Is it worth it to keep my HDTV or just get a regular TV + Apple TV?
September 3, 2011 11:00 AM   Subscribe

Just bought an HDTV. Is it worth it, or should I just get a regular TV + Apple TV?

I haven't bought a TV in 10 years and never cared much about them. Moving into a larger house last week, I went out and bought a Samsung 40" SmartTV with HD. It has a Samsung Apps feature that lets you add stuff like Netflix, YouTube, etc, which is pretty neat.

The only frustrations so far:

1) Using 2 complicated remote controls just to do basic stuff

2) There are something like 800 channels, most of which I would never watch. I also can't grasp which ones are HD and which ones aren't. Some fill the width of the screen, some don't. Some are crisp, some aren't. I don't even know how to memorize the location of this many channels. Yes, I'm nearing middle-age and like simplicity.

3) The HD quality is genuinely off-putting sometimes. It's distracting to watch a show like 30 Rock, thinking it looks like it was shot on home video. It looks great for sports, but that's about it.

So, would a conventional flat-screen TV + Apple TV for Netflix, etc, be just as good? Has anyone "downgraded" to that setup after being frustrated by HD? What is a "conventional" analogue TV even called anymore? Thanks!
posted by deern the headlice to Technology (20 answers total)
You can own an HD TV and not have HD cable service.

You can own an HD TV and have your Apple TV/Mac Mini/Roku output something less than 1080p.

I'm not sure you'll find a non-HD TV these days; I think everything is at least 720p. So what I think you actually want to do is keep the TV, get rid of cable, and maybe use a Roku or AppleTV box as your interface to the streaming capabilities you want instead of the Samsung Apps interface? I think Roku will do you better if you've got a Netflix subscription; I don't believe the AppleTV allows you to stream that without some hacking.

You will still require 2 remote controls, but the Roku and AppleTV ones are really very straightforward. Your TV remote can be limited to on/off.
posted by olinerd at 11:10 AM on September 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Apple TV streams Netflix.
posted by dfriedman at 11:14 AM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Standard "analogue" TV doesn't exist anymore; this is why you had to buy a converter for older TVs. The signal they shoot out is no longer the signal it used to be, which gives us things like HD channels and more channels. HDTVs pick this up on their own and do not need a converter.

By "800 channels," do you mean about two dozen or actually 800? The former is just the way TV works now: each channel has now been split up. Some are new channels, some are just HD versions of the old channels. The latter means you have basic cable.

If the channel fills the screen and you haven't done anything manually to make it do that, it is HD. If it does not, it is a standard channel. Most network channels (ABC, CBS, etc.) have a regular version and an HD version. If you find the HD version off-putting, you can watch the regular one. They both still exist.

You won't be "downgrading" by switching to only-Netflix. Depending on the show, Netflix tends to only have the HD version available with no way to switch. However, as you can't turn of regular TV -- it comes free via the antenna -- you can have Apple TV and regular TV concurrently. In fact, there's not other way to do it.
posted by griphus at 11:14 AM on September 3, 2011

Re-reading what I just wrote, I realize that I might not be being too clear as I'm trying to explain it in the least-technical way I can. Let me know if anything about my answer is confusing and I'll try to rephrase it.
posted by griphus at 11:15 AM on September 3, 2011

An Apple TV requires an HDTV. I don't think you can buy a new non-HD TV set anymore. If you're watching cable TV, most systems still offer the non-HD version of a channel in addition to the HD version. If you're using over the air antenna for TV, if it is in HD, you get it in HD.

I don't understand your comment about 30 Rock looking like it was shot on home video. Your TV set may have a setting for lighting/contrast that will make the picture more acceptable to you.
posted by birdherder at 11:16 AM on September 3, 2011

Keep HD, cancel cable. I haven't had cable in years and don't miss it. And you would probably like apple tv. Since it's only got a couple of buttons to deal with.

