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Widescreen vs. High Definition TV? Is There a Difference?

By Jim Bray

Is that bargain priced flat panel TV on sale in your local electronics store a good idea for consumers looking for a new TV to keep for the long haul?

It may be, depending on what you want to do with it, and if nothing else they're quite affordable. But while falling prices and increasing capabilities are nothing new in the world of consumer electronics, it’s incredible how quickly flat panel TV prices have dropped from the days when a simple 42-inch plasma would cost the price of a small car. Now you can get a flat panel of reasonable quality for the price of an "old fashioned" CRT television only a few years ago.

But while you may be justifiably attracted to one of these cheap flat panels, either in plasma or LCD versions, you should know before you hit the store that these entry level panels may not be the best buy (no endorsement of any particular retailer intended) if you’re looking for a state-of-the-art replacement for that dinosaur in your living room.

Why? Many of these entry level panels don’t offer the capacity to display high definition television, so if you’re planning to adopt HDTV you’ll be out of luck with one of these panels. And since HD is the next wave of television, it makes sense to seriously consider investing your after-tax disposable income with that future in mind.

These low priced panels are generally what’s referred to as “EDTV” (enhanced definition television) – and isn’t it wonderful to learn another acronym? And as nice as EDTV can be, it is most definitely not HD.

Think of EDTV as an enhanced, possibly widescreen version of SDTV – the television you’ve been watching all your life. That old SD (standard definition) television displays a resolution of 480 pixels from the top of the screen to the bottom, interlaced so that only half of them (odd or even pixels) are shown at one time.

This interlacing is why you can see black lines flickering across your TV screen if you look closely.

EDTV’s allow for the picture to be scanned progressively, which means the TV paints the whole picture at one time instead of just displaying half: so there's no interlacing, which results in a cleaner and clearer picture. EDTV's still accept the old 480i signals (as will all of the HDTV’s I’ve seen), but they offer you the advantage of watching your DVD’s progressively scanned, which gives you a richer, more film-like picture.

And of course you can also get the benefit of widescreen, which is the best way by far to watch widescreen DVD’s (once you try it you’ll wonder how you ever watched DVD’s the old way!).

But it still isn’t high definition. HDTV today means your picture uses either 720 or 1080 pixels from top to bottom, compared with 480, and HDTV also uses the 16x9 widescreen aspect ratio. HDTV can be interlaced or not, but the higher pixel count helps ensure you can’t see those flickering black lines anymore unless you have some kind of Super vision. My wife thinks I should have adult supervision, but that’s another matter entirely.

HDTV is wonderful, when there’s anything being broadcast in HDTV (and assuming a particular program is worth watching anyway, which may have more to do with the writing than the resolution). Fortunately, more stuff is being shown in HDTV all the time, and if that isn't enough for you the next generation of DVD’s will also be in high definition and that should look really spectacular.

So there’s powerful incentive to go HD when you replace your TV, especially if you’re buying a new primary TV you expect to enjoy for many years to come. But that doesn't mean the EDTV panel has no place.

EDTV panels are perfectly adequate, in fact they can be excellent, for watching today’s DVD’s. Current DVD players output in either 480i or 480p  (SDTV or EDTV), so if you need a new screen but can’t afford the trip up market to HD – or if you want to wait until there’s more HD programming available – you can still get an excellent picture for a comparative song by buying a widescreen EDTV panel. It could be a good stopgap measure until there's enough HD programming to satisfy you, by which time HDTV's will be better and cheaper anyway.

And if you're thinking of buying ED now and moving up to HD later, that ED panel you buy today can be moved to another room later (the bedroom, perhaps?) where it can provide even more years of service.

EDTV panels are also perfect for applications such as commercial installations that run ads in stores or bars, or in airports where they want to display flight information. In such installations, HDTV may actually be a waste of money.

And even though EDTV's 480 pixels may not sound that great when compared with HDTV, believe it or not your eyes will see more difference between SDTV and EDTV than they will between EDTV and HDTV.

So it’s perfectly feasible to buy an EDTV panel now, as long as you remember that you'll probably want to upgrade it in a few years. If you can live with that, go for it! It'll be a few years yet before most television programming is broadcast in HD, and probably longer than that before high definition DVD's catch on and the players get cheap enough to become mainstream.

One thing you should consider regardless of whether you buy ED or HD is the set's connectivity. A TV today should offer a cable and/or antenna hookup for TV (including HDTV, if you get your TV signals over the air or via conventional cable), as well as higher end video connections such as component, DVI and HDMI.

Perhaps you should look for a PC input too, if that's important to you. Remember, though, that a resolution of 480 pixels is really lousy for a computer today – and even a pixel count of 768, which is in high definition territory, is only midrange performance for a computer monitor.

HDMI is the connector of the future and blends both audio and video signals into a single connector, while also giving Hollywood control over the digital signal to prevent you from making perfect digital copies.  DVI is basically the same thing without the audio capability. Both are digital connectors that, at least theoretically, will give you the best signal quality potential possible.

Whatever you go for, make sure your signal source (cable, satellite, set top tuner, DVD player…) has such an output. For example, if your current DVD player only has component video outputs (three cables, one for each primary color), make sure your flat panel has component inputs. Most panels do, so this shouldn't be difficult.

The bottom line is to make an intelligent buying decision that works for your lifestyle and budget. If you want HDTV now, it'll cost you. If you want something to make your DVD's look great now, you can save some money by ignoring HDTV for a few more years.

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

We welcome your comments!