Reader Question: Digital TV Conversion Rebates

Q: I cannot find any specific information regarding the government rebates on the purchase of HDTV converter boxes. I read an article that mentioned a $50 rebate would be provided “by the government.” However, there is no mention of a) who in the government b) who is eligible and c) how does one apply? I have recently purchased two HDTV sets and thus I am interested in finding out if I can get a rebate. Can you shed some light on this issue?
Ron P.

A: A lot of people are confused by all this. The rebate — which will be $40 — only applies to converter boxes that you’ll be able to purchase next year to process a digital broadcast signal so that it can be viewed on an existing analog television set (most likely a picture tube set).

Your new TVs are not eligible for any government rebate. The rebate is intended to help the small part of the population who only get their TV over the air (not cable or satellite) and can not or do not choose to replace their television with a new model that includes a digital tuner. The converter boxes will not transform the old TV into an HDTV; it will still be standard resolution, but it will be able to receive digital over-the-air broadcasts.

For more information on the rebate coupon program, check out this site: Information on how and where to apply will not be published until after January 1, 2008, but you will be able to find the information there when it’s available. And if you do qualify for a rebate on a converter box, my advice is to wait until the end of 2008 to buy one. By then, competition will likley drive the price down to below $50, so you will practically get the converter for free. [Added 2/22/08: You don’t need to wait! See to see why.]

[Modified 1:30 PM: thanks to Aldo Cugnini for pointing out that the coupons are only good for 90 days. So I’ve ammended my advice to simply wait until the end of 2008 to get your coupon and make your purchase.]

Updated information 11/17/08: See for a link to a video that will help you set up your converter box!

Reader Question: Are Shiny Screens Good?

Q: Can you tell me anything about the Samsung LN-T5271F LCD TV? It has a “shiny” screen. Is that a good feature?
Ralph Proodian

A: That’s a great question, Ralph. The specification sheet for the LN-T5271F describes it as having a “Super Clear Panel”. According to Samsung materials, this is designed to deliver “higher picture clarity and lower reflection”.

This is a feature that has been popular in notebook and computer monitor LCD screens for a few years. The typical LCD panel has a top diffuser layer. This serves to redirect some of the light from the panel in different directions, which can aid viewing angle performance. This also has the benefit of scattering ambient light from your room so that you don’t get harsh reflections on the screen. The downside of this is that light from brighter parts of an image and reflected ambient light appear in in other parts of the screen. This can cause the black level to increase, appearing more gray than black.

The “clear coat” screens use a much less powerful diffusing layer, and relies more on the LCD cell structure for viewing angle performance. On the downside, you may see more reflections in the screen, especially if you have a bright point source of light behind you such as a lightbulb or sunny window. On the plus side, however, the blacks will look deeper and darker. This is one of the keys to great color, as a low black level increases contrast, which in turn makes colors appear to “pop” from the screen.

The bottom line here is that if you can control the room lighting, these “clear coat” LCD panels will probably look better than a traditional panel design.

Reader Comment: HDTV Size Too Big

A reader who purchased a copy of “Professor Poor’s Guide to Buying HDTV” sent the following comment yesterday:

Your “calculation” of distance from the TV produces impractical results. At 1080p, your calculations indicate for a 42 inch TV you have to sit 5 feet from the screen. It makes no sense!

A lot of people have that reaction, but the fact is that an HDTV needs to be much larger than you might think, especially when compared with a standard resolution television. The real reason that the screen needs to be large is so that you can see the extra detail in the picture. If you don’t need to see the detail, you can save a lot of money by purchasing a lower-resolution panel; from a distance, the image will look the same.

Here’s the proof. Get a standard mechanical pencil with 0.7 mm lead. Get a piece of white paper, and using a magnifying glass, make a dot about the size of the pencil lead diameter. Now make a second dot the same size, spaced about one dot’s width apart. Now, move away from the paper until you can no longer see the two dots as separate items. For me, that’s about six feet.

The pixel pitch for a 42” 1080p LCD is smaller than the pencil lead: less than 0.5 mm. And to really test your ability to “resolve” the dots, you should place two dots adjacent to each other, without the white space between, and move to the distance where you can’t tell if it’s one or two dots. So my test above is a generous approximation of your experience with a 1080p display.

