HDTV, Plasmas, and the ever elusive "SAF"

I’ve been wanting an HDTV for a long time now, but I was holding out until a combination of factors existed to make the purchase a little easier to justify with my wife:<ul><li>Availability of High-def content
</li><li>Prices down to a more acceptable level
</li><li>CableCard and HDMI standards to solidify</li></ul>

The CableCard and HDMI standards have been in place for a while, and prices are quite affordable now with decent sets starting at under $1000. However, content availability is only halfway there: you can now get a reasonable subset of cable and satellite programming in HD, as well as broadcast programming… but you still aren’t able to buy movies in HD. That’s too bad… it’s going to be a while before either HDDVD or Blu-Ray is available to solve that problem.

However, the only reason I cared that much about these limitations was because I needed to solve the biggest obstacle to HDTV ownership: the SAF (Spousal Acceptance Factor.) The bottom line, my wife won’t let me spend a few thousand dollars on a new toy unless I do a reasonable job justifying it.

When I started doing my research to pick a new HD set in earnest, it was obvious that the best quality and value was in the DLP rear projection space… in this market, you can spend $2000 or less, and get an extremely high quality set that displays full 1080i and/or 1080p video in the 40-60 inch size range. Were it not for the elusive SAF, this is what I would have purchased. However, I had to get my wife on board somehow. How’d I do it? I showed her GalleryPlayer, and bought a plasma screen we can hang on a wall like a painting.

Why GalleryPlayer? Because big TVs are ugly. Yes, even a geek like me can admit it– a giant TV in your living room tends to ruin the aesthetic. However, a razor-thin Plasma screen, hanging on a wall and displaying beautiful works of art… that’s another story.

The problem, if course, is that plasma screens have a couple of issues… <ul>
<li>Screen burn-in, while less of an issue than it used to be, still plagues these sets
</li><li>Generally, plasmas only display 720p, and not true 1080i or 1080p.
</li><li>Flat screens, including Plasmas, tend to be more expensive than DLP sets in the same size range</li></ul>
All of these are real issues– the screen burn in, in particular, was a concern of mine. However, there are steps that can be taken to mitigate this risk. This goes beyond the scope of a simple blog post– I’d recommend checking out some related threads on AVSForum on the subject. Bottom line, it’s way less of an issue than it used to be for normal use, and with care, a plasma screen can last 10 years without a problem.

720p is good stuff, but I’m in the camp that feels pretty strongly that if it doesn’t display 1080i or 1080p, it’s not a true HDTV. Finally, there’s an answer for plasma lovers.

The set I purchased was the Hitachi 42HDS52… it’s a 42” plasma that actually renders 1080p! Technically, it only has 1024 lines of vertical resolution, but rather than scaling 1080 lines down to 1024, it simply chops 28 lines off the top and bottom of the picture. Since you’re not running the signal through a scaler, there’s no quality loss. The result is fantastic– the picture from a 1080 line source looks absolutely beautiful. I’ve watched a few PBS specials, and some WMVHD content at 1080i, and it is so perfect it can’t be described. The difference between 720p and 1080i isn’t quite as dramatic as going from 480i to 720p, but it’s definitely noticeable. The picture is just crisper, the details more defined.

This thing has so many inputs it’s kind of ridiculous… the gang’s all here, from two (count em! Two!) HDMI inputs, a couple of component and SVideo inputs, and even a USB input for plugging in a digital camera. Good black level performance and excellent color reproduction (with none of the infamous green problems common to plasmas) made this a great choice for me. Oh, and of course there’s a CableCard slot.

Rachel and I are living in a temporary apartment while we wait for our new place to be ready, so we only have basic cable. (When we move, we’ll be getting Comcast’s HD service.) Unfortunately, this means that most of the TV content coming into our home is standard def, analog CATV. It looks awful. However, our local PBS station does some great HD programming in glorious 1080i, as does our NBC affiliate. Our ABC affiliate sends out a 720p signal, as do a couple of other stations. All of these come in great with a standard pair of good old fashioned rabbit ears.

I can’t wait until I move into the new place and get stations like the Discovery Channel, HBO, and ESPN… but for now, the broadcast stuff looks pretty damn good.

Particularly fun: switching between the analog and HD versions of the same content– even my wife had to admit it was a dramatic difference. :)