Saturday, January 31, 2009

Getting Your New HDTV Super Bowl Ready

From time to time I get emails from various companies, some of which ask me to help me promote a website or something because I do a TV blog. I have a whole thing about what I will and won't promote in this blog but this isn't the place to go into this. Recently I got a message from, which describes itself as "a product review search engine focused solely on electronics." They also have a blog and recently did a post called Seven Super Bowl HDTV Mistakes You Can Avoid and because of my recent rant about the 3-D glasses for the Super Bowl commercials and Chuck, they alerted me to the post.

It is an interesting fact that the biggest buying time for new HDTVs is in the run-up to the Super Bowl, and that's not just true in the United States but in Canada as well. By now I think we all know, or know where to find, information on the technical aspects of TVs and hopefully know what qualities we want/need in a new TV, but this post has more to do with setting up and accessorizing your purchase once you get it home to maximize the enjoyment for the big game. There are a few things I think they missed but on the whole it's a good article. What I want to do is to relate some personal anecdotes and comments to what the writer of the post, Andrew Eisner, has chosen to discuss.

1. Offsides: Andrew Eisner writes: Viewing angle is an important consideration. When the gang comes over for the Super Bowl party you want everyone to get the best picture even from the sidelines. Rear projection TVs can offer some great values for the screen sizes but you're going to sacrifice viewing angle. LCD TVs used to get a bad rap for viewing angle but that along with Plasma burn-in problems is a thing of the past (along with these other HDTV myths). Both Plasma and newer LCD TVs offer wide viewing angles that should meet most demands.

My comment: Many, many, many, years ago I took a university class on educational media; producing things like posters, a slide show, and overhead projector materials for particular elements of a curriculum, and using audio-video equipment in an educational context. Our prof spent a fair amount of time discussing screens for movies and other media. He offered a rule of thumb that I have always applied in picking seats in a movie theatre: the best place to sit between two to six screen heights away from the screen and as close to the center of the width of the screen as possible. Various types of screens had varying reflectivity (brightness) but in many cases that had an impact on the maximum angle from perpendicular that the viewer could sit without there being a problem viewing the screen. While viewing angle on TV screens is not as important on modern TVs there is still a maximum angle on any type of TV – CRT, Plasma, LCD, Projection, and Rear Projection – where the image is not seen at its best. (One reason why I don't have an LCD monitor is because the whites on the LCD monitor of my brother's computer looked muddy unless you were looking practically perpendicular to the screen.

Oh, and my prof? He hated rear projection even for movie screens. Viewing angles for them was depressingly bad and they were very light sensitive.

2. Illegal Motion: Eisner: Fast action can be challenging for flat panel TVs. On LCD TVs, "shutters" have to open and close, on Rear Projection DLP-based TVs tiny mirrors have to move back and forth, and on Plasma TVs phosphor needs to be turned on and off. If TVs can't react fast enough the result is a blurred image. Features to look for include fast pixel response time (6ms. or less), 120Hz refresh, and other special motion compensation features like Motionflow from Sony. Plasma TVs have traditionally had the edge when it came to handling fast moving images but the new generation of LCD TVs are gaining fast.

My comment: I'm not sure that I've seen this on my Plasma TV, but I've seen something similar mainly when something fast moves laterally across the screen. In my case it was a bit of pixilation and I'm not sure whether the fault was with the TV or with the signal received from the cable company (in forum pages I've seen a number of complaints about picture quality from my cable company). Fortunately it doesn't happen that often, but it is something that you need to think about before you buy your TV because once you have it this is something the owner can't change.

3. Pass Interference: Eisner: HDTV often requires a higher grade cable than you might have installed in your house or apartment. If your old cable is labeled RG-59 and your picture often breaks up into little blocks or you don't get some channels at all, you may need to upgrade the cable to RG-6 which provides better shielding and can help with the higher frequency channels.

My comment: This is one where I have had more than a little experience. My home got cable back in the late 1970s; in fact Shaw Cable wasn't even the provider, it was a local company called Saskatoon Telecable. After the digital cable specialty channels became available in Canada in 2001 I bought my digital box. Initially my channels were fine but over time, in the summer, reception for a lot of channels deteriorated to the point where they'd break up or just not be there. The thing was that it was only happening in the summer so it wasn't that big a worry. Eventually (after several summers without BBC Canada et al) I called Shaw because things had become so bad. They did not replace the older cable in the house. Instead the service rep installed a trop amplifier at the point where the cable entered the house. This strengthened the signal coming to the two TVs in the house. Remember too that installing splitters to service more than one device weakens the signal to each of them.

4. Unnecessary Roughness: Eisner: It shouldn't be that complicated to run all your home entertainment gear. A good investment to make your home theater easier to use is a good universal remote. Logitech's Harmony remotes are the most popular. They aren't cheap but are super easy to program and very friendly to use. If you got $200 to spend on a remote go with the Harmony One. Otherwise you can buy the Harmony 880 for around $120 or you can get the Harmony 550 which will cost you around $70.

