Help me make sense of hdtv technology
February 15, 2009 11:47 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking to buy my first HDTV. I know little to nothing about technology, and it seems that all of the discussions and guides online are geared towards very savvy technophiles looking to spend big bucks on a very precise level of viewing and audio perfection that I neither need nor want. Please help me understand what all of these weird terms mean and what I actually need in order to watch tv and vhs/dvd videos.

A lot of my questions stem from what I see in the weekly store circulars. I check the prices there, and I see a lot of specs that make no sense to me. When I research terms like 'hdmi' and 's video', I get a lot of techolingo that I don't understand. I need explanations in pretty much the simplest terms imaginable. Pretend your explanations and advice is being directed at an elderly loved one (no offense to elderly people - many of them understand this better than I do, but that hypothetical level of simplicity and patience will be necessary here). I have a lot of questions. I'm going to bold the direct questions, but all the non-bolded stuff explains my particular situation and televisual desires.

I'm looking for an hdtv that is between 15" and 19". I can't afford (and I don't have room) for anything much larger. If I found a good deal on a 20" or 22", that might be alright. This tv must have a digital tuner. There's no sense spending a few hundred dollars for something I still have to hook a converter box to. I bought a converter box, but I haven't tried to set it up yet. I looked at the manual that came with it and almost died (that's how technophobic I am). I don't have cable currently, and I'm not planning on getting cable (or a satellite dish), so I don't have a cable box to hook up. I don't have a dvr or any sort of speaker/home theater system. Currently, I have a tv that is over 10 years old hooked up to a vcr that is slightly newer. This tv has an antenna, and I receive about ten channels over the air. The set-up for the new tv won't be much different. All I'm planning to hook up to the new tv is my old vcr and a new dvd player (a standard one - nothing upconverting or blu-ray) OR a combination vcr and dvd player. Also, my tv will be in no way connected to my computer ever, so I don't know what this whole 'pc input' business is. Okay, so to clarify: no cable, I just want to hook up a vcr and dvd player (two items) OR a combination vcr/dvd player (one item). Okay? I hope that was clear.

Here are my questions:

1. What's the difference between 'full HDTV' and 'HDTV' (as cited in store circulars)? I'm not concerned about a mind-blowing viewing experience. I really just want to be able to watch a handful of shows on network tv and all my old vhs videos and dvds. I don't need to feel as if I am actually ON the Lost island.

2. What does 19" CLASS mean? Is a tv that has CLASS better than one that doesn't have it? Once again, this is wording that I see in the ads.

3. What's with all the different inputs? What are they? Which do I need? What cables will I need to buy? I see a lot of tvs that come with multiple (or one) hdmi inputs, multiple (or one) component inputs, a pc input, an s video input, and an a/v input. I've even seen something called an RF input and an RGB input. And a composite input! What in the world are these all for?!? Which do I absolutely need? Once again, I'm just looking to watch tv over the air and hook up either a vcr and dvd player (two items) OR a combination vcr/dvd player (one item). Nothing else. No cable, no video game systems, and no sound system. Okay, based on that information, which of the many inputs listed above do I absolutely need in my new tv? Based on what I've said I might hook up to the tv, how many of each input would I need? Would I need more of some inputs if I were to hook up separate vcr and dvd players? What wires will I need for each of the inputs? Will any of these wires be packaged with the tv or the dvd/vcr? If I still end up using my old vcr, can I use whatever kind of wire I have hooking it up to the tv now? Are there any wires that I will have to buy separately? Will I need an HDMI cable? How many of each type of wire would I need?

4. Antennas. Currently, I use rabbit ears on top of my set. We don't have an antenna on the roof. Will I probably need to buy an antenna to go with my new hdtv? Will it have to be a special digital antenna?

5. I've read that not all tvs in stores are ready for the digital conversion. What will the boxes say to confirm that it is ready for digital tv and that I do not need my converter box? 'Digital tuner'?

6. VCR and DVDS. Will older vcrs work with hdtvs or will I have no choice but to buy a new one? Will new hdtvs work alright with a standard dvd player (one that doesn't upconvert or have blu-ray)? Is it a better idea/worth it to get a television with a dvd player built in?