If you're feeling hacky, there are a bunch of add ons you can download for it that add new features, but it's pretty usefull all on its own.
posted by empath at 11:37 AM on September 3, 2011

If you really want a standard-definition TV (SDTV for short), you can't find them new anymore, but you can buy used ones for an absolute pittance on Craigslist or equivalent.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 11:57 AM on September 3, 2011

I don't mean to insult your intelligence if you already know this, but it sounds like you're mixing up the term "HD" with samsung's Netflix/YouTube streaming software. HD only refers to the resolution of the screen and the digital transmission of the signal. You do not want a non-HD TV, since they are very uncommon, if they are made at all anymore, and you will be stuck with something with a circa 1995 design.

A separate question is whether or not you want the samsung software that let's you stream Netflix, etc. I guess if you payed a significant price premium for it, then you might want to switch to a cheaper tv, but otherwise it doesn't sound like it's doing any harm. That is, if you don't like it, you could just not use it. You could add an appletv to your existing tv if you want.

A third question is whether or not you want cable. Others here have addressed that.

The last point is about image quality. I can't tell exactly what sort of issue you're describing, but it doesn't sound like the tv itself is the root cause. A lot of broadcasters and cable companies still haven't figured out how to do HD/SD right yet, so it's possible that there's some specific weirdness to what you're watching that isn't necessarily related to the TV. E.g., some standard definition stations on my tv are unwatchable because of the way the cable company downconverts from HD; it causes all sorts of moiré effects that are distressing to the eye. I've found that sticking with HD seems to reduce the appearance of weird broadcast problems like that.
posted by kiltedtaco at 11:59 AM on September 3, 2011

As far as quality, try turning off Auto Motion and see if it improves your sense of the picture. The quality of sound is another thing I find jarring about watching broadcast HDTV, the increased quality seems to make background noise far more apparent. Adjusting the presets for audio quality can help there. Many threads on this phenomenon can be found searching for "soap opera effect" including a brief mention on the wiki page for motion interpolation.

I only occasionally watch broadcast HDTV at a friends place on their big Samsung TV and I had the same reaction, favourite shows like 30 Rock looked and sounded strange to me. Even after reading about and tinkering with these settings, the image still seems off somewhat but I suppose I've adjusted to it.
posted by Lorin at 12:01 PM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I really do like the Western Digital media players. They are cheap and play every format imaginable. (WDTV) It also does NetFlix. (I agree with above posters - cable is mostly kind of a waste)

Re: HD - I think it will not be worth it go to back to standard because everything is moving to HD. I think you'll get used to it.
posted by getawaysticks at 12:02 PM on September 3, 2011

High-def TVs ship with settings that make them 'pop' instore, but that's in the daytime, under artificial lighting, and usually not properly at eye level. Look through your DVD/Blu-Ray collection and see if you have any THX certified discs. These will come with a calibration tool that should substantially improve the picture. Alternatively, you can try googling for '[your tv model number here] calibration' and then tweak that.

As for 30 Rock (which I've watched in HD plenty), it's a single-camera show, and it won't go through quite as much image tweaking as a more heavily stylised serialised drama show. Your best bet is to work with a high quality movie — ideally on Blu-Ray, but DVD will do — and get the picture on that satisfactory.
posted by jaffacakerhubarb at 12:03 PM on September 3, 2011

OK, here is why 30 rock is looking like home video (or at least most likely the reason), and it has nothing to do with HD.

The standard for film is 24 frames per second. This gives you an image that appears to move, but can be jittery at times, and is not very smooth. This is what gives it the "film look"

Most new TV's have a setting which is designed to smooth out motion. It takes those 24 frames, analyzes them, and adds in additional frames which bridge the gap (up to 60 or more frames a second). This process makes motion seem amazingly smooth. It also completely ruins the experience of watching TV (in my opinion).

So, you want to find the setting on your TV which controls this, and turn it off. Your life will be infinitely better from that point on.

Also, if you are finding things to be too sharp, the reason is most likely that you are using the default settings on the TV, which are designed to make everything look very bright, saturated, and over sharpened (which makes them stand out in the store, but also makes watching them at home similar to the experience of having hot lava sprayed into your eyes). I would suggest you look up your specific model of TV on Cnet, or somewhere else, and see if they have a guide to flatten out the settings. This will make it look more like an older tube TV, and will be a lot more pleasing on the eye. If you can't find a guide, the rule of thumb is to change everything to the neutral setting (you don't want sports mode, or movie mode, or whatever else), and see what you think. You can adjust from there. Also, many of the Pixar DVD's come with an image calibration as part of the bonus features, and it actually does a pretty decent job of getting things balanced.