I’m certain that one reason we’re seeing increased sales of larger HDTVs is that the prices have come down, but I think another may well be that people who bought their first HDTV have decided that it is indeed too small, and are now buying a larger one to take its place.

How big a screen do you need for your viewing distance? Find out in Professor Poor’s Guide to Buying HDTV, now available in paperback from Amazon or other fine booksellers.

Reader Question: 1080i Signal on a 720p HDTV

Q: I’ve noticed that some HDTVs are listed as 720p, but their specs says that they supports 1080i. Why wouldn’t those TVs be listed as 1080i? With these types of TVs, would a 1080p signal come through as 1080i or 720? If an upscaling dvd player is used on those TVs, would it upscale to a 1080i or 720p image?
J Neubauer

A: This is an excellent question, and I can see why you and many others find this so confusing.

There are two specifications at work here. The first is the physical resolution of the display. In the case of a 720p panel, this is typically a matrix of 1,280 by 720 pixels. These are the physical dots that make up the image that you see.

Image signals come in a wide range of resolutions, from the (roughly) 640 by 480 standard definition image, to 1080p (which is a matrix of 1,920 by 1,080 points of information). If the display has more or fewer physical dots than there is information in the signal, the display has to scale the image to fit the screen. If there are fewer points in the signal, then these get expanded so that the are represented by more than one physical pixel. If there are more points, then some of this information has to be “boiled down” so that the picture fits; in the process, some of the detail gets thrown away.

So you can display 1080i and 1080p signals on a 720p display, but you won’t see all the information that is contained in the original signal.

As for upscaling DVDs, it depends on the model, but some let you select which output resolution you want. Note that your HDTV will also do the upscaling; the reason that the upscaling DVD players exist is that they often have better a better scaling processor than those found in some HDTVs.

Reader Question: Plasma vs. LCD Energy Use

Q: Is there a difference in energy consumption between plasma and LCD? And does size make a difference; how much more energy do you use as sets get larger?
John Kin

A: As I’ve said, I expect that consumers will start paying more attention to environmental issues for all sorts of products, including HDTV, so this is a very timely question.

First, LCDs tend to draw less power than plasma. At random, I took specs for two 42″ plasma sets; a Panasonic model is rated at 395 watts, and an LG model at 329 watts. Two 42″ LCD sets selected at random are a Sharp model rated at 247 watts, and an LG model rated at 210 watts.

However, you can’t just use the specs to make comparisons. The largest power draw on an LCD comes from its backlight, which is on all the time whether the image is light or dark. The power draw with a plasma panel comes from actually creating the image on the screen; more light requires more power, so the power consumption for a dark movie scene will be lower than for a bright one. So depending on what you’re watching, the LCD may or may not require less power. I suspect that there is less than 100 watts of difference, which is the amount drawn by a bright household lightbulb.

Size does make a difference. Sharp shows the following specs for a series of LCD TVs:

Size 32 37 42 46 52
Watts 165 203 247 270 302

It appears that the power consumption increases faster than the linear diagonal for smaller sizes, but then increases at a slightly lower rate for the larger sizes. I don’t know why this would be, except that perhaps the backlights are more efficient in larger sizes.

Reader Question: LCD TV with DVD

Q: I would like your advice on the purchase of my first LCD TV. I have researched this but the more I read, the more confused I become! What model(s) would you recommend in the 26-32″ range that are reliable, have a sharp picture, and are also capable of playing CD’s? Does that even exist? I would like to spend less than $1000, if that’s possible.
Karen Kubert

A: Karen, I don’t test displays anymore, and even if I did, it would be impossible to stay current with the 800 to 900 new models that come out every year. As a result, I don’t make recommendations about specific products.

I believe that most — if not all — of the models with built-in DVD players will also play audio CDs, but recognize that for the most part, the speakers that come with a small LCD TV are dreadful. The average $20 set of self-powered computer speakers will sound better (and a cheap set with a sub-woofer will sound even better than that). You can use a set of computer speakers with one of these LCD TVs, however; just plug them into the sound output or headphone jack.

Also keep in mind that a 26″ to 32″ high definition LCD TV is relatively small. The height of the image of a 26″ model is probably about the same as a standard definition 23″ CRT. That’s very small compared to what most people watch. Furthermore, the higher resolution means that you have to sit much closer than you might think in order to see the extra detail. For screens this size, you probably should sit no more than four feet from the screen, which would make it cozy for two people to share.

