Making the Leap

After a long long wait, I’ve finally joined the HDTV crowd. While I’ve been having my ass kicked by a cold for the last few days, I managed to finally break down and head over to Costo to pick up a 42″ Vizio 1080p set. While I’ve only been living with HD for a few days, here are a few impressions:

Selecting and Purchasing:
Finding the right set to buy, with the right number of inputs that has the features you want, and acts like you would expect is a complete pain in the ass. The maze of offerings is just incomprehensible. This is the competitive marketplace at its worst. Too many options and choices with very little comparability. Plasma, LCD, DLP, component, HDMI, DVI, VGA, 1080i, 720p, SDTV, it’s all just a nightmare of jargon in a market that previously was concerned mainly with picture size.

Add to this rapid technology changes that mean that some models of TVs stay current for only a few months, and are constantly fluctuating in price. Don’t get me wrong, the rapid change and fierce competition is ultimately great for consumers, but the sea of information and options is painfully overwhelming. Making things even more annoying, many manufacturers will make one TV, but release it to different retailers with slightly different features under a different model name so that consumers can’t comparison shop on price. Good times.

In Your House:
Hopefully you already are rocking at least 5.1 surround, and have a stereo that does at least component level switching. The holy grail is HDMI. One cable carries up to a 1080p signal and multichannel audio. One cable to a switching receiver from each component, and one HDMI out to the TV. Unfortunately receivers that can switch HDMI are still relatively rare, and pretty expensive. Component cables are very bulky, and you have to run a separate optical or co-axial audio cable. These suck. Go HDMI if you can. Of course, every brand name retailer is asking fucking insane prices for HDMI gear. Like retarded prices. Fuck them. Monoprice is where it is at. Check them out for cables and switches if your receiver doesn’t do HDMI switching.

HDMI is of course pulsing with HDCP copy protection crap that the MPAA has managed to foist upon technology vendors, it also has some issues related to braindead spec engineering. Some people find that their TVs are constantly switching HDTV formats or video is dropping out due to lousy implementation of the spec. It really is nice to have just one cable carrying everything though. Component offers a good signal, and no HDCP, but as a result no HD video source will output 1080p over it. Component cables are incredibly bulky, and prone to interference over long runs.

You’ll see recommended viewing guides that encourage you to buy huge sets for sitting as far away as 12 feet. Don’t worry about this. If you have decent vision, you will see a difference in HD content even from a ways away. If it’s bigger than your standard def set, you’ll notice.

Congratulations you’re an early adopter! Amazing that we’re now at least 5 years into the HD revolution and there’s still very little content that you as a home viewer can enjoy on TV. Here in Phoenix, we have 8 whole dedicated HD channels. 8. Whee!

You can of course wander into the insanely expensive realm of HD DVD or Blu Ray. The entertainment industry can’t get its shit together and offer a standard, so the consumer is screwed with limited selection (some titles are only available on one format or the other), and higher prices (just buy players for both, oh and by the way, we want $30 per title). Players are still way too expensive as well. Netflix offers a decent selection of both HD DVD and Blu Ray disks for rental, and it seems that the entertainment industry is trying to drive consumers to a rental model with their ridiculous prices.

Adoption of players for both BluRay and HD DVD (not counting the PS3) is simply abysmal. One can only guess why. Sony is pushing very hard to use the PS3 (currently at about 6 million sold) as a platform for getting Blu Ray into the home, which is fine, but consumers are still concerned that whatever choice they make is going to be the wrong one, and their investment will be worthless. Of course, if we could rip Blu Ray or HD DVD disks onto hard drives, no one would care if either of the formats failed as we could just move the content we purchased over to a new format as it emerged.

Both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 have really outstanding HD titles, and they must be responsible for a good percentage of people who are moving over to HD. Though there are very few 1080p games available (the systems really aren’t fast enough), the 720p available for most is really very nice.

There are online sources of HD content, but be prepared for downloads of 10-20GB for a standard sized movie. Also, there are a variety of different containers that the movies come in. These can be burned to a Blu Ray or HD DVD disk, which seems to be the preferred way to view them. Most of the US still doesn’t have the bandwidth to deliver HD legitimately or illegitimately, so it’s probably safe to say that for the next little while at least, rentals will be where it’s at.

Once you’ve watched good HD content though, it’s thoroughly addictive. You’ll find yourself watching programs you never would have otherwise, just because the picture itself is so engrossing. Even with excellent processing, standard content will look blurry and lame by comparison. If you’re like me and using Cox in Phoenix, your HD DVR box won’t show the interactive channel guide in HD, so you’ll have blocky, ass-tastic text to read because Scientific Atlanta can’t be bothered to write an operating system for their boxes that doesn’t suck, and Cox can’t be bothered to broadcast the guide in higher res. You read that right, apparently Cox doesn’t just pull a data feed down from a server to a cable guide program on your box, they actually send a video stream to your cable box of the guide. At least that’s what the phone guy told me when I asked why the guide looked so ass-tastic.

The good news: HD content on good HDTVs is really really brilliant. The bad news: every step along the line of delivering the HD experience to customers is consumer hostile, expensive and confusing as hell. If you can manage to pick through the maze of crap, you can end up with some really engaging viewing. If you can’t, you’ll find yourself watching the same crappy stuff, on a larger TV, with a wallet about $5k lighter.

The consolidation of tech and entertainment companies is very very very bad for consumers. Sony and a few other companies are pushing very hard to establish a vertical monopoly controlling the whole home entertainment experience from producing the content to making the TVs, Receivers, and Disc formats that you watch the content on. This leads to content producers making decisions about what technology gets used in delivering content and effectively kills innovation in the market. Check out the history of Tivo, and the difference in what it was, vs. what it has become for a good lesson in this.

I have no illusions about a free content utopia emerging out of all this stupidness, but all dreams aside, it’s clear that the large media companies that are driving the HD revolution at the moment are more than willing to sacrifice consumer ease of use and confidence in favor of ridiculous DRM hurdles which have been shown time and time again to have no effect on piracy. The current manifestation of HD is the content industry’s wet dream, and it’s a consumer nightmare.

If you’re a big tech head. Buy a HDTV today. Video games deliver. I’d encourage you to not spend a dirty penny on either HD DVD disks or Blu Ray, and instead subscribe to netflix or rent them elsewhere. At $30 a pop, it’s far to expensive to end up a casualty on either side of this stupid pissing contest.

If you’re a normal schmoe, wait. It’s not worth it. The cost of TVs keeps plunging, and there’s just not enough content on broadcast TV to make it worthwhile if you’re not watching a bunch of movies or playing video games. Hopefully in another couple of years, the format war will be over and big TVs will be hovering around the $500 mark.

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