My comment: Eisner recommends the Harmony remotes by Logitech, and they are extremely good devices that are easy to program and intuitive to use. They can be set up so that a single button will allow you to activate every device needed to do what you want to do. Want to watch a DVD? Push a button that coincides with the task "Watch DVD" and it will turn on the DVD player, TV and home theatre gear all at once. That said you don't absolutely need something that high tech. The remote that came with my digital cable box allows me to turn on the TV and the cable box or the TV on its own. And of course there are other manufacturers who make remotes that can control multiple devices. The big differences between what they offer and what Harmony offers are the ease of programming the Harmony and the one touch activation. If only they weren't so darned expensive.

5. Delay of Game: Eisner: It can become a real drag to have to unplug the DVD player before you can play high def Madden NFL 09 on the XB360 or PS3. If your set doesn't have enough input ports you may end up having to unplug and plug in cables in order to get the game console or DVD player to work. Most new HDTV gear including DVD players, and set top boxes come with HDMI ports. Component ports offer as good a picture for most applications. Look for at least 3 HDMI ports, a component port for starters. A composite port and s-video are usually a given....If your set is HDMI port deficient you can always pick up an HDMI switch box with a remote control for switching ports.

My comment: I'm not a big platform gamer so this isn't a huge thing for me. What I do know however is that the more inputs you have the better. My brother's old TV had two inputs, and switching between switching between inputs involved crawling behind the TV and physically connecting and disconnecting wires. It was a real pain.

By the way, when discussing HDMI cables try not to be tempted by the high price name brand cables if you don't have special needs. You can get usually generic HDMI cables from places like local computer stores – I got mine from a store called OTV Computers for a couple of bucks over $10 for a 6' long cable. By comparison Future Shop here in Canada sells a 4' Rockfish cable for $54.99 – in other words about four times as much as I paid. Even a "cheap" 6' Dynex cable at Future Shop is $30. Don't be locked in to buying from big box stores.

6. Roughing the kicker: Eisner: It's a well known fact that good audio can make the picture look better. Most high definition broadcasts include 5.1 channel surround sound. Don't splurge on a TV and scrimp on the sound system. For a few hundred dollars more you can get a very good quality speaker set including a subwoofer that will help you experience the roar of the crowd or enjoy the half time extravaganza. Home Theater Systems can include a DVD player and receiver for under $500.

My comment: This is one area where I really feel like my TV is deficient. Even though the TV room is small and could easily be overwhelmed by a home theatre system I'm becoming increasingly convinced that it's something I need to explore. The thing that I've noticed initially was a tinny quality in the sound from the big screen TV that I don't really find in my older CRT. It seems as though the modern flat screen TVs were made to be used in conjunction with a home theatre system.

7. Too Many Men on the Field: Eisner: Don't forget, all you male sports fans out there, that women want to watch HDTV too. Selecting a set with the best features and image quality is important but the Wife Acceptance Factor or WAF (a term coined by LCD TV expert, Bruce Berkoff who also just published a guide to HDTV) can be raised with a good looking set like the Samsung LNA650T or quality installation. Flat panels mounted on the wall can be less disruptive to the living room design while large Rear Projection TVs and Front projection TVs might be better off in the playroom.

My comment: This isn't exactly the point that I would have given as my final point. I would probably have mentioned the need to get the picture properly adjusted in terms of colour, tint, brightness and contrast ahead of the "Wife Acceptance Factor." Buy, borrow, or rent a copy of Digital Video Essentials to help get the set calibrated just so. It's not as hard as it used to be. Most TVs come with a home mode and a store mode, the store mode being brighter and more contrasty than the home mode. On my TV the home mode was perfectly adjusted as it came out of the box but yours might need some work. You don't want to see the Cards go up against the Steelers on a blue field after all.

Of course appearance does count for a lot and if that has to be relegated to "Wife Acceptance Factor" so be it. Your own tastes may vary as will the requirements for your TV, although I agree totally that the front and rear projections TVs should very likely be exiled to purpose built home theatre room. The size of the room should be a consideration in your TV purchase. Though most men won't acknowledge the fact it is possible for a TV to be too big (heresy I know but it's a fact). And while that wall mount might be less disruptive to the room, it may not be the best way to go if you want the TV up and running by tomorrow. You might even have to paint the room; studies have shown that the colour of the walls surrounding your TV can have an effect on how you perceive the colour and the brightness of the image on the screen.

And have you ever noticed that those TVs in the commercials that are mounted on the wall but seem to have absolutely no cords or cables attached to them? It's not going to look like that unless you're really willing to do some major construction. Otherwise your TV is going to have a cord to the electrical outlet, and a cable from the source of your signal, whether it's a cable or satellite box, the cable outlet or an antenna (indoors or outdoors), other cables to the DVD player and the game console, and of course cables everywhere to connect up the home theatre system. That's a lot of wire, and don't think I really need to mention that these cables aren't that attractive against a shining white wall.

Having an HDTV is a great way to watch the big game but it's not always as simple as it used to be, when you could just buy a new TV set it up and turn it on. It can be, if you live in a place that has broadcast HDTV signals available and you play your games on a computer and not with a console and you don't care about the sound, so you only need the remote that came out of the box. For the rest of us though it can get complicated. But fun; always fun.

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