Some HDTVs lack a tuner for high-definition signals

September 01, 2005|By Mike Himowitz

IF YOU'VE SHOPPED for HDTV, you already know that the consumer electronics industry has never invented a more confusing technology for the average buyer.

I spent a couple of months researching the set we recently bought, and even then I wasn't sure I'd made the right decision (OK - I love it).

But I've never let ignorance get in the way of a good column, so here's the second installment of the lessons I learned in the process:

First, it's a good idea to know where High Definition Television comes from. As a TV watcher, you'll find two basic sources. The first is over-the-air broadcasts by local TV stations, who are currently providing both old and new signals (that will probably end in 2009, when the digital switchover will be complete).

These HDTV signals are free, just like the TV signals we've received since the 1940s. But standard TVs can't receive them. To get HDTV, or even new digital broadcasts that aren't in high-definition, you'll need a TV that can display HD images, and a tuner that can receive digital HD signals.

This is important when you're shopping, because most so-called HDTV sets can't tune in over-the-air HD broadcasts. No, that's not a typo. In fact, you'll have to look carefully to find an HDTV set that can receive them. And here's the kicker - almost all TVs branded as HD will tune in standard, over-the-air stations just fine.

This sounds totally bizarre unless you're a TV maker and you want to knock a couple of hundred bucks off the price off an already expensive set - by eliminating the HD tuner. Manufacturers have gotten away with this for years because 80 percent of American households don't use the airwaves as their primary source of TV. They get their broadcasts mainly from cable companies, with a small but growing percentage using satellite TV providers.

As a result, you'll find that most high-definition sets are labeled as HD "monitors," or as "HD-cable-ready." That means they can display an HDTV picture, but only if somebody else provides the tuner. That provider is you, if you decide to buy a separate tuner, or more likely your cable or satellite provider.

If you already have cable TV, but get it straight from the wall instead of through a digital, set-top box, you can't get HD signals until you strike a deal with the cable company. Even if you have a so-called "digital" cable or satellite box, you'll need a new one equipped for HD.

This will probably cost you more than you're paying now. Although it may vary slightly by jurisdiction, here's what Comcast charges in Baltimore County:

If you already have digital service at any level, an HD box costs an additional $5 a month, which gets you HD signals from local stations, plus a variety of cable-only HD channels.

If you have standard analog cable service ($52 a month), a box that will receive local HD channels adds $5, but the company says most customers choose a $68 digital package that includes the HD tuner and extra channels.

Now, let's say you don't have cable or satellite TV - and don't want either. To receive HD signals over the air, make sure you buy a device that's labeled as a High Definition Television Set (HDTV). Even if the store calls it HDTV, make sure it has a built-in tuner. Ask specifically. If the salesman says, "I think so," that isn't good enough.

When I checked out Best Buy's weekly ad, I found that of 18 high-definition sets, only seven had HD tuners, and most of those were large, expensive models (42 inches and up) in the $2,500 to $5,000 range. Smaller HD sets rarely had tuners. Actually, we owe this state of affairs to our good friends at the Federal Communications Commission, who ordered television makers to include tuners in bigger models sooner than in smaller models.

If you want to receive over-the-air HD broadcasts and you're in love with a set without a tuner, you'll have to buy one separately for $200 to $400.

Either way, you'll also need an antenna to get HDTV signals over the air. Most antennas that receive existing UHF signals will do the job - decent indoor models are available for $30 or less, with amplified models starting at $75 or so.

Just remember that an antenna either works or it doesn't - unlike standard TV signals, HDTV doesn't degrade with distance or obstruction. It either delivers or you get zip.

Now for the major types of HDTVs available.

Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) or Direct View. These use the same basic technology - cathode ray tubes - as standard TVs. HD models are just a lot better. CRTs still produce the blackest blacks and most accurate color, and they're likely to deliver it longer, and with fewer repairs, than other types of sets.

The CRT's main drawbacks are bulk and weight, which limit the practical size of a CRT screen to 40 inches. Even at that size, a CRT set will be about 2 feet deep and weigh 180 pounds. But if you have the room for one and don't need a wider screen, CRTs still provide the best bang for the buck.

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