Having said all this, you should be able to find a model that meets your needs and budget. A look at the data in my Intelligence Report weekly ad price database, I find that last month Best Buy advertised a 32″ Westinghouse LTV-32W4 model for $800. This has a DVD player as well as a digital tuner so you can get digital and HD broadcasts for free over the air.

Reader Question: Upscaling DVD Players

Q: New DVD players offer up-conversion of a standard DVD signal. How is this accomplished, and is this feature worthwhile?
John Lee, Hawaii

A: Standard DVDs produce a 480i signal (or 480p if it’s a progressive scan player). The new “upconvert” devices take the roughly 850 by 480 pixel image and scale it up to 720p or 1080p resolution. Now, the brute force way to do this would be to simply make four pixels out of each one in the image, but this would make the image look like a big mosaic or checkboard. Instead, the video processor in the DVD player looks at the image and finds lines and patterns, and then tries to “fill in” the missing data in the expanded image. It can’t create anything that isn’t there in the original image, but if done well, the result appears to have a lot more detail on a big screen than it would if you simply enlarged the DVD image. Apparently, these upscaling players do a good job, and since most movies are standard DVDs, it’s a reasonable way to enhance your movie viewing while we wait for HD movies to appear in reasonable quantity.

Reader Question: Interference from Flat Panels?

Q: I am an amateur radio operator and I want to get a flat panel TV that will be in the same room as the radio transceivers. I am concerned about the new TV producing any interference for the radio. I do not get any noise from the LCD monitor on my computer in the room, though I did with the regular CRT monitors. Are plasma models as free of RF noise as the LCD units?

A: It’s an excellent question. I do know that most LCD TVs are going to be exactly like your LCD monitor in terms of RF (radio frequency) interference. The only question I would have would be about the new models that try to reduce motion blur by pulsing the backlight at 120 Hz.

I’m less certain about the plasma, because the way they generate images requires high voltages. Having said that, however, I will also point out that many plasma TVs have Class B FCC certification, so presumably any RF emissions would be limited. I also cannot find many sites on the Web that cite complaints about RF emissions from plasma panels.

Being an empiricist, I’d be tempted to take a cheap AM radio to a show room, tune to an empty frequency, and wave it around the screen to see if it’s generating much “static”. My suspicion is that you’ll find both LCDs and plasma to be clean, but if one of the technologies is more likely to give you problems, I’d bet it will be the plasma.

Reader Question: Screen Size

Q: I have a 24″ diagonal analog tv in my den. I want to buy a LCD HDTV widescreen to replace it. What size 16:9 aspect ratio widescreen HDTV will equal the screen size of my standard TV? I sit about 6 feet away from my TV. What is the largest screen size I should consider?
Joe Ficara

A: The 24″ SDTV has an image height of about 14″. A 28″ or 29″ wide format screen will have about the same screen height.

The pixels will be smaller on an HDTV, however, and you should plan to sit closer that you would to an SDTV of the same vertical height. In my book, I have a simple system that lets you multiply the viewing distance in inches by a single number to find the optimum screen size. The number you use depends on the resolution of the HDTV — something that few people seem to take into account — but for a 720p set viewed from 6 feet, the optimum size is 44 inches. This will have a vertical screen height of about 22 inches, which is considerably larger than what you have now.

Reader Question: Indoor HDTV Antenna

Q: I’m interested in picking up over the air HDTV indoors. Do I need a special antenna or can I use rabbit ears ? Radio Shack sells some antennas that are listed as UHF, VHF, and HDTV but are more money then the rabbit ears. I have heard of picking people up HDTV with just rabbit ears. Any help is appreciated.

A: Let me start with a quote from the FCC Web site: “In general, an antenna that provides quality reception of over-the-air analog TV signals (VHF and UHF) will work for DTV reception.”

The fact is that the UHF (and occasionally VHF) frequencies used for digital TV — DTV — signals are just like those used for analog TV broadcasts. Yes, there are some design tweakings that may make a difference, but your tuner and connections are more likely to be bigger factors. So if you’ve got rabbit ears (or some other low-cost antenna system) that works for analog, there’s a good chance that it will work for digital signals as well.

And just to be clear: DTV is not necessarily HDTV. You need a digital signal such as DTV broadcast over the air to get and HDTV signal, but not all DTV programming is in high definition.