Stuff I LikeNovember 18, 2010

Playing Catch-Up On HDTV

The Masters

was first shown on TV in 1956. The Sunday broadcast was an hour, and there were cameras on just the final four holes. But 10 million people watched, and CBS reported later that the network had been "flooded" with letters from fans, who were struck by "the unbelievable beauty of the course."

Given what television looked like in that era -- bulging mini-screens covered with gray snow -- this reaction defies comprehension. I've watched kinescopes of early Masters broadcasts, and I can only conclude that those viewers, if they weren't delusional or lying, had remarkable imaginations.

Luckily for couch potatoes, TV-watching no longer requires any imagination at all. Three years ago, Hacker (real name) and I spent a golf-less winter afternoon playing setback at Ray's house. Ray had put the card table in front of his new 52-inch flat-screen high-definition TV, which he tuned to a golf tournament, and the picture was so stunning that it turned me into a pigeon: I couldn't keep my eyes on my cards. I decided that, as soon as we'd finished playing, I'd race to Circuit City and buy the biggest HDTV in the store.

I ended up not doing that. The main reason was probably the world's oldest, in terms of explaining human behavior: lazy cheapness. Last month, however, I finally got tired of the derision of my children and bought a modern 40-incher. Before ordering, I did some online research, then used my version of comparison shopping, which is to call my friend Rex. Rex is obsessive-compulsive about technology -- he uses an Excel spreadsheet to track the longevity of individual lightbulbs -- so you can usually save time and trouble by just buying whatever he did. I also talked to several people who work in television.

What I learned is that, when it comes to high-definition TVs, you have a choice of picture technologies -- mainly, plasma or LCD -- but that the choice, for most people, no longer matters much. In the early years, the two types had significant competing advantages and disadvantages, but those have narrowed, and now it's much harder to go wrong, even if you don't know what you're doing. Plasma sets tend to be heavier and more energy-hungry, and to have more reflective screens; LCDs -- the most up-to-date versions of which are now usually called LEDs, for reasons too boring to go into -- can get funky when showing fast motion. The only way to learn whether you care is to go to a store like Best Buy and wander around, ideally in the company of the youngest salesperson on the premises. A techie at a major cable company told me not to sweat the decision, and said that his main TV was just a house-brand LCD from a big-box electronics store.

In the end, I bought a slightly outdated name-brand LCD, on Amazon, for $809, including delivery. (Buying last year's model can save money, with little or no sacrifice of quality.) When the cable guy came to hook up my HD digital video recorder and receiver, I flipped immediately to the HD version of the Golf Channel and was blown away. In HD, you can actually tell the difference between a practice swing and a real swing, because you can see the ball.

I then flipped to the non-HD Golf Channel and was blown away in the other direction: The picture was fuzzy and distorted and was much worse than the one on our old Trinitron. That's a common complaint about HDTV, and the cable guy gave me a dumbed-down explanation: HD images are wider than old-fashioned images (they have a different "aspect ratio"), and when you tune in a non-HD program your system might stretch the picture horizontally to make it fill the screen, thereby fuzzing up the resolution and making Mike Weir look like Darren Clarke. The cable guy set the system to show non-HD programs unstretched, making them look much better -- although I haven't watched a non-HD channel since. Meanwhile, it was a month before I could walk past the new set without turning it on for a minute or two, just to have another look.

Next month: Should I have gone 3-D?