Walt Mossberg

Once You Experience Wide-Screen HDTVs, Hassles Seem Small

As the holiday season begins, many people will be shopping for a big-screen, flat-panel, digital television set, especially those capable of receiving high-definition television, or HDTV. But what’s it like to own and use an HDTV set? Are the benefits as good as advertised? What, if any, are the downsides?

To find out, my wife, Edie, and I lived for several weeks with a big, beautiful HDTV, the Pioneer Elite PRO-1140HD, lent to us by Pioneer Electronics. It has a 50-inch screen, a long list of features and lists for $5,000, though you can find it for under $4,000 on the Web.

I tested the Pioneer with digital cable service from Comcast, my local cable provider. This service transmits high-definition programs where available and can record them to a digital video recorder (DVR) built into its set-top box. Comcast also has an on-demand feature that allows you to watch certain programs whenever you like.

The test demonstrated why people are so hooked on HDTV. The Pioneer Elite set performed brilliantly and was a joy to watch with HDTV programming. With HDTV, you are not only increasing the size of the picture, but its quality as well. On the Pioneer, colors popped, details I never saw before emerged, and the whole experience was almost cinematic. DVDs looked great, as did content from a computer plugged into the set.

But there is a hitch: Most TV programs aren’t available in HDTV, and these non-HDTV shows can actually look worse on an HDTV set than they do on older, standard TV sets. So do most videotapes. Also, buying a big-screen HDTV carries hidden costs and hassles. You may well need help installing the set. You may also have to switch or upgrade your cable or satellite service, get a new DVD player and buy new furniture.

The Pioneer Elite model I tested happens to be a plasma TV, which is one of the three major types of HDTV sets. It works by stimulating a captive gas with an electrical charge. The other two are LCD, or liquid crystal display, which uses a screen like those on laptop computers; and “microdisplay” sets that project the image onto the screen from the rear of the set, mainly using two technologies: DLP, or digital light processing, and a form of LCD.

Plasma TVs tend to have the blackest blacks and the best ability to be viewed from all angles of a room. Their colors are warm and vivid. And they cost less than LCDs in large sizes. But their screens are more reflective and a bit darker than LCD screens. There is also a slight chance they can suffer “burn-in,” the permanent embedding of an image, like a network logo, if you leave such an image on for a very long time without changing channels.

LCDs are bright, and they are the thinnest and lightest of the HDTVs. But their colors often seem cold and their blacks too gray. Their viewing angles aren’t as good as with plasmas. And in some cases, fast motion can look blurry.

Microdisplay sets typically cost the least, but they are the thickest of the three types. They tend to have limited viewing angles and can display a “rainbow” effect, which causes problems for some people.

Our Comcast service gave us high-definition channels from all the big broadcast networks and some of the major cable ones. We immediately started watching shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Heroes” in high definition, and found they were greatly enhanced. Watching the World Series and NFL games was a great experience, with every clump of dirt, bead of sweat and blade of grass looking so much more real.

The Pioneer also did a great job with an Apple Mac Mini computer we plugged into it, displaying family photos and downloaded videos stored on the Mac.

The big downside was that only a small fraction of programming is high definition. At 8 p.m. on Tuesday night this week, there were just 13 high-definition programs available from Comcast, out of more than 230 total. The on-demand service had a smattering of additional high-definition shows and movies.

And standard TV shows on a high-definition set can look awful. They can be fuzzy. They also typically fill only a portion of the wide screen, with big black or gray bands on the sides. You can eliminate the bands using TV features that stretch or zoom the picture, but these modes either cut off too much or distort people so they look unnaturally short and stout.

Also, we ran into plenty of extra costs and hassles. We had to buy new furniture to hold the TV and all the gadgets that attached to it. We had to replace our DirecTV satellite service with Comcast cable, because the trees in our yard blocked the high-definition satellite signal — which is beamed separately from another position in the sky. The Comcast digital service with high-definition costs more than the company’s standard cable service and its DVR holds only 15 hours of high-definition programming versus 60 hours of standard programming.

Despite all these costs and limitations, we were won over by our HDTV test. After returning the test unit, we went out and bought our own HDTV. We decided that in the slow transition to high-definition programming, there’s now enough content to make HDTV worthwhile. And once you get used to high definition, it’s tough to go back to plain old TV.

Email me at mossberg@wsj.com.

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