How to get started in HDTV…

With a final bit of effort over the last weekend, I got my HDTV system up and running, and I thought I’d spend some time talking about some of the questions that I had to answer along the way.

Should I get HDTV?

There are a few questions you should ask yourself:

  1. Do you own a big-ass TV? (Revised US Code 898.33.55(3)(c) : “a TV that would not only kill you if it fell on you, but have a good likelyhood of killing an entire average American family of 3.86 people”) (Note to entrepeneurs: is available, but with the uncertain future of, caution in that adoption of such domain names is advised).
  2. Would you like to own a big-ass TV?

If either of these are true, you’re a good candidate to get an HDTV-capable display. Contact your mortgage provider and/or landlord and see how they feel about you skipping a few payments to fund your display.

Is the show that I want broadcast in HDTV?


What is the difference between 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, 1080p, and 3000GT?

Those are different HDTV formats. When companies first started getting together to talk about HDTV, they all wanted support for different formats, and rather than decide on one, they agreed that the standard would encompass some 20-some different video formats, which have mostly shaken out into the ones I list.

The base format – at least in the US – is 480i, which is what Americans call “TV”. The 480 refers to the number of horizontal lines that make up the picture, and the “i” means interlaced, which is a “term of the art” that means that all odd lines are drawn, then all even lines. Interlacing is used because it’s cheaper, though there are many disadvantages.

The “p” in 480p means progressive, which means that it’s not interlaced – scan lines are drawn from top to bottom, one after the other.

And so on for the other formats. As the numbers get higher, the picture quality increases, as does the number of house payments you need to skip to afford it (in some cases, you may have to buy a more expensive house to be able to skip a sufficient amount of payments).

These days, you want a display that does at least 720p and 1080i.

The 3000GT is a 1990s vintage Grand Touring Sports Car from Mitsubishi.

What’s this 4 by 3 and 16 by 9 I keep hearing about?

These are aspect ratios. (I’m sorry if you thought it had something to do with Seven of Nine (I’m even sorrier that I wrote that))

Aspect ratios are determined by dividing the width of an image (be it picture or video) by the height of the video. Standard TV is 4:3 (1.3333 etc), and “wide screen” (which may or may not be HD) is 16:9 (1.77etc). The goal of having a 16:9 aspect ratio is so that movies can be appreciated as their director’s intended them to be appreciated, or some such rot.

A noble goal, and there are some movies filmed at 16:9. There are also some filmed at 5:3 (0.613 e), and a whole bunch filmed in widescreen, at 47:20 (0.748 pi), or even 8:3. And a whole bunch of aspect ratios in between. So, until we perfect the squeezable monitor, you won’t see exactly what the director intended, but a 16:9 screen gets you closer on most movies.

What does the “HDTV” entry in the program guide mean?

Little or nothing. It means that the broadcaster is promising that you’re getting HDTV, but since there is no mention of intraocular impalement, it’s hard to take them seriously.

The signal is pretty sure to be HD, but the source content might be shot in a variety of formats. Perhaps the producers spent the money to get the latest of Sony’s offerings. Or perhaps they had to economize a bit. It might be true 16:9 content, or it might be 4:3. Similarly with commercials – some will look great, some not so good.

What provider should I get?

There are three basic ways to get HDTV content. If you are lucky, one will work for you. If you are very lucky, more than one of these may work for you.

  1. OTA. For some reason, the industry needed to invent a new acronym meaning “Off The Air”. This is the kind of TV that most people had when they grew up – an antenna connected to some device, and no monthly subscriptions sapping away your lifeblood. HD broadcasts on the UHF band, which means that antennas tend to be small (good), but also that transmission is pretty much line-of-sight. In other words, topography is not your friend – if you are in a hilly region and you live on the wrong side of the hills, you may not have any luck. is a decent place to start *but* note that AFAIK, it doesn’t really take topography into consideration, so it may or may not be accurate. You may be able to find somebody local to do an antenna survey of your house and tell you what your options are.

    In my case, I’m on a slight hill sloping away from the transmitter, but I’m able to get nearly all my local channels with a big-ass antenna.

    Oh, one more comment on antennas – while amplifiers can help, they’re not really a cure all.

  2. Cable. Some cable systems have very nice offerings of HD content, though most systems have a mismash of delivery mechanisms – some channels are analog, some are digital, and some are HD. Their PVR offerings vary widely in usability, so talk to some people before you jump. Most people consider the quality of their PVR more important than having HD or not.

  3. Satellite. Both DirecTV and Dish have HD options. Neither provide local channels on HD, though DTV says that they will when they get some new satellites up *and* they update all the receivers to new hardware. “Don’t hold your breath” would seem to be a fair guess. There is some nice stuff here.

    With DirecTV, you have the option of the Most Excellent HDTivo, a Tivo PVR that records SD and HD from the satellite and HD from a OTA antenna. The disadvantage is that they’re about $600…

What hardware should I buy?

Well, that’s hard to answer. In my book, having a decent PVR (/DVR (/Tivo)) is about 10 times more important (more precisely, it’s 9.87663 times more important) than seeing things in HD, so I would only go with a HD solution that has a good PVR with it. There are HD-only receivers that either do SAT or OTA if you want to go that route.

If I get an antenna, how should I mount it?

