So how is a computer like a high definition television set (HDTV)? One possible way is suggested by Alfred Poor, HDTV expert: “Any HDTV you go out and buy has more processing power than the Apple II did.” That’s true, but it’s not his real answer to this question. What is virtually identical about the two, he claims, is that the buying dilemma of today’s HDTV buyers is nearly the same as that experienced by PC buyers two decades ago.
Twenty years ago a PC cost $3,000. “It was a big investment,” says Poor. “It would have to last five years or more, and you didn’t want to make a stupid mistake.” But consumers were bewildered by the jargon, the acronyms, the unfamiliar terms — ROM, RAM, and CPU, to name just three. Then there was the variety of brands, both recognizable and unfamiliar. “They would go to stores and get conflicting information, if any at all,” he says, “and there was no easy way to know what was good.”
Fast forward 20 years and the same descriptions apply to first-time HDTV buyers. Says Poor, “now technological bewilderment has settled on the HDTV market.”
Poor tries to end HDTV confusion when he speaks at the Trenton Computer Festival on Saturday, April 22, at 11:20 a.m. See the article above for full information about the festival.
According to Poor, there is little dependable help for the HDTV buyer. “Today product reviews are useless,” he says, admitting to the irony of slamming the very source of his own livelihood for the past 20 years — writing technology product reviews. Writing a good technology evaluation requires equipment as well as standardized protocols and procedures for comparing products — but resources are extremely scarce. Also, because the pay is often quite low for such reviews, magazines and web publications sometimes turn to people without the necessary breadth of industry understanding. Finally, even with the right people available, it is nearly impossible for the consumer to stay on top of so much product. In 2005 manufacturers released 850 new plasma and LCD models, and that doesn’t include rear or front-projection models.
Although product reviews may be useless, it is certainly helpful to understand the basic terminology and concepts of HDTV technology. First and foremost is the difference between digital (and its subtypes) and analog television. A standard television receives approximately 300,000 dots 24 times per second, and it translates the signal into a format that will fit on screen, says Poor, by “streaming electrons across the inside like a fire hose,” creating dots that light up.
An LCD or plasma screen, on the other hand, has a direct address display where each dot is a physical structure — with three little dots for each dot in a color TV — and has a transistor associated with it that will turn a dot on or off. “There are about 1 million switches switching on and off all the time,” says Poor. Rear projection displays use a format called DLP, in which microscopic mirrors wiggle and bounce light back and forth, with tiny circuitry operating each of the tiny dots
Not only are product reviews not dependable, but there is a lot of actual misinformation out there for the millions of people planning to buy an HDTV in 2006. The truth, according to Poor, includes the following premises:
Your set will stay on when analog signals stop. Televisions won’t stop working in February 2009, which is the proposed shutoff date for over-the-air analog broadcasts. For years now, stations have been broadcasting both digital and analog signals.
The reason that Congress wants to stop analog, says Poor, is a matter of money. Congress wants to squeeze TV broadcasts into a smaller band of frequencies so they can sell underused analog frequencies for things like emergency response and pull in revenue by doing so.
Digital television does not necessarily mean high definition. HDTV means more dots in an image, and you would need a digital signal to get HDTV, but not all digital signals are high definition. Most sets are in standard definition, and with a box that costs $50 or less sitting on your old TV, it will still work when analog stops — even if it doesn’t give the most wonderful picture available.
Most people use cable or satellite, so over-the-air signals are mostly irrelevant. “More than three-quarters of the country doesn’t need to know about this,” says Poor. “Because they get TV programs not over the air, but from cable and satellite, they will be totally unaffected.” Anyone with digital cable can get HDTV. Satellite is already all digital, and the box is taking the digital signal and converting into a signal a standard television can use.
If you do use over-the-air signals, lots of high-definition programming is available right from your roof — and it’s all free. In contrast to analog TV, where a weak signal will produce snow and distortion, the high-definition signal will either work or it won’t. Even if you are on the fringe with an analog signal, you may be able to pull in a digital signal.
Prices for new sets aren’t too bad. “If you are looking for a diagonal length of less than 40 inches,” advises Poor, “the best buy is an LCD.” Televisions with picture tubes are still being made, but their images will not be as good. High-definition televisions with a diagonal in the 19 to 20 inch range cost about $500, and those with 32-inch diagonals are under $1,000. Poor characterizes prices as stable for the past month or two, but trending downward. Over the past year, for example, the price for a 40-inch diagonal LCD TV has dropped in half.
Poor grew up north of Belair, Maryland, and went to Harvard College, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biology. “I was going to be a marine biologist and then discovered the vagaries of funding for science,” he says. So he went into teaching, explaining, “Teachers didn’t eat well, but they ate regularly.”
He learned a thing or two about himself during a three-year teaching stint at the Germantown Friends School, and he went off in yet another direction. First, he realized that he wasn’t well suited to preparing 45-minute class segments, because he works best in fits and starts. Second, he realized that he had a knack for taking complex concepts and making them accessible.
Then he happened into the computer field. While doing public relations for a public school district in Connecticut and working on a Ph.D. in school/community relations, which he received in 1982 from Union Graduate School, he started working with computers. After getting a PC for himself, he was invited to set one up for the superintendent and then went on to design the middle school computer lab. From there he moved to consulting and freelance writing magazines, including PC Magazine. He adds that he has had a Q&A column for 12 years in Computer Shopper, quipping, “I’m the Anne Landers of the computer industry.”
Now his focus is on HDTV. He does less freelancing, but has started his own self-publishing operation on the issue of HDTV with a partner who is savvy about web marketing. His website, www.Hdtvprofessor.com, includes a daily almanac on HDTV, consumer electronics, and home entertainment, as well as a “truth patrol,” where readers send in examples of questionable claims and explanations they’ve come across.
He also offers an E-book, the first in a series, called Professor Poor’s Guide to Buying HDTV. He is senior editor and a senior research associate with Pacific Media Associates, a market research firm in the large screen display market.
Despite the misinformation, the confusing terminology, and the variety of equipment available, Poor claims it’s not quite as difficult as it sounds for typical consumers to choose an HDTV. They will first decide upon a size and then add technological preferences. Most will be constrained by a budget. Then, in local stores, they will find only a handful of products. With 10 to 15 minutes in the showroom, especially with some research behind them, consumers can review products for themselves and make a decision.
But be careful and don’t be fooled by the “information” available, advises Poor. “There is lots on the web, both free and for sale, and it is inconsistent in quality. Some is good and some is appallingly bad.”