7. Are there any websites (or tech forums) that explain these terms/technologies for people who aren't tech savvy and aren't looking to trick their living room out? Are there any sites that provide basic information for technophobes about choosing tvs/dvd players, setting them up, and troubleshooting difficulties? Finally, are there any sites that review by brand and don't push the larger and more expensive technologies?

(As a sort of aside, I'm thinking about buying the Memorex 19" that's on the cover of the Target ad this week. Is Memorex recommended? I do google brands and models for reviews, but I don't see much info for the smaller sets and Amazon reviews haven't been too helpful.)

I know I've asked a lot of questions.. I'm sorry! Thank you to whoever reads the bulk of this post and actually attempts to answer any of the questions. It's VERY much appreciated! Thank you again!
posted by Mael Oui to Technology (23 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I'll answer the ones I know...

1. There are a few resolutions that call themselves HDTV, usually expressed in the number of lines of vertical resolution... i.e. 480, 720, 1080. "Full HD" means supporting the highest one, 1080. Most sets under 40" are 720, while most above 40" are 1080. From several feet away, it's often hard to tell the difference.

3. It depends on what you want to connect. Over the air TV just needs a regular antenna input. A VCR or DVD player would generally use RCA inputs, although some DVD players will do HDMI.

4. There's no such thing as a "digital" antenna — I use rabbit ears and receive about a dozen HD stations in my region. The kind of antenna you'll need mainly depends on the signal strength in your area. Check out for more info.

6. Older stuff should hook up fine, assuming your TV has RCA inputs. Probably most of them do.
posted by knave at 11:59 PM on February 15, 2009

For #2, google seems to think the "class" terminology is market speak for "the tv is approximately this size." For example, a 19" class TV might actually have a diagonal measurement of 18.7 inches.
posted by knave at 12:06 AM on February 16, 2009

CNET has some good reviews of the HDTVs 32 inches or less. Those look bigger than you're wanting, but I find their reviews to be fairly readable.

What kind of price are you thinking here?
posted by barnone at 12:19 AM on February 16, 2009

The TV on the Target ad is a Magnavox 19" for $199. That's why you're not finding a Memorex TV!
posted by barnone at 12:28 AM on February 16, 2009

Here is the CNET review of that Magnavox TV. Looks fine for $200.

Also - go through their HDTV finder - it'll give you other options. They're not the only review place out there, but they've got pretty good coverage.
posted by barnone at 12:32 AM on February 16, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far! Okay, so for the size I'm looking at 'full hd' is kind of a non-issue?

RCA inputs?! Argh, another input? Okay, I'll have to.. I guess.. Do all tvs have that, then?

I think knave definitely has the 'CLASS' question down. Consider #2 checked off. The tvs in ads that say 'class' then mention an 18.9" or 18.7" measurement.

As far as price goes, I'm really hoping for no more than, but preferrably under, $400. The Magnavox (not a Memorex) I'm considering at Target is $199. I'd be willing to pay closer to $400 only if it has a dvd player. I don't want JUNK that will break, but.. see, I've survived 27 years of crappy (at times) tv reception, so I'm not really looking to count the pock marks on people's faces or anything.

Anyway, as I said, thanks for the comments so far!
posted by Mael Oui at 12:38 AM on February 16, 2009

Response by poster: Err.. ha, yeah, I get Magnavox and Memorex confused. I haven't reseached that particular set, yet, though.
posted by Mael Oui at 12:39 AM on February 16, 2009

Don't get a combo TV/DVD. When one component inevitably breaks, it's a total pain. And those things (in general) seem to have a lower life-span than a standalone DVD player.

This 22" Samsung on Amazon is $357 with great reviews. There's a 19" Samsung for $295, also with great reviews.

Here is that 19" Magnavox on Amazon with a few reviews - click around for other models. They're not as strong as those for the Samsung. I'd say Samsung probably has better HDTV image quality and overall build control than Magnavox, and I personally would spend the extra $100 on the same size Samsung, but then again, I'd try to afford the 22" if I could. Those extra 2-3" are nice when you're on a couch or bed a bit away from the TV.
posted by barnone at 12:50 AM on February 16, 2009

1. I find that store circulars you find inside the papers are really vague about the features of the item they're featuring. they show in three bullet lines or less the features of the tv which are always too vague or too insignificant to be of any use.

