What is HDTV?

HDTV is the new buzzword in the electronics industry—it’s on every new TV set, camcorder, and DVD player on the shelves. But what is it exactly, and why is it all the rage? This guide answers some of the most common HDTV questions for you.

Shopping for a TV in this age can be daunting, what with all the specs and jargon plastered on every model. But one buzzword you’ve probably heard the most is HDTV, or high-definition television. Practically every new TV in the market is HDTV, and if you’re buying your first TV set in a long time, chances are it’s what you’ll be looking for.

But what exactly is HDTV, and what makes it so revolutionary? A lot of HDTV owners don’t even know what it stands for. If you’re thinking of buying your first HDTV, knowing the basics can help a lot in your selection. Read on for answers to some of the most common questions about HDTV technology.

What’s so different about it?

The main advantage of HDTV, in the simplest terms, is improved picture and sound quality. Perhaps the first thing you’ll notice is that widescreen formats don’t have those trademark black bars at the top and bottom, so that the picture fills the entire screen. You also get to enjoy CD quality audio, or hook it up to a 5.1 speaker system for even better surround sound. The introduction of HDTV fueled the concept of a home theater, and the HDTV format remains the central element of home theater systems.

How does it work?

To see how HDTV works, we need to understand the difference between previous TV technologies. Older TV systems involved receiving analog signals, which are made of radio waves, and translating them into understandable picture and sound. The conversion happens inside the TV. Cathode ray tube (CRT) TV sets can only display 480 lines of pixels, and for decades, broadcasting companies have sent TV signals to fit this standard.

Digital TV, on the other hand, sends signals made of ones and zeroes, representing a series of on and off switches. This allows it to work with new imaging technologies, particularly digital video. In the standard of image formats set by the ATSC, the lowest quality digital picture is about as good as the highest quality possible with analog.

HDTV is a broadcasting system developed to these standards. It is not, as most people believe, a new high-resolution TV set—although you do need one to view it. Many networks have already begun broadcasting in HDTV.

What do I need to watch HDTV?

The first thing you need is HDTV service, either via broadcast, cable, or satellite. Before buying an HDTV-capable TV, make sure there’s HDTV service in your area; that is, your local networks are broadcasting in HDTV. If all you’ll be getting are analog signals, you’ll be wasting your money.

Next, you need a way to receive and convert HDTV signals. This depends on how your network sends them. If the signals are sent over the air but not through cables or satellites, you’ll need an antenna to receive them. Whether you need an indoor or outdoor receiver depends on your location relative to the network, so ask your provider for recommendations.

Finally, you need a TV set that’s either integrated with HDTV or HDTV-convertible. The latter requires a set-top box to convert the signals, which your HDTV service usually provides. Ask them if you can use a generic converter—they usually cost less and are easier to program.

What can I watch on HDTV?

The United States is currently switching to digital TV; they expect to complete the transition in 2009. The shows you can watch depend on which of your local networks broadcast in HDTV. On a national level, ABC, CBS, NBC, and most major networks have already started offering HDTV programs.

While there’s no shortage of programs viewable in HDTV, access can sometimes be a problem. A network may broadcast a full range of programs over the air, but your cable or satellite provider may not pass all of them on to you. Some companies offer selected channels as “premium” options, which means you’ll have to pay more to see them.

To get the most out of your HDTV, consider getting an up-scanning DVD player or a Blu-Ray disc player. An up-scanning player can improve DVD resolution to match that of HDTV, so you can watch all your favorite movies at much better quality.