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Vivid picture promises to make hit of HDTV


High Definition Television has a rocky path ahead of it before becoming a permanent fixture in the American living room, but you've got to give it some credit. It simply looks spectacular.

Legislators, broadcasters, and budget-conscious consumers occasionally are blocking the road to HDTV's success, and many of them have legitimate concerns. Many television stations, for instance, feel the time isn't right for broadcast of HDTV signals because only a tiny percentage of American families have plopped down $3,000 or more for an HDTV system.

But my curiosity about HDTV, and just what kind of change it would bring to my television-viewing habits, led me to try one for a few months. And it takes about that long to get completely familiar with an HDTV, which in many ways is a different animal altogether than the regular television box Americans have been watching for more than 50 years.

The set I tried is the RCA F38310, which, with a 38-inch wide-panel screen, is on the small side for today's HDTV market, which typically focuses on mega-sized TVs with screens of 50 inches and up. Generally speaking, the bigger the screen, the bigger the price markup.

While the RCA F38310 isn't cheap at about $2,500, it's at least in the ballpark of what Americans have shown they will be willing to spend on a family room entertainment system these days. I liked its smaller size, because it doesn't overwhelm a room.

Before I go into how the TV performed, let's go over a little background. High definition television has been around for more than 10 years, although it's only been in the last few that its price has dropped into the comfort level for consumers. With screen resolutions of 1,280 by 1,080 pixels, an HDTV has the capability of producing a picture with the same clarity that a camera creates with 35mm film.

But despite the vastly improved picture, HDTV hasn't taken off as television manufacturers and government officials had hoped. Market studies show that more than 96 percent of color televisions bought this year were standard picture televisions - known as analog televisions.

While HDTV manufacturers proclaim increasing popularity - HDTV sales were up 263 percent this year compared with last year - the reality is that the super-high-definition TVs occupy a tiny part (4 percent) of the television market.

Why? Because Americans like their analog televisions. They're much cheaper, and they're built for the TV transmission signals that are commonly in use. And that's hard to argue with.

I have no doubt that eventually HDTV will turn the tide, but it'll take at least another five years before we see the numbers start to shift in HDTV's favor. In the meantime, an HDTV set represents an increasingly affordable luxury, sort of like a Cadillac. You don't need those extra features in your car, but if you can afford them, they're great to have. If everybody was practical, we'd all be driving Toyota Corollas.

Simple to set up

Hooking up an HDTV was relatively easy. If you're a cable subscriber, your cable box can plug into the back with a standard coaxial line, or with standard audio-video cables (S-video is optional). Satellite dish owners have the same set-up, although one nice feature of the RCA F38310 is that it comes with its own satellite tuner built in, so you don't need a separate satellite box.

Another nice surprise during the hookup was the absence of the need for a high-definition converter box, which the F38310 also has built in. Such boxes, costing up to $700, have been needed in the past for enabling a true high-definition signal on your HDTV.

The first thing I noticed after turning on the set was the presence of the infamous "black bar" syndrome. The picture was centered in between roughly six-inch bars on the right and the left of the screen. I recognized this right away as a form of letterboxing.

To understand letterboxing, some explanation is needed about aspect ratios of televisions. The standard television set found in most of America's 99 million viewing households has an aspect ratio of 4:3, meaning the screen is 1.33 times as wide as it is high. It's the basic square TV shape we all grew up with.

Most films, however, were designed for the more-rectangular screens of a movie theater, with an aspect ratio of 16:9 - essentially, a wider format. Thus, when you watch a wider formatted picture on a square TV, it will preserve the original image by putting black bars above and below the picture.

Well, here I was, trying out a widescreen television with a 16:9 aspect ratio, and I was seeing the bars again (I really don't like them - for me, it's an aesthetic distraction). The reason I was seeing them is that most broadcast stations are sending out a 4:3 image -and therefore a smaller picture than can fill the 16:9 screen.

But I didn't fret too much, because a handy button on the RCA remote can eliminate the bars with the touch of your thumb. By stretching out the screen in a couple of different ways, you'll never have to look at the bars again. Of course, there are movie purists out there who will say that I'm a cultural heathen for wanting to alter the true aspect ratio, but hey, that's my choice.

Great pictures, if available

As for the high-definition picture, there's no doubt that it's superb. Like a lot of people, my exposure to HDTV before I had one in my house was seeing it in Sears or Best Buy showrooms. Amid the dozens of sets crammed into those places, and taking into account that salesmen there aren't always the most adept at getting the hook-ups right, the true quality of an HDTV picture never really sank in. It's different when you see it in your living room.

Sometimes I could almost swear that I was looking at people through a piece of glass instead of watching them on TV. At times it creates an eerie feeling.

Now the bad news - high definition (HD) channels are hard to find. DirecTV, for instance, has just one continuous high definition channel (HBO). The service may add up to seven more HD channels by early next year, however.

Interestingly, the bulk of high-definition broadcasting is available from regular television stations. WMAR, WJZ, and WBAL all have digital signals you can pull in with a rabbit-ears antenna, and increasingly I found prime-time programming in high definition. Today's most advanced television signal can be readily received on a $30 over-the-air antenna.

As time wears on, the number of HD shows will increase. Executives at CBS and ABC recently announced that all their scripted prime-time shows for the fall schedule will be in high definition.

There's no doubt that HDTV is a stunning technology that has a lot to offer. It'll be interesting to see how long it takes before its problems are ironed out and the nation lets it take over our video culture.

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