Anyways there's two parts of hdtv description that describe the type of hd picture: The number of horizontal lines (720 or 1080) and if they show all the lines at once or every other line at once (p for progressive, i for interlaced). All HDTVs are capable at least 720p. So that means 720 lines shown all at once.

Here are all the different picture qualities from best to worst:

1080p (the highest quality HD)> 1080i > 720p (digital tv) > 480p (DVD) > 480i (regular TV)

You wont need anything higher than 720p because:

• Almost all local TV stations and basic cable broadcast their digital shows at 720p.

• Most people can't tell the difference between 720p and 1080p unless they're shown on a 40" or larger screen.

• your DVDs are shown as 480p, your VCR tapes are at 480i

• there are few 1080p HDTVs that are in the less than 32" range

3. The kind of cable you want depends on the type of picture you want. The way it goes from best to worst is:

HDMI (1080i) > Component (1080i) > S-Video (480i) > Composite (480i) > RF (480i)

Almost all VCRs and DVD players since the 90s have s-video and composite video output and RCA cables for audio output. You absolutely need those for the majority players out there. They support regular standard definition pictures.

Component/HDMI/RGB video outputs are the upper class of video signal. Just refer to them as 'HD video cables'. They support HD quality pictures. They are in upconverted DVD players, blu-ray, HD camcoders, Playstation 3s, etc. Component cables support up to a 1080i picture and HDMI can show the highest 1080p picture.

If you're using an upconverted DVD player it won't show anything higher than 720/1080i so it won't matter what kind of HD video cable you use. It'll all look the same. The cool thing about HDMI though is that the audio and video signal are on the same cable. This makes hooking stuff up simpler since it's one cable that does everything. The bad thing about HDMI is that they're way more expensive than component.

An RF cable is the cable you'd use for a tv antenna. VCRs and DVDs that have an RF output are for those really old TVs that have only a tv antenna jack on the back.

For audio, the stereo RCA cable pair are the basic red/right and white/left speaker cable that's been in use since forever. The other kind of audio cable are "digital coax" (which look the same as RCA except it's 1 cable instead of two) and optical (the cable that shoot a red light at the end). I think for your need a stereo cable is fine. You're prolly not thinking about surround sound.

Also good to note is that component video, RCA stereo and digital audio coax cables all look exactly the same.

4&5 Anything sold as new today and called a tv is digital tv ready. Regular tv antennas are used to get the digital signal. The technical term for digital tv signal is ATSC. So on the side of the TV box you may see that it has an ATSC tuner which means digital tv ready

6. If you're really dumb or lazy about hooking things up, separate components is a better way to go like everyone else here says.

So as an answer to #3, for each component you hook up you'll need a separate video and audio input. So lets say if you have a DVD and VCR you'll need two audio and two video hookups. if one day you get an xbox, you'll need three.
posted by sammich at 1:57 AM on February 16, 2009 [5 favorites]

oops i typo'd saying hdmi is 1080i. it's 1080p.

i'll also add that there's two kinds of digital tv tuners. ATSC and QAM

ATSC is the over the air digital tv you'd use a regular tv antenna with

QAM is a digital tuner that cable tv uses. If you have basic cable service and you want HDTV signal without using a cable box you'll need a QAM tuner.
posted by sammich at 2:04 AM on February 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm going to answer these like I'd answer my grandmother if she asked, may she rest in peace. These answers are calibrated to your needs, and have literally caused me cognitive dissonance as I wrote them. They're pretty much the exact opposite of the choices I made for my rig...

Question #1:

Ignore all the hype. Buy a television that lists 720p as its native (or highest) resolution.

Given that you say you don't care, you won't notice the improvement with 1080p. Especially because you probably aren't going to be playing your PS3 on it--one of the few sources that currently outputs meaningful 1080p signals.

Question #2:

Knave has this one. Just buy one that looks big enough to you.

Question #3:

I'm going to assume you have a regular VCR and a regular DVD player--not upsampling units or a PS3. I'm going to assume that you've purchased both of those in the last five years. If you haven't, get new ones (they're cheap).

