal originated on video or film. The result when you're watching movies is an image free of artifacts like flickering movement in complex patterns or jagged lines when a camera pans across a scene. Connection Reflections High-end HDTVs have a bewildering array of jacks. The most basic, and lowest quality, is the coaxial RF connection that comes from a cable box, satellite receiver, VCR, or antenna. Avoid using this connection if possible-the one exception being an integrated HDTV, which uses an RF connection to receive digital broadcasts from an antenna. Both RF and composite video, the familiar cable with a yellow standard RCA plug, combine the black-and-white (luminance) and color (chrominance) parts of video signals onto one wire, which degrades video performance. The next step up in video quality, S-video, carries these two kinds of information on separate wires. With cable-TV boxes, satellite receivers, and some VCRs, S-video is usually the best connection available. Look for rear-projection TVs with at least two sets of composite/S-video inputs-more if you have a lot of gear-and a set of front-panel inputs for temporary camcorder or game-console connections. The next step up in connection quality is component video. Each component-video input consists of three separate jacks, one for luminance (Y) and two for the color-difference chrominance signals (R - Y and B - Y). Using these jacks for more than one source can cost you a fortune in video cables, but the quality difference, especially the improved richness of colors, is noticeable. Component-video inputs are most often used to connect DVD players and set-top HDTV tuners. Standard component inputs accept only regular 480i, while wideband or HDTV-capable component jacks can also accept 480p and HDTV signals. If you select an HDTV monitor, look for a model with at least two wideband component-video inputs so you can connect both types of devices. Many of the newest RPTVs also have a special digital video input for connecting high-definition tuners. Unfortunately, the state of digital HDTV connections has been in such flux that two types of digital inputs can now be found on some new sets: DVI (Digital Visual Interface) and FireWire (a.k.a. DTV-Link, i.Link, or IEEE 1394). A digital connection doesn't necessarily mean an improvement in image quality, although it will ensure a noise-free signal that's at least as good as component video. And in the case of FireWire, it can also facilitate digital recording and communication between linked devices on a home network. One reason digital connections are appearing is because they give copyright holders (that is, Hollywood studios) the option to block the copying of high-definition material. Hollywood usually gets what it wants, so a TV with a digital input will be more adaptable to changing standards than one with only component-video jacks (an analog connection). All Wrapped Up While all these performance-related features are well and good, what fun is a high-end TV without some nifty conveniences? Almost every rear-projection set has picture-in-picture (PIP) modes that let you watch two sources at once, and many widescreen sets feature a split screen that puts two same-sized images next to one another. PIP is great for keeping tabs on two games at once or channel surfing, but bear in mind that each window requires a separate tuner. That shouldn't be an issue if you get your TV programming from an antenna and have both a standard and a DTV tuner, but PIP is much more limited with cable or satellite since cable boxes and satellite receivers generally have only one tuner. The remote control is an oft-overlooked but important piece of the puzzle. A good one will let you easily access all of the TV's features, while one that's poorly designed will leave you frustrated. Many TV remotes can control satellite and cable boxes, as well as other gear, and having a single remote that does everything is tremendously convenient. Look for a remote with illuminated or glow-in-the-dark keys and one that's not too big for all family members to handle easily. Most rear-projection sets have powerful sound systems, but let's face it: if you're buying a big-screen TV, you're probably going to use a separate suite of surround sound speakers mated with an A/V receiver or preamp/power amp. The audio performance of any TV would pale in comparison. Some big-screen sets can connect to the center-channel output of a receiver, using their built-in sound systems to take the place of a separate center speaker. For the best sound, however, stick with a center speaker that has the same tonal qualities as the other speakers in your system. Choosing a widescreen TV can be daunting, but the rewards are well worth it. Even in the tricky climate of today's transition from analog to digital, a well-equipped HDTV will provide all the features you'll need for years to come. The only antidote to disappointment this holiday season may be to put a big box at the center of your own private theater.