Walt Mossberg

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Mossberg’s Mailbox

Choosing a High-Definition TV

There’s no other major item most of us own that is as confusing, unpredictable and unreliable as our personal computers. Everybody has questions about them, and we aim to help.

Here are a few questions about computers I’ve received recently from people like you, and my answers. I have edited and restated the questions a bit, for readability. My column last week about high-definition TVs generated intense reader interest, and hundreds of emails, many containing questions. So this is an all-HDTV edition of Mossberg’s Mailbox.

At the end of your HDTV column, you said that, after testing a borrowed plasma HDTV, you went out and bought your own HDTV. Don’t leave us hanging. What set did you buy? And do you get a discount?

I bought the same 50-inch plasma set I tested, the Pioneer Elite PRO-1140HD. But I want to emphasize that this is a matter of personal taste (which picture you personally prefer), budget, and the style and size of the room where it’ll be used. Other brands and other technologies are also very good, and some folks might prefer them.

I don’t accept free goods, or even discounts, from companies whose products I review, as that would be unethical. So, I went to a local store and bought the Pioneer at retail, like anyone else.

You didn’t mention a burning issue in the HDTV arena right now: whether to spend the extra money to get a set that can handle the highest resolution, called “1080p”. What’s your view on this issue?

I didn’t mention it because I don’t think it’s an important factor at all. Most HDTV sets max out at a resolution called “1080i,” which is gorgeous and is used by several of the TV networks currently broadcasting in HD. Theoretically, a resolution called “1080p” is even better (I won’t go into the boring techie details of the difference) and it will be used by some new gadgets, like certain game consoles and players that handle the new disk formats battling to succeed DVD. It can also be used by PCs connected to a TV set.

But there is no TV network using 1080p, or planning to use it, anytime soon. Plus, most people can’t tell the difference between 1080i and 1080p, especially at the distances at which people typically sit to view large-screen TVs.

So, unless you are a techie, or a hard-core gamer or videophile — or you plan to use your HDTV mainly as a PC screen — I see no reason to spend a penny extra, or wait a day more, just to get a set capable of handling 1080p. If you like a set for other reasons, and it happens to have 1080p capability, think of it as a bonus. But I wouldn’t make 1080p a major criterion for choosing a set.

You talked about getting HD content via cable or satellite, but I understand you can pluck HDTV shows right out of the air, for free. Is this true?

Yes, it is, for a limited number of channels. In most cities, local affiliates of the major broadcast networks, as well as public-TV stations, beam out special digital channels that carry HD versions of popular shows. These digital channels are also available on cable, but you don’t have to pay a cable bill to view them over the air. In some cases, you can also get over-the-air digital channels from local independent stations.

Many people love over-the-air HDTV, and some say it looks even better than HD programming delivered over cable and satellite.

However, there are some downsides. First, you have to install an antenna. In some cases, this can be a relatively cheap, unobtrusive indoor antenna, but in other cases you may require a roof antenna, or even a motorized roof antenna that rotates. More important, if you rely solely on over-the-air HDTV, you won’t have access to the cable networks, like HBO, ESPN, TNT, Showtime, and Discovery, that are broadcasting movies and TV shows in HD. And you won’t have access to the special cable and satellite sports packages that bring you all the games from all over the country, which look glorious in HD.

* * *

Because of the volume of email I receive, I can’t routinely answer individual questions by email, or consult on individual problems or purchasing decisions. I read all questions I receive and select three each week to answer in the column.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com

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