You'll want a TV with at least 1 RCA connection and 1 S-Video connection. You'll also want to ensure that the television has an ATSC tuner, and is not marketed or marked as "HD ready"--lots of televisions these days are essentially just monitors, and you want one that'll actually decode transmitted television signals.

You'll need one 3-wire RCA cable. These look like this. You'll also need one S-video cable, which will have an plugs like this. You* do not need to and should not buy the $100 MonsterCable versions of these cables... just buy the cheapest one from Target or Walmart that is long enough, if you don't already have them.

Having gotten all of these boxen and wires, you'll connect the VCR to the television using the RCA cables. And you'll connect the DVD with the S-Video cable.

Question #4:

I have no idea--I don't actually watch regular television. However, antennas have to be physically designed to the proper frequency band they'll be receiving. If you don't live near the broadcast towers for your local television stations, you would be very well served to get a high-quality antenna. Somebody else is going to have to help you figure out what would be best for you.

So, the short answer is that rabbit ears work if you're in the right place. But, if you're not in the right place, you may need anything from amplified rabit ears to an aerial antenna on the roof.

I'm told that ATSC broadcast television is far more difficult to receive than regular analog television.

Question #5:

As mentioned above, you want a television that is marked as having a "tuner" or an "ATSC tuner". You do NOT want to get something marked "tuner ready", "ATSC ready", or "HD ready". The *-ready means that it's just a monitor, and that you'll need another doohickey to actually turn the signal in the air into a picture. Just don't go there.

Question #6:

If your VCR hooks up to the television with a coax cable, and doesn't have an RCA output, you will almost certainly have to get a new VCR. Even if your new TV has an NTSC RF input, you'll get a *much* better picture over RCA. Better enough that even you will notice, and better enough to be worth the $15 a VCR costs these days.

A regular DVD player will work fine with an HDTV.

For the love of GOD, do not fucking buy an integrated TV+anything. Don't do it. A DVD and a VCR is less than $50, guaranteed. They both have moving parts that will fail long before the television's picture fails. LONG before. These combo setups are only justified in situations where you literally do not have space for a DVD player. DON'T DO IT!

Question #7:

I have no idea. I use Wikipedia for looking up standards.

In general, I do find that it's impossible to get reviews for the lower-end stuff. But, keep in mind that there are only a few companies that actually produce the display module itself. Lots of different companies then buy those and then build a television around them.

Just go *look* at the TVs in question. Seriously. Go look at them and decide which one is fits the criteria I've laid out above, is under your budget, and looks the best. Buy a brand whom you've heard of and trust to exist until at least the end of your (severely limited) warranty.

"Component cables support up to a 1080i picture and HDMI can show the highest 1080p picture."

Nah. Component is actually capable of transmitting 1080p. It's just that most video sources won't transmit 1080p over component--especially those submitting to DRM. On the other hand, the XBox 360 will do 1080p over component.

* This is not true of everyone. I don't have Monster brand ripoffs, but I do have pretty expensive cable for the couple of analog paths left in my AV rig.
posted by Netzapper at 2:39 AM on February 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have a question for you. Why are you buying an HDTV if you aren't going to watch an HD source on it? Unless it's a space issue, from what you describe, I think you'd be better off finding someone's castoff tube television on Craigslist.
posted by MegoSteve at 5:06 AM on February 16, 2009

• Almost all local TV stations and basic cable broadcast their digital shows at 720p.

Just to nitpick, CBS, NBC, and PBS are 1080i, which is half the stations if the poster is using an antenna.

Why are you buying an HDTV if you aren't going to watch an HD source on it?

Broadcast TV is an HD source.
posted by smackfu at 6:06 AM on February 16, 2009

Btw, the only difference between a $10 HDMI cable and a $100 (or $1000) HDMI cable is that for the latter, the manufacturer knows that the world is chock-full of idiots.
posted by cmiller at 7:47 AM on February 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

2. What does 19" CLASS mean? Is a tv that has CLASS better than one that doesn't have it? Once again, this is wording that I see in the ads.

