The Future of TV

If, like many people, you're considering a new TV purchase this holiday season, you're going to want to avoid buying into technological traps that will constrain your TV-based entertainment in the future. Put simply, make sure you future-proof that new set. The best way to do so is to buy with an eye toward what you'll be doing in the near future—not what you're doing now.

For most people, TV today means standard-definition pictures delivered on a near-square, 4x3 aspect-ratio screen. But that's all changing. Even though all DVDs are in fact standard definition (i.e., not HD quality), the majority of DVD-based content is available in a widescreen aspect ratio. And TV, increasingly, is delivered in HD, which is both widescreen and of much higher quality than even a DVD can offer. Whether you're a sports fan or just a devotee of shows such as Lost, The Office, or Dexter, much of today's best content is available, finally, in HD.

Even video games are moving into HD. Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's soon-to-be-released PlayStation 3 are both HD-compatible, and although it's possible to use either system on a standard-definition set, games for both are designed for the higher resolutions and graphical fidelity you can get only with HD. Clearly, whatever your needs, what you're looking for is HD. But here is where I'm going to diverge with the general public consensus.

Although it's now possible to find relatively inexpensive sets that utilize so-called 720p and 1080i HD formats, my advice is to skip over these interim technologies and jump right to the format called 1080p. Doing so now will ensure that you'll always get the best-quality picture going forward, regardless of the content you're enjoying. But if you stick with one of the lower-end HD standards, you're eventually going to find yourself in the same position as a standard-definition TV owner—stuck with yesterday's technology and unable to fully exploit the content you want.

Here's why. The 1080p standard offers the highest possible HD resolution on a 16x9 set: 1920 x 1080, and it does so using rock-steady progressive-scan technology. (By comparison, some 16x10 PC displays can display 1920 x 1200 or even 2560 x 1600). The more widely available 1080i resolution, meanwhile, offers the same resolution, but utilizes an interlaced signal that can cause ghosting or jaggies on moving objects onscreen; 720p is progressive, like 1080p, but offers a lower resolution at 1366 x 720.

A high-resolution display is nice, but if the content you're watching is recorded and delivered at 720p or 1080i, you might argue that a 1080p set is overkill. After all, movie DVDs provide 720 x 480 resolution, and much of today's HD content on TV is delivered at 720p or 1080i. And the Xbox 360 outputs at standard definition, 720p, and 1080i only. Why bother with 1080p?

The idea is to plan for the future. Microsoft says it will release a free firmware upgrade for the Xbox 360 this year that will provide it with true 1080p output. Sony's PlayStation 3 will support 1080p natively in addition to the lower-end formats, and games for that system will be written to 1080p first. More important, perhaps, next-generation DVD formats, including HD-DVD and Blu-ray, support 1080p, and all HD-DVD and Blu-ray content is supplied in this format. (However, the first-generation Toshiba HD-DVD player, curiously, outputs only at 1080i.) And more and more, TV-based content will simply be supplied in 1080p.

As for legacy content (i.e,. all content not encoded at 1080p), 1080p sets can typically upconvert that content so that it's at least HD quality. For example, there are many inexpensive DVD players that can upconvert DVDs to 720i.

It's also worth noting that TV isn't just about television anymore. Although low-tech attempts at combining TVs and VCRs and DVD players were mildly successful in the past, it's clear that the TV of the future will be a multifunction, fully networkable device. When planning for the future, it's wise to consider other technological features that will prove more interesting in the years ahead.

The most obvious example is CableCARD. Today, most people who utilize a cable- or satellite-based TV signal have one or more set-top boxes in their homes. These boxes descramble protected content, such as pay-TV channels like HBO, as well as On-Demand movies and other premium features. But these set-top boxes can be a nuisance, and they're difficult to control with external digital video recorder (DVR) solutions such as Microsoft's Windows Media Center and TiVo. Fortunately, there's better solution.

CableCARD is a government-mandated standard that lets third parties—specifically, TV manufacturers, Media Center PC makers, and other companies—provide the functionality of cable (and, eventually, satellite) set-top boxes. So, for the most part, you should be able to get a CableCARD-compatible TV set and use it to control all the functionality for which you previously needed a cable box. (There is a caveat, sadly. In the current standard, there is one significant limitation of CableCARD-based solutions: They provide only one-way communication from the cable company to your TV, so they can't be used for On-Demand features. This incompatibility will be addressed in the future, although its unclear whether today's CableCARD-based devices will be upgradeable to that functionality.)

Another consideration is networking. You might assume that a typical Connected Home Express reader has spent at least some time and effort constructing a decent home network. Modern HDTVs often offer networking capabilities out of the box, letting them display PC-based content using proprietary software. Beginning next year, you'll see TVs with built in Media Center Extender functionality identical to that offered now on the Xbox 360. Many TVs already offer integrated media reader slots, too, letting you instantly view digital photos by using your camera's media card with the TV.

What's most amazing about the TV industry today is that it's finally benefiting from the rapid-fire improvements and price reductions that have graced the PC industry almost since its inception. Year to year, you can watch TV prices fall as features, screen size, and overall image quality improve. That's what I call a win-win situation.

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