Monday, November 8, 2010

HDTV on a Teacher's Budget (part 3)

On part 1 of this series we talked about screen size and contrast ratio and how important or not important they should be to the HDTV customer on a teacher's budget.

On part 2 of this series we discussed what those numbers and letters mean in 480p and 720i.

Now we wrap it up with how to get the most out of your HDTV... high-def media and great SOUND.

Your High-Def TV Wants High-Def Media

Right off the bat let me just say that my wife and I mostly just wanted a bigger screen after spending a year with our laptops. We knew that ever since HDTVs made their hostile takeover of the television market, we could virtually do no wrong at achieving just a bigger screen. With that in mind, we do want a nice picture to look at, but we don't care if we have trouble counting the sweat glands in our favorite quarterback's flushed cheeks after a near sack and QB sneak for the touchdown conversion in overtime.

For many people the answer to getting high-def media is easy: (1) cable TV often comes with an assortment of HD channels, and (2) if you don't have Blu-Ray, you can still get a decent quality out of a decent DVD player that has component cables. (“Component” video cables are red, green, and blue, and are only responsible for carrying video information. They do not carry any sound information. This makes their quality better than their counterpart, “composite” video, which is just the dinky little yellow one that comes out of your Super Nintendo.)

Ready for a money-saving solution when your goals are a little lower? At home we don't have cable TV, and we don't feel like upgrading to a better DVD player. The answer to how we get our HD TV: our computers. Plugging in a VGA cable (the same one that goes to your desktop computer monitor) directly from my laptop to my HDTV achieves a video quality of about 480p, which is high def enough for sitting 8ft. away from my TV. My laptop screen displayed on my TV looks better than it did on my laptop! Hallelujah! DVDs look amazing, and any internet content is only limited by our internet connection.

We watch our favorite movies and shows instantly from Hulu and Netflix, so we have more media content than we can handle.

Worry Bout It Meter: Flat Tire (pull over and fix it, but you won't die). Regular, non-HD cable programs look far worse on an HDTV than they do on the boob tube. I will say that non-HD hardware, such as the Nintendo Gamecube, looks fine on my TV. On the other hand, my cheap DVD player makes everything look red and a little blurry. On the third hand, my laptop produces a great picture on the TV with just a regular old VGA monitor cable.

It Sounds So Easy
Here's a trick many people don't realize. After both of us spending years as film majors in college (including analyzing movies and creating them from scratch!), my brother and I both agree on this one truth: good sound quality is often more important than video quality. If you can get a half-decent set of speakers to turn up the volume and make you believe that your favorite drama is happening, your brain will jump through all kinds of hoops to make you believe that the tiny, grainy video you're watching on YouTube is both convincing and satisfying. The same is true for your relationship with your TV.

Most of our media plugs into our TV directly from our laptop, so getting the sound is easy: speakers designed for computer are plugged directly into my laptop. There are two speakers spaced evenly around the living room and a subwoofer that kicks out the bass “floor” of the sound field.

Worry Bout It Meter: Def-Con 1 (if you're not worried about this, you could foul up the whole operation). In my opinion, the speakers built in to a TV are never good enough. Turning up the volume produces a sound that seems flat and metallic, and it gets worse when it's loud. The best way to get decent sound cheaply is to buy a set of computer speakers (a good indicator of quality is if it has a subwoofer for bass and requires its own power supply). If you're not going to plug this into your laptop to simply blast your laptop's sounds (i.e. if you're streaming off of Netflix, like me), you should investigate what sound system/speaker setups you can get that receive sound directly from your device (ex. Cable box, blu-ray player).

My advice: even if you're going to order online, visit a store to see if your favorite size and model produces the picture quality that you're after.

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