It means that the size of the screen is something other than exactly 19" diagonally that rounds to 19". Matt Richtel reported on this popping up in advertising recently at the NY Times Bits blog, The Mysterious Shrinking TV:
Sony and Best Buy have been the most forthcoming. Best Buy said that six months ago it changed its advertising in two respects. It started to point out that TV screens are measured diagonally, and:

“We also started using the word “Class” to describe the size of the television if the screen size was not, in fact, exactly the size at which that television is classified,” a company spokesman, Brian Lucas wrote in an e-mail message.

Mr. Lucas said the company wanted to be transparent with customers.

“If a 32″ television is actually 31.5″ we think a customer might want to know that even though it might not seem like a big deal to some people,” he wrote.
I have a question for you. Why are you buying an HDTV if you aren't going to watch an HD source on it? Unless it's a space issue, from what you describe, I think you'd be better off finding someone's castoff tube television on Craigslist.

Over the air reception is an HD source. And after the digital TV transition is complete in June, over the air will be only a digital source. So that old castoff tube TV will require an external tuner to tune in the broadcast stations. A new TV that has an ATSC tuner will be able to tune in digital TV broadcast.

Are there any websites (or tech forums) that explain these terms/technologies for people who aren't tech savvy and aren't looking to trick their living room out?

Take a look at Consumer Reports, who can get lost in acronym soup, but is pointed at the generalist audience rather than home theater nerds.
posted by andrewraff at 8:10 AM on February 16, 2009

Best answer: First off, question 0: Do you want an HDTV?

No. You won't care one whit. Just get any cheap, small tv with an ATSC tuner. HD won't hurt anything, so get that if that's the tv you like, but I assure you that you don't give a crap about HD.

1. Full HDTV is very high resolution. HDTV means it can't get quite as high-resolution, but can still get higher-resolution than you get over regular tv.

2. It's legalese for "it's about 19 inches but we're not claiming that it is exactly 19 inches."

3. Don't worry about them. Forget they exist. If you want, look at the way you have your vcr and dvd hooked up. Probably with two or three cables each, round ones with one big prong at each end? Then you want at least two sets of round connectors with one hole each on your new tv.

I gather that you don't have the dvd and vcr right now? Then you will have to buy a combination player; standalone vhs decks are out of production. In this case, you DO NOT NEED TO CARE about connectors. The cheapest way is with three RCA connectors; you should not under any circumstances pay more than about $5 for them. They're marketed as "A/V cable" or "Composite A/V cable." You plug the cables into the round connectors with a single hole on the back of the vcr/dvd* that are the same color -- they'll probably be labeled VIDEO OUT and AUDIO OUT L/R, and connect the other end of the cables to a similar-looking set of inputs on the tv.

4. You won't need a special digital antenna. You might need a bigger antenna.

5. "ATSC tuner."

6. Older vcrs will play. Once the digital switch occurs, you will not be able to record anything off the air, ever again -- the tuner in your vcr will cease to function*. New hdtvs will work fine with older dvd players. DO NOT GET A TV WITH A BUILT IN DVD OR VCR.

As well, be aware that before too long vhs players and tapes will be unobtainable.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:35 AM on February 16, 2009

It sounds like any of the HDTVs (with built-in ATSC tuners) you're likely to find at your local big box store will suit the purpose you have in mind. Just pick a store with a generous return/exchange policy and check out the models on display. Be aware that they're all hooked up to HD sources and won't look as good when you get them home, so don't bother humming and hawing over the relative picture quality too much.

I think you might want to reconsider your size a bit though. You'll be left with a tiny, tiny picture when those black bars show up on each side of the frame.
posted by bonobothegreat at 1:41 PM on February 16, 2009