You should mount the antenna is cheaply and easily as possible while still getting the signal you need. In my case, that meant an eave mount at one end of my house, but there are lots of other choices. It would be a good idea to read the ChannelMaster installation guide to get some more information.

[Update: Go read Todd’s comments – he added a lot of great information]

Comments (10)

  1. I just got a big-ass TV myself, and I’m going through this very same struggle with HDTV.

    1) I hate the Cox Cable DVR, but it’s the only way to get HDTV (1 whole channel) over cable, so I’m using it for the moment to record CBS HDTV. (Better than nothing)

    2) I’m keeping my Tivo for everything else that’s not HDTV, cause it’s a better interface, and actually records analog better than the Cox DVR. Hopefully, the HDTV/CableCARD Tivo they promised us will actually come through and I’ll be able to use CableCARD for what COX Delivers, and OTA for everything else.

    3) I’m also looking into antenna options for the other 5 local affiliates (all six major networks broadcast HDTV OTA, but only one is released to Cox Cable. Fortunately, it’s a flat landscape, and the towers are only 20 miles away, (only 2-3 degrees off of each other to the west) so that channel master should work (but I’ll have to mount in the attic) If the OTA stuff works, I’ll set up a PVR solution to record and broadcast back to the TV. <grin>

    4) Rather than contact the mortgage company to work out a deal, I sold my investment property outright. <grin> It’s a nice Samsung DLP 50 in. It won’t kill a small family cause it’s only 70-80 pounds, but it might take out an enthusiastic dog.

  2. Todd Ostermeier says:

    Funny post!

    I’ve been on the HD bandwagon since 2001, and love it. A couple of points, going from least technical to most technical:

    1) A couple years ago, the answer to, "Is the show I want broadcast in HDTV?" would’ve been "No!". Now, it’s more like, "Probably not, unless it’s on a premium channel like HBO or you live in an area with local channels in HDTV and you have a provider that carries them that way or you’re able to get them over the air." In other words, shows like 24, The O.C., or House (all on Fox) or Rome, Sopranos, or Deadwood (all on HBO) probably will be available to you in HD. Shows like Rescue Me or Nip/Tuck (on FX, the poor cable-only bastard of Fox) or Battlestar Gallactica (on Sci-Fi) probably won’t be (though the shows may be shot in a 480p 16×9 format and thus the DVDs will be worth it).

    2) You didn’t mention DVDs at all. While currently DVDs only play in EDTV (Enhanced Definition, or 480p 16×9), they still look extremely good on an HD set with a progressive scan DVD player (used to be you’d pay $500+ for one, now they give them away free if you buy a box of cereal).

    3) If you’re aiming for over-the-air HD signals, you need to be more picky in the big ass TV you buy. There are two buzz-words, "HDTV" and "HDTV-ready" (also seen as "HDTV-compatible"). The former means that the TV comes complete with an HD tuner in the box. The latter means the TV can handle all of those nice HD signals, but its built-in tuner can’t translate them (it’s a matter of MPEG2 decompression). If you buy an HDTV that doesn’t have a tuner, you’ll have to lay out another couple hundred for a set-top box that acts as an over-the-air HD tuner. On the other hand, there’s no reason to pay the extra money on a set with a built-in tuner if you’re only going to use cable or satellite sources.

    4) HDTVs and Big Ass TVs are not synonymous. You can have a big ass tv that’s not HD (for example, you bought a rear projection TV some time during the 90s), and you can buy tiny HDTVs (‘tiny’ in this case is ‘under 30" screens’).

    5) There are many different types of HDTVs. Do you want direct-view CRT? Rear projection CRT (henceforth known as RPTV)? LCD? Plasma? Rear projection DLP? Front projection CRT? Front projection DLP? Front projection LCD? They all have their pros and cons, and going through the different options would call for its own post.

    6) Don’t assume that the image quality of your set out of the box is the best it can do! After some wear-in time (say, 100 hours, or 6 months), you should have your TV professionally calibrated (costs around $300,, and you should consider getting it recalibrated ever couple of years thereafter. This is *especially* important with CRT-based models (direct view, rear projection, or front projection).

    7) Look for forward-compatibility. The TV should at least have several component (YPrPb) inputs that do HD (my 4-year old TV has three component inputs, but two are limited to 480p; the third can accept YPrPb or RGBHV and accepts up to 1080i signals), and ideally it will also have a DVI input (some have old-skool VGA inputs, too). You might consider a set with HDMI, as that seems to be the way of the future, but if I were buying now my minimum standard would be component and DVI inputs (at least two component and one DVI). Failing that, at least buy a TV that’s modular. Mitsubishi is the only company I know that does modular TVs, but I haven’t been in the market for four years so Mitsubishi may have changed their position or other companies may have jumped on the bandwagon. Do your research!

    8) Uh … there is no 8?

  3. BradC says:

    Some of the best HDTV antennas are available at

    A home-grown business by a guy who wasn’t satisfied with HDTV antenna reception, so he made his own, and they work better than most everything else out there.

  4. FYI: HDTiVo can now be had for $199 – $299. Head over for for details.

  5. Raj Kaimal says:

    The problem with HD these days is that it is compressed so much that what you see is not really HD. See article below.

    HDTV buyers get fuzzy deal, Cuban says