Honestly, if you take a little bit of time to get your TV adjusted (and turn off the god awful smoothing feature), you will probably find that you really like how it looks.
posted by markblasco at 12:09 PM on September 3, 2011 [8 favorites]

Do you play video games? I'd never had an HDTV either, don't watch a lot of TV, and didn't really see the attraction of HD (other than sports). Then my old TV crapped out and I bought an HDTV. And OMG do video games look GREAT in HD. Like night and day. So if you're a gamer, it's worth it just for that.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:57 PM on September 3, 2011

I'm a bit confused by your message. You seem to be conflating your TV with the content that you're seeing on your TV.

As many have already pointed out, you can't buy an old-style analogue TV anymore. And you shouldn't. Your HDTV is very capable of displaying excellent-quality video.

You just need to feed it some better video. You mention 800 channels - where are they coming from? From the built-in Samsung features? Satellite? Cable?

While you'll have a hard time finding an old analogue TV, a lot of video content is still in non-HD formats. I suspect this might be your 30 Rock issue. Have you tried feeding your TV a high-quality DVD or Blu-Ray signal? By high-quality, I mean that the DVD or BD player is connected by an HDMI cable or component cables.

That will probably look good, even with the default settings. Yes, you'll want to lower the brightness, turn off smoothing and sharpening and other intermediary effects.

Having an HDTV doesn't automatically make everything you watch high-definition. You still need to feed your HDTV an HD signal to maximize it's potential. Unfortunately, I'm skeptical that those built in Samsung things will be delivering the best content.

(Apologies, of course, if I've misinterpreted.)
posted by TangoCharlie at 3:16 PM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

For a quick, cheap test, try connecting an antenna to the back of your TV. You'll probably have to use a "scan for digital channels" feature in your menu, but if you're in a metropolitan area, you might be able to get a few great-looking over-the-air HD channels.
posted by TangoCharlie at 3:22 PM on September 3, 2011

Most new TV's have a setting which is designed to smooth out motion. It takes those 24 frames, analyzes them, and adds in additional frames which bridge the gap (up to 60 or more frames a second). This process makes motion seem amazingly smooth. It also completely ruins the experience of watching TV (in my opinion).

TV has been 60 frames per second in the US since the 40s.
posted by empath at 4:18 PM on September 3, 2011

Technically true, but not accurate. The vast majority of shows are still filmed and broadcast at 24 fps for a "film-like" effect. Soap operas and the like use true 60 fps, as do camcorders which is why we tend to associate the extra clarity with low-budget shows and home movies.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 4:42 PM on September 3, 2011

Do you have hD cable? Sd looks terrible on cheaper hd tvs.Pp
posted by k8t at 5:18 PM on September 3, 2011

Sorry I'm late back to the thread. Yes, I'm paying for Comcast cable which comes with an HD box so much of the content seems to be in HD. But as I said, it's confusing because channels 1-100 seem to be non-HD, and then there are the HD channels, and then there are hundreds of channels I'm realizing I don't actually have access to (foreign stuff, Gol TV, porn, etc). So I guess I don't actually have 800 channels, it just feels like it.

I appreciate the help clarifying. So it sounds like the main reason I paid so much for my TV isn't because it's HD (which they all are now), but because of all the built-in internet/smarttv stuff. I guess Netflix is really the only extra feature that I wanted anyway (which I could've gotten through Apple TV or Roku) and it works fine, so maybe I should just enjoy what I've got...

Also thanks for the advice about Auto Motion, etc, I'm trying to see if there's a way to make the picture quality feel a bit less over-crisp, if that makes sense.
posted by deern the headlice at 5:36 PM on September 3, 2011

Protip: On Verizon FiOS, at least, my HD channels are all a set number (in my case, 500) above my regular channels, to make it easier. For example, SD Food Network is channel 164, and HD Food Network is channel 664. Channel 5 in HD is 505.

Not sure if it works the same way on Comcast, but it's worth a shot.
posted by InsanePenguin at 8:05 PM on September 3, 2011

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