Best answer: About 4 years ago I came by a bit of money from my dad (long story). So I decided to buy a plasma TV. I was also confused about all the hype (and it was not as bad then as it is now). So how did I decide what TV to buy? I went into the largest store I could find, and looked at each TV, you know where they are all on the wall side by side? I bought the one with the picture that looked the best to me!
Just tell the salesman that you want a TV with a digital tuner included (this was not something I needed to bother about 4 years ago). All new TVs will have HDMI connectors, and your new DVD will have one too. HDMI does both picture and sound. Connect your DVD to the TV with an HDMI cable. Just buy the HDMI cable from any electronics store in your town. DON'T buy the cable from the same store as you bought your TV - they will gouge you. As others have pointed out, you don't need an expensive HDMI cable. Just go to any electronics store and ask the guy behind the counter for a CHEAP HDMI cable.
You will need to connect your VCR up via a composite cable. This will provide the picture. Then, for sound, you will need the old familiar red and white stereo cables (have a look at this link). I would be surprised if your shiny new TV did not have these connectors on the back, but check with the salesman before you buy.
So in summary:
1) Find the TV with the nicest picture.
2) Does it have a built in digital tuner?
3) Does it have an HDMI connector (that will always be YES)
4) Does it have composite connector and a stereo audio connector?
Best of luck. Enjoy your new TV!
posted by humpy at 2:40 PM on February 16, 2009

No matter what the salespeople tell you, don't buy the expensive cables. If it has the right ocnnectors and cabling, it's good. Providing you're not running a cable >25ft, then all of them are identical.
posted by lalochezia at 4:00 PM on February 16, 2009

You can check out an interactive HDTV buying guide at:

Uses some artificial intelligence and a home theater expert to help figure out the best tv for you. It won't answer all your questions, but might help you find the right TV for you.
posted by UMDirector at 7:58 PM on February 16, 2009

Sorry link should be:

HDTV Guide
posted by UMDirector at 8:00 PM on February 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you to everyone who responded! Thank you especially to everyone who tried to answer a lot of my questions, as well as those who hunted down links for me. I really appreciate everyone's responses. Admittedly, I didn't understand everyone's responses, but I did appreciate them.. and, maybe if the little bit that got through to me (namely Netzapper and ROU_Xenophobe - thanks so much to both of you) sticks, I can work my way through some of the more technical responses that I know are really great (like sammich's). Now I have a good idea about what I should look for and what I don't need, so I'm pretty confident that I could go into a store and come out with something. And, thank you all for steering me away from the combination tv/dvd, which I was seriously considering!

I especially want to thank Netzapper who really provided the exact tone and language that I needed, and I can't tell you how much I appreciated that. Your comment was the most comprehensive yet understandable one, and I'll probably be printing it out to accompany me to the store.

MegoSteve: My old tv, which is just a tube tv (15"), works fine, but.. my problem is hooking this stuff up. The manuals are useless. I can't hook up anything. I can operate things, but someone else needs to set them up. If it weren't for this whole digital transition business, I would be keeping my tv for another 10 years (happily). I'm supposed to hook up the converter boxes for my and my Mom's tvs, and.. I can't do it! I don't really care what sort of quality of tv I'm watching, I just don't want to have to spend a lot and hook loads of crap up to it. There is a space issue, though, and I'll only be a few feet from the tv, so that is part of the reason why I want a smaller tv. That and the cost. Incidentally, my old tv is 15", but its screen seems much bigger than the 15-19" flat screens I've looked at in the store. Maybe I will attempt to upgrade to something in the 20-26" range. Argh, I'm almost certain that my vcr is connected with a coaxial wire. I guess I'll have no choice but to replace that now, too (thanks for all of the wire pictures; I was able to recognize some of them!).

And thank you to quite a few of you for your buying tips (how not to get gouged for the cables and tips on how best to pick out a tv)! I'll be putting your tips to work! Thank you all again!
posted by Mael Oui at 12:09 AM on February 17, 2009

Incidentally, my old tv is 15", but its screen seems much bigger than the 15-19" flat screens I've looked at in the store.

1) A 15" standard ratio screen is going to be taller than a 15" widescreen, which can certainly make it look bigger. Replacing a 15" standard CRT with a 19" widescreen LCD will either be comparable on the vertical space, or a slight improvement.

2) The TVs you look at in the store are in a much larger, more open space and also located fairly close to much larger TVs. This serves to make them look relatively small. It's amazing how much bigger your chosen TV will seem once you get it home.
posted by owtytrof at 10:33 AM on February 17, 2009

« Older give me some loud, heavy rock and roll   |   Digital Camera advice: which specs are important? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.