Madamina's Hi-Def Comedy Jam
January 7, 2009 10:31 AM   Subscribe

Okay, I am clueless about matching up a possible new TV and TiVo unit with all of the HDTV/digital transition rigamarole coming up in the next few months. Complicating that, my cable (expanded basic) is included in my apartment building, and I probably can't upgrade service. Help?

I'm thinking of buying something like this or this (the second one, although fancier than I need, has 120Hz refresh rate). I basically watch a lot of regular cable, mostly movies and Bravo and not a lot of sports, but I want to get a really nice solid all-around performer that I won't have to upgrade for a long time and won't notice on the occasions when I do watch, say, hockey or the Super Bowl. I also have TiVo, so I'll probably need to upgrade that as well. (Current TV is a little 20" Toshiba CRT, which is perfectly fine for my studio apartment, but I will likely get a bigger place in the next six months after I graduate and foof up my crib.)

My building currently has expanded basic cable from Charter. If I stick with these landlords later, I'll probably continue to have something similar. I looked on Charter's website, and I don't see any indication that they'll be upgrading to all-digital service anytime soon. (Love ya, Charter.)

So here are my questions:
--I recall that having an HDTV makes "regular" programming look like poop. Can I expect this to be any better after the digital transition?
--Does digital cable look any better on an HDTV than regular cable?
--For what I'm watching, will regular or digital cable generally be okay, or will I really want to upgrade to an HD package?
--If I keep regular or digital cable, will I need a special antenna to receive the broadcast channels in HD?

I want all-around service so that I don't enjoy most stuff and then suddenly turn to a forgotten channel and go, "Wait, but this looks awful!" I am lazy and don't want to keep upgrading a TV every time I find myself able to get better service. Basically... if I just have regular cable, is it even worth getting a new TV at this point?
posted by Madamina to Technology (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The transition is completely irrelevant to you if you have cable. You won't have to upgrade anything.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:39 AM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

1. Your cable service will be completely unaffected by the digital transition. Only if you hook up an antenna to your TV and try to get signals over-the-air will you be affected. Note that most stations are already broadcasting HD over the air; some may switch once they're forced to on the transition date; some may continue broadcasting in SD digitally.

2. Standard def digital table still looks pretty bad on an HDTV.

3. I see little point in a large HDTV without getting HD programming. You may be able to keep yourself sane by getting an antenna and watching HD programming over-the-air. This is what I do; we have standard def DirectTV that I only use when when there's nothing good on over-the-air.

4. You don't really need a "special" antenna, just a good one.
posted by zsazsa at 10:44 AM on January 7, 2009

I would definitely wait until you decide you want to completely pay for HD (buy a TV and pay for HD cable) before making any changes. There's no point in paying for HD service without an HDTV, or in buying an HDTV without HD service.

If you live close enough to the TV station transmitters, you can get HD free over the air, no cable necessary. If you want to do this, then you do have reason to buy an HDTV without paying for HD cable.

Also, to underscore what others have said, as long as you keep cable, the Feb. 19 transition will have no effect on you.
posted by Dec One at 10:51 AM on January 7, 2009

Also, if you want to go the antenna route without having to buy an antenna:

Mine works great.
posted by Dec One at 10:53 AM on January 7, 2009

We just bought the Samsung 32" 4-series model. It's a downgrade in size from our old 44" Mitsu tube, but it's hella clearer. We only have thru the air signals (no cable) though; as mentioned above, if you're on cable - and cable's not required to go all digital - you'll see much less difference.
posted by notsnot at 10:58 AM on January 7, 2009

It would be interesting to see if you get any HD broadcast channels over your current expanded basic analog service. My dad has the cheapest analog cable you can get for $14 a month and when he hooked up a HDTV he got signal. It's an unadvertised feature so I don't really know anyway to check this though, other than buying a TV.

-I recall that having an HDTV makes "regular" programming look like poop. Can I expect this to be any better after the digital transition?

No, except that nearly every basic cable channel now has an "HD" version, not particularly related to the digital transition. This may not really be HD for 90% of their programming, but it is 480p digital which looks as good as SD content can get.
posted by smackfu at 11:04 AM on January 7, 2009

Basically... if I just have regular cable, is it even worth getting a new TV at this point?


To expand: the digital conversion only affects over-the-air broadcast, and your basic cable will probably not look "better" on either the LCDs you linked. Larger, yes. Also, most, if not all, of your basic cable will be in standard ratio, so you'd have to either watch it stretched to widescreen or with black bars on the side(as opposed to the top and bottom when watching widescreen on a standard ratio screen). Some people don't care about this, some prefer one to the other, and some don't like either option.

If you just want to buy a new TV, and can afford it, then go for it, but the digital conversion is not the "excuse" you're looking for.
posted by owtytrof at 12:45 PM on January 7, 2009

Tomorrowful is right. The Feb09 transition if for over-the-air transmission only.

Everyone out there, please read that and repeat it to as many people as you can. The FCC is freeing up the spectrum transmitted over the air. They don't really care how something is transmitted over a cable that is run to your house. That's totally fine (assuming it's within safety laws and all that).

Now, on to the other stuff. Regarding "looking like poop", let me explain in computer monitor terms. Older, non-digital televisions and over-the-air transmissions use the NTSC display standard. This means video is at a resolution of 720x480. HD television signals, however, use resolutions of 1280×720 (720i/p) or 1920×1080 (1080i/p). This means that if you have an HD television, it is able to display these resolutions. If you, instead, send it an old non-HD signal, it is much smaller than the screen. So it can do a few things: put a big black border around it, or stretch it out. It is this process of stretching that makes things "look like poop"

Ref: Video Resolutions
posted by phrakture at 1:49 PM on January 7, 2009

Best answer: Personally, given that all free over-the-air TV is going digital I think that cable companies should be giving every paying customer digital service, with no change in rates. Not doing so is friggin' bullshit. We're going to be paying money to have poorer reception than our non-cable-having neighbors. Thanks, cable companies.

That rant aside, I did discover that most of my local channels (everything except Fox, for some reason) broadcasts unscrambled HD channels over my cable. I never saw this before because I normally run everything through my older, non-HD Tivo. So, cable channel 5 might be NBC, but 5.1 is NBC in HD. If this doesn't change, with an HDTV you should be getting at least some local channels in HD at no extra charge.

I'm not going to pay for HD cable until it is significantly cheaper, and then only after I've gotten an HD Tivo. We bought an HDTV because it makes our movies look better when we throw in a DVD, not necessarily for the TV signal advantages, but I have to say - after finding the "hidden" HD channels in my existing cable it sure made me realize how fuzzy the standard def looks by comparison.
posted by caution live frogs at 1:58 PM on January 7, 2009

Response by poster: Yeah, I understand that my current TV will be fine, but I figured this might be an opportunity to upgrade. Blerg.
posted by Madamina at 2:49 PM on January 7, 2009

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